On the heels of the latest UN Climate Report [1] showing that climate change is “widespread, rapid and intensifying,” global post-pandemic reconstruction must incentivize strong reductions in carbon emissions. COVID-19 travel restrictions have shown that we can be productive while travelling much less. As of this year, at least one-fifth (21%) of the world’s largest public companies now have net zero commitments, along with 61% of countries and 13% of cities over 500k in population. [2] So while there is still much work to be done, there is a clear opportunity now to set a new paradigm for human productivity that can reduce our carbon footprint, encourage equity, and restore the balance with nature. 

Future Earth Canada and Sustainability in the Digital Age have been exploring three interconnected paths on the road towards net zero, namely 1) balancing the risks of the digital age with the potential for climate action, 2) scaling up nature-based solutions, and 3) incorporating alternative perspectives into this work. All of these avenues are connected, collaborative, and critical to drive the large-scale societal transformations [3] that are needed to achieve the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Overcoming risks of the digital age 

The time is right to encourage new forms of collaboration [4] and steer the digital disruptions underway towards a sustainable, climate-safe, and equitable world. However, this will only be possible if there is a concerted effort to overcome the risks associated with digital age transformations, [5] which include the ecological footprint of digital technologies and threats to privacy and human dignity. 

With respect to the former, 2015 estimates showed that information and communication technology (ICT) accounted for up to 5% of global energy demand and that by 2030, ICT is projected to account for 7%. [6] Adding nuance, researchers from Facebook and Harvard have demonstrated that, “over the last decade, hardware manufacturing—as opposed to operational energy consumption—has increasingly dominated the carbon footprint of mobile systems” as opposed to data centers, which are increasingly employing renewable energy. [6] As such, solutions can seek ways to reduce carbon emissions deeper into the manufacturing supply chain, and must consider that the environmental impact of computing systems is multifaceted, spanning water consumption and the use of other natural resources.

Regarding privacy concerns, there has been limited discussion about deploying digital tools in support of climate action. Yet, many respondents to a three-phase international survey we conducted are open to the use of digital surveillance to monitor individual carbon footprints; Across nearly 3000 respondents, 50% support implementing limits to individual carbon emissions. [7] This work raises a key question – is it worth exploring digital surveillance tools as part of a socially acceptable response to the climate crisis? 

Scaling up Nature-Based Solutions for climate 

There has also been growing attention in policy circles on how to address the climate challenge with nature-based solutions (NbS). NbS are “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that effectively and adaptively address societal challenges while providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.” [8] NbS have the potential to supply up to 37% of our climate change mitigation needs, [9] but to date NbS have not been able to deliver on this potential because projects are not large enough in scale, the NbS approach is insufficiently integrated into policy, and because more collaborative NbS projects are needed for increased efficiency. [10]

One area we are exploring currently is the scale-up of NbS solutions in Canada via the application of machine learning and digital innovation. Scientific knowledge on carbon cycle modelling and monitoring has advanced greatly in the last decades, yet there continue to be data gaps both spatially and over time     . [11,12] It is essential to provide a robust understanding of the current state of the terrestrial carbon and water cycles, combined with knowledge and even foresight of how these systems will respond to management actions aimed at enhancing land-based carbon storage. To do so, we can use a combination of climate and carbon cycle models, remote sensing data, GIS mapping, and in situ sampling of soil and vegetation types, building on advances in the use of machine learning and satellite imagery to assess land-atmosphere carbon exchanges. Some of the broader questions we hope to answer include: 

  • How can we create and enforce nation-wide networks and protocols for carbon, water and ecosystem monitoring?
  • How can we ensure that such networks include high-quality, updated data at all times?
  • How can such networks implement artificial intelligence or machine learning technology to make better estimates?
  • How can we use these tools to drive further investment in and use of NbS to mitigate and adapt to climate change?

Incorporating Indigenous science and worldviews

A final but no less valuable consideration on the path to net zero is how to fully address the social equity dimensions of climate change in Canada and elevate Indigenous concepts of nature-based solutions. Federal climate plans over the past five years have made clear that Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous leadership is vital for building just and effective climate solutions. As noted in a recent Environment and Climate Change Canada report, “Indigenous Knowledge systems, built upon generations of relating to, observing, understanding, and living off of the land, are not static, and they continue to evolve and be developed. These knowledge systems are critical for identifying and adapting to changing environmental conditions. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit have unique relationships with lands, waters, and ice, distinct from other Canadians […] As such, it is critical that their voices, worldviews, and knowledge are given space to lead in climate change science and knowledge decisions.” [13]           

One successful example is the Great Bear Forest Carbon Project, [14] an Improved Forest Management program which generates emission reductions by protecting forest areas that were previously designated for commercial logging. The program is unique in that it is the only Improved Forest Management project of its scale that has equal involvement with the First Nations and the Government of British Columbia, strong legal and policy foundations, and robust data to support the quantification of ecosystem services.

So, the next steps to net zero must build on examples like these – where converging Indigenous practices and Western techniques for high-quality data collection, monitoring, and knowledge synthesis – facilitate equitable access to carbon markets and ultimately strengthen Indigenous governance by supporting the co-managed agreements. 

Dialogues to move us forward
To bring all these themes together, during September and October 2021, Future Earth’s Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative and the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) will be hosting a new online dialogue series across Canada, Canada’s Sustainable Future – Creating a Digital Action Plan.  The series aims to a) raise public awareness of the SDGs and Canada’s progress on the 2030 Agenda, b) foster new conversations and partnerships across sectors on the digital revolution for sustainability, and c) collect recommendations on Indigenous Science and Knowledge driving transformative solutions, to share with policy-makers.

Funded by the Government of Canada’s Sustainable Development Goals Funding Program, we look forward to insights from this series to support Canada’s 2030 and 2050 sustainability goals respectively related to protecting 30% of land and reaching net zero. Full results will be presented at CSPC2021.

Endnotes

[1] IPCC, “Climate Change: Widespread, Rapid, and Intensifying.” Published online Aug 9, 2021 at https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/ 

[2] Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, “Taking Stock: A Global Assessment of Net Zero Targets.” Published online Mar 23, 2021 at https://eciu.net/analysis/reports/2021/taking-stock-assessment-net-zero-targets

[3] O’Brien, K. L. “Climate Change and Societal Transformations: Is it Time for a Quantum Leap?” WIREs Climate Change, 7(5), 618-626, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.413

[4] Sustainability in the Digital Age, “Digital Disruptions for Sustainability: D^2S Agenda.” Published online 2020 at https://sustainabilitydigitalage.org/d2s-agenda/

[5] David Jensen, “The Promise and Peril of a Digital Ecosystem for the Planet.” Published Sep 11, 2019 at https://medium.com/@davidedjensen_99356/building-a-digital-ecosystem-for-the-planet-557c41225dc2

[6] Gupta, U. et al. “Chasing Carbon: The Elusive Environmental Footprint of Computing.” arXiv, 2020. https://arxiv.org/pdf/2011.02839.pdf

[7] Garard, Wood, et al. 2021.Should digital surveillance tools be deployed to respond to the climate crisis – or is this an unacceptable risk for society?” (Manuscript submitted)

[8] International Union for Conservation of Nature, “Nature-based Solutions.” Published at https://www.iucn.org/theme/nature-based-solutions

[9] Griscom, B. W. et al. “Nature Climate Solutions.” PNAS, 114(44), 11645-11650, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114

[10] Cohen-Shachem, E. et al. “Core Principles for Successfully Implementing and Upscaling Nature-based Solutions.” Environmental Science & Policy, 98, 20-29, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2019.04.014

[11] Liu, Y. et al. “Field-experiment Constraints on the Enhancement of Terrestrial Carbon Sink for CO2 Fertilization.” Nature Geoscience, 12, 809-814, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0436-1

[12] Friedlingstein, P. et al. “Global Carbon Budget 2020.” Earth System Science Data, 12, 3269-3340, 2020. https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-12-3269-2020

[13] Environment and Climate Change Canada, “Climate Science 2050: Advancing Science and Knowledge on Climate Change.” Published April 3, 2013 at https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.892783/publication.html

[14] Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative, “Carbon Credit Landmark Agreement.” Published at https://coastalfirstnations.ca/our-land/carbon-credits/