Emerging and exponential technologies: new opportunities for low-carbon development

20 November 2017
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Lines of computer code, 2015. Photo: Wikimedia commons/deavmi CC-BY-SA-4.0

The twenty-third Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) took place in Bonn during the second warmest year on record, one year after the warmest year on record and after a summer of extreme weather events. As the 2017 UN Emissions Gap report recently noted, “The gap between the [emissions] reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high.”

COP23 also coincided with the starting point of a number of larger trends that will shape prospects for achieving the Paris Agreement, including the continuing declines in the prices of renewable energy, heightened appreciation of financial sector as a lever for systemic change, and growing recognition of the importance of cities and other sub-national actors in driving climate solutions. 

As countries look for new ways to achieve their climate pledges – with a view to strengthening their level of ambition in terms of emissions reductions – they will increasingly do so in the context of another key driver of progress – rapid technological change.  

Today development and climate planning take place at a time of accelerating transformation in a range of areas which comprise the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (4IR). The unprecedented speed, scope and scale of this transformation involves various new technologies, including artificial intelligence, 3D printing, advanced materials, and autonomous vehicles. These will reshape economies and create new opportunities for climate-compatible development. 

How these two trends interact – the growing risk of climate change and accelerating technological progress – will shape the future of humanity on the planet.

Renewable energy technologies – including solar, wind and battery storage – have already seen rapid declines in prices and exponential rates of deployment, and offer a preview of dynamics from other digitally-enabled 4IR technologies. As emerging 4IR technologies scale, prices are expected to follow similar price trajectories to renewable energy, creating new opportunities for developing countries to apply new technologies toward economic growth and climate compatible development.

In a new CDKN paper we focus on this question: How can emerging and exponential technologies offer new opportunities for low-carbon development?  We build on previous work done by CDKN partner PwC on how the 4IR can support sustainability goals.

We discuss how emerging and exponential technologies can contribute to achieving climate change goals in developing countries by supporting, and potentially accelerating the implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement within the broader context of low-carbon, climate-resilient development.

As new technologies develop, they may have significant potential implications for creating new technology options, potentially lowering investment requirements, shifting optimal decision timing as well as opening the possibility of delivering more ambitious emissions reductions across a range of systems – including energy, manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.

Preliminary analysis of NDCs from Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, and Kenya suggest a range of entry points for and applications of new technologies to contribute to economic growth while achieving climate compatible development.

To maximise the potential of the 4IR for achieving climate change goals, NDC planners will need to consider the rapid technological changes that are happening now, and determine how these might benefit or harm their emissions-reduction goals. This includes assessing new economic opportunities for 4IR technologies, engaging policy-makers and investors about potential 4IR technologies, and incorporating innovation into national planning and decision-making.

More broadly, to leverage the value of the next wave of 4IR innovation, policymakers need to understand the positive potential applications of these new technologies even as they also face potential risks involving social and economic dislocation.

Policy-makers who grasp the opportunities of the new 4IR technologies will enable their countries to engage with the future global economy and narrow or even leapfrog technology gaps with advanced economies, strengthening long-term growth prospects and increasing options to raise the level of ambition in future climate commitments.