Emerging and Exponential Technologies: new opportunities for low-carbon development

02 November 2017

by Ben Combes, Assistant Director, Sustainability and Climate Change

As countries from around the world meet at COP23 in Bonn next week to discuss progress towards the Paris Agreement and broader climate action, a range of indicators show the scale of the challenge.

PwC’s latest Low Carbon Economy Index 2017 illustrates that despite recent efforts, the annual rate of worldwide decarbonisation needs to more than double to stay within a 2°C global carbon budget let alone a 1.5°C goal. And the UN Emissions Gap report explains how even full implementation of current goals goals and commitments would leave the world on track for a 3°C increase by 2100.

These reports suggest a further step-change in global decarbonisation efforts is required to meet our goals, close the emissions gap, and avoid dangerous climate change impacts.

It is increasingly recognised that climate change could be one of the most disruptive forces to impact our economies and societies over coming decades. In parallel, there is another disruptive force - technological change - which is moving at a rapid pace and is transforming the ways we live and work more broadly than ever before.   

Given that climate change is a global challenge and much of the growth in population, urbanisation, and hence energy demand is expected to emanate from developing and emerging economies over this century, we set ourselves a challenge of looking at the 4IR through a developing country lens. We asked ourselves the question: how can emerging and exponential technologies offer new opportunities for low-carbon development?

In our Working Paper for CDKN we discuss how new technologies can contribute to climate goals in developing countries, focusing on how emerging and exponential technologies can support, and potentially accelerate, the implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement within the broader context of low-carbon, climate-resilient development.

We summarise the current knowledge and experience of a set of new technologies and their emerging applications for climate change mitigation, focusing on NDCs from Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, and Kenya. We also outline goals and strategies related to 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies in the energy, transport, production and consumption, land-use and building sectors.

We found a range of potential uses of emerging technologies that could become a reality  in the near future, from using advanced materials for solar roof tiles in the energy sector, to synthetic biology for waste management. In the agriculture sector nano-satellites and drones are increasingly used for various aspects of remote sensing as are sensor-based networks to provide real-time agricultural monitoring. Artificial intelligence could also play an important role over coming years, from energy demand- and supply-side management to AI-enabled building design.

As for in-country examples, in Bangladesh ME SOLshare’s smart grid technology is widening access to energy in rural communities and turning regular households into solar entrepreneurs, while supporting a reduction in fossil fuel use. Kenya, already a global leader in mobile money transfer technology, is already leading Africa’s charge into the technology-enabled smart city domain with the development of Konza Technopolis.

Our findings suggest that many developing countries are already deploying 4IR technologies, but often in pursuit of other goals rather than climate change objectives. There is, therefore, enormous potential to develop and expand this to broaden low-carbon development pathways and reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

Given many fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies are in their early stage of development, our research represents only an initial step towards helping climate and development policy-makers to engage with the possible implications of these technologies for achieving sustainability and meeting climate change goals. Technologies and processes that we cannot currently envisage - the ‘unknown unknowns’ will also evolve, and may offer potential for structural and other paradigm shifts that are beyond our current understanding.

We wrote this paper to initiate - not conclude - discussions and engagement on opportunities that will arise as the 4IR evolves and recognise that risks and disruptive technologies that materialise will not always be welcome. And it’s a topic we previously investigated at Davos with our Innovation for the Earth paper.

Only by fully understanding this emerging revolution can the challenges and opportunities be properly assessed and monitored. It is fundamentally important, however, that developing and emerging economies are part of that conversation as the world, our environment, and the global economy, is reshaped and reimagined.

If you are interested in this emerging link between emerging technologies, the environment and economic growth, you might want to visit our other research papers below: