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Unanticipated outcomes – the limitations of technological ‘fixes’

This article explains the limitations of technological fixes as solutions to the climate and biodiversity crisis.
photo of a wren sitting on a branch
© University of Reading

There is no doubt that technology can improve our lives, as demonstrated by the increase in average life expectancy and quality of life over the last century (though severe global environmental damage threatens to reverse this progress). Improvements in nutrition and medicine have massively reduced infant mortality as well as extending individual lifespans. Yet, the adoption of new technologies can also lead to unanticipated outcomes. Automobiles and pre-packaged ‘on-the-go’ foods, for example, have led to many benefits but are also largely responsible for high obesity rates, pollution and waste.

When rolling out a new technology it’s important to think of the many social, cultural and political factors that might influence the outcomes. Consider, for example, how technologies to reduce energy use (such as more efficient lighting, heating or transport devices) often fail to reduce total energy used because people simply use the products more – a phenomenon known as ‘Jevon’s paradox’ (after the economist, William Stanley Jevons, who first uncovered it)1. After seeing how improvements in the efficiency of coal use actually led to increased coal consumption in many industries, Jevons concluded that technological progress could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption.

An example

In other cases, unexpected responses by society make a technological innovation not only less efficient than expected, but actually lead to undesirable outcomes. For example, new technologies to harness renewable energy from plants were thought to be an excellent solution to climate change. The idea was that fossil fuel use in cars could be replaced with biodiesel produced from energy crops such as soy. Furthermore, coal burning in power stations could be replaced with biomass, burning woodchips from fast-growing bioenergy crops such as willow or miscanthus.

Organisations like the United Nations helped countries to develop ambitious bioenergy policies, but these policies had unexpected, perverse outcomes. The land converted to grow soy included vast tracts of primary rainforest in countries such as Brazil. This led to loss of wildlife from the Amazon rainforest as well as the reduced ability of the forest to cool the climate. What’s more, the high price of soy exported to the global transport market for fuel catalysed further land conversion, meaning locals struggled to afford food2.

The coal-burning power stations converted to burn biomass didn’t work out as planned either. Bioenergy crops store carbon as they grow and release it when burned, making the technology, in theory, carbon neutral. But the transport of the biomass around the world by highly-polluting freight ships wasn’t accounted for. In both cases, the well-meaning policies exacerbated climate change and also led to the loss of biodiversity. Now many countries are more cautious about how they implement bioenergy technologies.

diagram containing 6 green boxes representing aspects of the bioenergy policy. Box 1: Rising greenhouse gas emissions drive climate impacts. (Black arrow connects to) 2: Policies to replace coal with biomass burning. (Red arrow connects to) 3: Energy crops cause loss biodiversity and drive food insecurity. 4: Policies to replace fossil fuels with biodiesel. (Black arrow connects from box 1 and to) 5: Energy crops replace forests hampering greenhouse gas draw down. (Red arrow connect to box 1 and 3) 6: Transport of wood pellets has high greenhouse gas emissions. (Black arrow connects from box 2 and red arrow connects to box 1) Click to expand.

Simple systems map showing how bioenergy policies can lead to adverse effects for food security, biodiversity and even for the mitigation of climate change. Red arrows refer to outcomes that are undesirable for society. Download the PDF to explore the map further.

Deeper assessment of impacts

What approaches can help assess the possible impacts of new technology and its wide-scale roll out in society? One method is to explore how the technology might cause trade-offs or co-benefits to other things we care about as a society. So, we don’t judge a new technology solely on its capacity to generate energy, for example, but also on how it might affect other desirable outcomes such as thriving biodiversity, clean water and air, etc. A framework encompassing many of the outcomes we might hope to achieve as a society, is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) which you were introduced to in Step 1.4. These include 17 goals that were unanimously adopted by 193 member states.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework to help keep sight of the multiple outcomes we hope to achieve in society.

To achieve multiple societal goals, like the UN SDGs, it’s important to look for solutions beyond just technological and economic interventions. Dealing with climate change, for example, does need both of these types of solution but it also requires transformation of our mindsets and culture. The types of products people choose to buy and transport choices have a major impact on the climate. If we focus only on technological and economic solutions, we risk ineffective ‘sticking plaster’ fixes to the environmental polycrisis that do not address root causes.

Achieving multiple goals for society (a stable climate, clean air and water, thriving nature, etc.) needs a simultaneous focus on transformation of our economy, technology, mindsets and culture.

References

  1. Jevons’ paradox. Alcott, B. Ecological Economics, 54, 9-21. 2005
  2. Systematic review on effects of bioenergy from edible versus inedible feedstocks on food security. Ahmed, S., Warne, T., Smith, E. et al. npj Sci Food 5, 9. 2021.
© University of Reading
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Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis

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