Skip main navigation

Hurry, only 2 days left to get one year of Unlimited learning for £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Will technofixes save the planet?

Explore the background to technological solutions such as robotic pollinators and geoengineering the climate in this article.
photo of a bee among purple fiddleneck flowers
© University of Reading

Imagine it’s 2030 and the fields around every city are filled with the buzz of tiny drones. It seems a long time since 2018 when US company Walmart filed the first patent for robotic bees; a pity the problems they’ve since caused weren’t anticipated. The pollination crisis may have been ‘solved’ for a few wealthy agribusinesses, but it came at the expense of wildlife, such as the birds that ate the tiny toxic robots believing they were food. It also accelerated the decline in bees and hoverflies because a narrow focus on developing artificial drones to pollinate crops meant less funding for the conservation of living pollinators. Now, you can walk miles without seeing a single wildflower and thousands of insects and flowering plants are extinct.

Based on this future scenario, the widespread use of robotic bees seems a questionable ‘solution’ to the pollination crisis we face. There are thought to be over 16 trillion individual honeybees on the planet. Add to this the hundreds of trillions of other pollinating bees from over 20,000 species, plus other pollinators such as hoverflies, and it’s clear that replacing all these with drones would be an impossible task.

The risks with technofixes

There’s no denying that pollinating drones are innovative technologies and designs are improving every day. Already, they weigh just a few grams and are fitted with spatial sensors allowing them to navigate and communicate. Yet, as well as the challenge of pollinating thousands of different types of flowers, manufacturing drones at scale in a sustainable way is a major issue. There are plans to make them self-assemble and be powered using renewable energy, such as tiny solar panels. But we have such robots already: they are biodegradable, self-regenerating and renewable, grown from water, pollen and nectar – they are called bees! A better solution might be to protect existing pollinator species, such as bees and hoverflies, rather than try to develop a technological replacement. There is a danger that a focus on future technological fixes to environmental problems distracts us from the solutions we can work on now.

Beyond the loss of pollinators, another issue where blind faith in technological fixes could be dangerous, is climate change. There are now several ‘solutions’ being proposed that would fundamentally alter the atmosphere and biosphere in uncertain ways. These geoengineering fixes include suggestions to launch thousands of mirrors into space to deflect solar radiation, dump iron filings in the oceans to stimulate photosynthetic plankton growth, and seeding aerosols into the atmosphere to make whiter clouds that reflect more sunlight.

Beyond the question of whether they would actually work, a problem with these interventions is that they each only address a narrow part of the planetary polycrisis. For example, successfully intercepting solar radiation would reduce temperatures on the earth’s surface but not do anything about the raised levels of carbon dioxide, which dissolves in the oceans severely disrupting marine life.

The second, even more concerning problem with geoengineering technofixes is the potential for these major interventions to go badly wrong. Altering the levels of solar radiation reaching large parts of the earth’s surface has the potential to severely disrupt weather patterns, affecting monsoon rains and the ability of whole regions to grow sufficient food. Millions of people could be impacted1.

Do technological fixes have a role to play?

Achieving multiple goals for society (a stable climate, clean air and water, thriving nature etc.) needs transformation of our economy, technology and culture. A narrow focus on just one of these strands – technological fixes in this article – is unlikely to be effective and can even be counterproductive.

Technological solutions have a key role to play in the climate crisis, no doubt, but they must avoid unintended consequences. To ensure that, we need to get better at systems thinking to understand the multiple potential outcomes of these new technologies. (You’ll look at this further in the next Step).

Decisions on whether to proceed with new technologies and how to regulate them also need better deliberation. Decisions should not simply be made by multinational corporations or by philanthropic billionaires. There are deep ethical questions that need answering (such as what risks do new technologies pose to vulnerable subsets of the world population, or to future generations), and these require wider citizen engagement. Leaving the debate to scientists, government officials and entrepreneurs risks narrowing down the framing of problems too much. A narrow frame for such a problem might be, for example, ‘which technological fix should we support?’. Instead, wider involvement in decision-making makes deeper consideration of the necessary societal and cultural changes (such as reducing high energy and material consumption rates in high income societies) possible. Taking account of diverse view points opens up new ways to frame the problem, new questions and new types of solution.

References

  1. The next climate war? Statecraft, security, and weaponization in the geopolitics of a low-carbon future. Sovacool, B.K., Baum, C. & Low, S. Energy Strategy Reviews, 45, 101031. 2023.
© University of Reading
This article is from the free online

Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now