When I was 15 years old, I made myself two promises. The first was that I wasn’t going to own a car until I turned 30. The second was that the first car I owned would be electric. As I approached 30, I lived in the metropolitan(ish) city of Toronto and realized that I had no need for a car, so I upped my promise to 40. Now, as I approach 40, the electric car market is as vibrant as ever; options abound and are often fascinating offerings that upend many of the historical issues of the automotive industry. And yet, I still hesitate to dive headlong into car ownership because while my 15-year-old heart was in the right place, my 40-year-old brain has learned a thing or two about the realities of technology and climate change.
In short, the relationship between emerging tech and either saving or destroying the planet is a complicated one. That’s because most new “green” technologies – be they products, services, processes, or otherwise – inevitably become a double-edged sword that both strives to cut at the problem it targets while accidentally slicing at some other aspect of the climate issue. For every step forward, something will always be pushed either slightly or significantly backward; we just hope that the net outcome is still a positive one.
Electric cars are a perfect example of such a complicated technology. On one hand, they are a necessary requirement for weaning ourselves off our fossil fuel dependency and enabling emissions-free transport. However, electric cars only solve half of the problem since the electricity that operates them still must be produced in order to fuel these machines. While we hope that the source of that power will increasingly be renewable and low-carbon energy sources, today, the majority of electricity generated in most countries still comes from nuclear, gas, or even coal power plants. Though a coal-station powered electric car still emits lower net greenhouse emissions than a gas-powered car, the electric car is not a ”zero emission” vehicle. Electric cars promise to rid us of noxious fumes entering our atmosphere, however, in many ways, that promise is an IOU.
On the other hand, electric cars come with a host of new problems. The surge in demand for lithium to make rechargeable batteries has led to countless new mining projects around the world, each having both a local and global environmental impact. The impact of manufacturing a new vehicle must be considered anytime someone wonders whether they can get one more year out of an ‘ol beater before it goes to the scrap yard. Even the cognitive distraction of electric cars – technologies that delay or offset climate issues without tackling them head-on – can be a dangerous pattern of behaviour to enter when global climate issues are at a precarious tipping point.
And electric cars are not the only eco-complicated technologies taking over our thoughts and wallets. Big tech has long acted as good stewards of the environment and made claims that technologies like artificial intelligence will help usher in new approaches to solving climate challenges. However, data centres and network infrastructure have still become massive power consumers and sources of contention within the climate discussion. The Internet of Things (IoT) hopes to attach a sensor, computer, and actuator to the entire world so that we can run our lives and processes more efficiently, however, this vision comes with the hefty price of manufacturing a computer, however small, for each object we wish to add to the IoT ecosystem. Bioplastics and other modern materials are pitched as a greener alternative to traditional oil-based polymers yet are often as long-lasting and harmful to the environment.
Ours was a generation who had the motto “reduce, reuse, recycle” beaten into our heads. Yet with time, those three concentric arrows became synonymous with simply recycling. However, of the 3 actions, recycling is still the least impactful thing you can do for the environment when compared to reusing a previously existing option or simply not creating anything new at all. As is the case with so many attempts to address climate change, we’ve taken the part of the solution that is easiest for us to stomach and adopted it, while neglecting the more difficult but higher-impact steps. We recycle more, yet produce more waste than ever before. Our transportation has become more efficient, so we travel more. We found better ways to produce things, so we decided to consume more. Two steps forward, anywhere from one to three steps back.
This article is not a plea to developers of green technologies to halt their activities, but instead a reminder for all of us that sometimes a new thing is not always the solution. For organizations attempting to provide solutions to climate issues, I urge you to take full stock of the environmental impacts of your efforts. Don’t simply hide behind cherry-picked numbers that make you look good; this is the textbook definition of greenwashing. Instead, if your heart is truly in the right place, take the time to make a realistic assessment of the environmental impact of your product or service. No one is expecting you to be perfect, however, by acknowledging the full gamut of your environmental help and hindrance, you can both allow consumers to make better informed decisions about your offering and you can set goals for the continuous improvement of your offering across different climate-critical metrics. Electric vehicles create issues due to the mining of many conflicted raw materials; what are you, the automotive manufacturers, doing about it?
For those of us who are annoyingly called ‘consumers’, we have two key jobs. The first is to be a skeptic. Do not assume that an organization’s green marketing tells the full story; demand to see more rigorous assessments of the environmental impact of a company’s entire efforts, not simply its carbon footprint. The second job is to deny your annoying label. Consume less. As you hover over the ‘Buy Now’ button or grab something off the shelf, force yourself to spend five seconds questioning whether you really need that thing. Green and environmentally friendly products are a step in the right direction; however, it is far better to simply not need to produce, consume, and dispose of them in the first place.
New technologies have the potential to save us from climate catastrophe. In fact, our atmosphere may have already surpassed a point of no return such that yet-to-be invented technologies may be our only way of avoiding global climate collapse. However, nearly every new advancement also comes with a price, and we may be past the point of technology alone being our saviour. True environmental effort may require more than a few impressive new gadgets; it may require behaviour change above all else. And while our technologies will undoubtedly play a role in addressing climate change issues today and tomorrow, we must be careful not to place exclusive, blind faith in the very advancements that got us into this problem in the first place.