Net-zero growth driven by green tech – A story for all?
The attention towards emerging green tech, with its potential to achieve net-zero emissions and support sustainable economic growth, has been gaining momentum. However, it is essential to closely examine this ambitious vision. This article scrutinises the promises of green tech and its market-driven logic, urging a reevaluation of the current innovation model in this field.
Promises of Green Tech
A highly optimistic story was painted at this year’s recent World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting – one that involves a technology-enabled global economic growth story driven by the acceleration of green technologies and artificial intelligence (AI). Founded on the rapid deployment of low-carbon energy technologies, projected to mature in mass markets within the next five years, and the transformative potential of AI to accelerate technological progress, the grand vision that green tech will contribute to both net zero emissions and sustainable economic growth is certainly appealing. Given the pressing need to combat climate change, it is no wonder that there are high hopes for breakthroughs in green technologies, such as green hydrogen and AI in agriculture.
Addled by the promises of green tech for sustainable economic growth, green growth is also touted as the “greatest investment opportunity since the industrial revolution.” However, is the pursuit of technology-enabled green growth as a solution for low carbon transition and global well-being as promising as it appears?
The urgency of current planetary challenges calls on us to take a prudent step back to question the promises of green tech and its accompanying market logic. The increasing social and environmental implications of free market capitalism in the wake of the Industrial Revolution serves as a cautionary tale.
Green Tech’s Political Economy
Evident in this green techno-market vision is the intricate interweaving of political and economic factors, or what is called the political economy. Indeed, the recent regulatory policies of major world economies foreground the political economy that green tech innovations are located in. China’s 14th 5-year Plan on Modern Energy System Planning, the EU’s Green Deal, and the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) all combine incentives and funding to support green technology investments.
As governments race to secure their position in the field of technology-based green growth, it is crucial to consider its broader political economy. A closer look reveals issues associated with some of its political and social dimensions. Based on an unquestioned support for science and technology as a remedy for economic and ecological woes, such industrial policies predetermine a country’s technological trajectories. This creates a “path dependence” on green tech as the key to a sustainable future.
Realities of AI in the case of Agriculture
For instance, AI-driven agricultural crop analytics is often touted as a more precise, efficient, and environmentally friendly food production method. However, the realities of such AI applications in agriculture often contradict these idealistic claims of significant environmental sustainability and precision. Such technological path dependencies may restrict farmers’ adaptability to climate change and lock them into existing industrialised production methods. They may ultimately impede pathways for alternative and potentially fairer agricultural innovation practices like open-source data platforms. Small-scale farmers in rural communities may also struggle with digital literacy and open data access when attempting to adopt such technologies meaningfully for their livelihoods. This highlights the social challenges of technological path dependencies as well.
Beyond its potential political economic implications, let us also consider the irony of how the adoption of a techno-market framework in climate change mitigation reinforces a dependence on the growth paradigm, an idealistic belief that economic growth is essential for societal well-being.
The growth paradigm manifests itself in the logic of productivity and efficiency that underlies the deployment of green tech, where they are pitched to increase economies of scale, ramp up supply chain productivity, and maximise renewables in meeting peak demand. Viewed from this lens, green technologies appear to be optimised for productivity, rather than sustainability. It begets serious questions for climate change mitigation: Do present envisioned applications of green tech simply seek to maintain capitalist modes of production and consumption that have been gnawing away at finite planetary resources?
Rethinking Green Tech Innovation Models
Perhaps, instead of viewing green technologies solely as tools for sustainable economic growth, we should approach them as practices of care that serve intended purposes, while intervening in society’s conceptions of these technologies at the same time.
Moving in this direction requires us to reconsider the relationship between social and technical aspects of technologies, including the desirable capabilities, socio-cultural dispositions, and values that may be supported by them. This will inform the ways in which we interact with an inherently uncertain climate future. The agricultural community of Ancocala, Peru, offers a model for alternative innovation thinking. In response to climate change challenges, the community leveraged their Andean ancestral knowledge to restore traditional terraces and irrigation canals. Their communal and place-based innovation practices involve agro-ecological capacity building and collaborative work among local producers as well.
By restoring farming areas sustainably and embracing indigenous knowledge, their agricultural innovation practices are improving soil fertility and irrigation efficiency, while also increasing the productivity of crops such as potatoes and maize. Most importantly, these improvements contribute to strengthening the agricultural resilience of Andean communities.
Alternative innovation models do exist on the periphery of green growth and its political economy, often in such small-scale enclaves. As we envision desirable innovation futures, how can we be inspired by them to paint a more equitable net-zero green tech story that supports sustainable transformation and empowers local communities?
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