20 December 2022

Summits do matter, but innovation is the key to a greener planet


Even if it hadn’t coincided with the business end of the World Cup, the UN Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (aka COP15) would still have passed all but the most interested observers by. But while the get-together in Montreal didn’t quite capture the headlines like the one in Qatar, we shouldn’t underestimate its importance.

COP15 culminated in the agreement that 30% of the planet’s surface should be placed under protection by 2030. Rich countries also agreed to stump up more cash for nature conservation, and environmentally damaging subsidies – totalling around half a trillion dollars – will be subject to reform.

One need only look at the evidence compiled by Our World In Data to know that biodiversity is in crisis. Countless species are threatened in so many different regards, with the habitats they call home often deteriorating in quality, and diminishing in quantity. 

At the same time, I’m confident that this sad state of affairs can be turned round. Having witnessed it upfront, I know that international summitry is an important implement in the toolbox of how to go about fixing worldwide public goods issues. By cajoling and scrutinising each other on the global stage, governments can and will achieve what would be impossible in isolation. 

But, as I have written before on these pages, summits can only take us so far. Rhetoric and regulations are a necessary but not sufficient condition in the battle against so many problems, including biodiversity conservation. A critical complement to government action will be the power of innovation – allowing us to leave a more gentle footprint on the natural world.

Here, we can point to a number of promising developments. One of the primary drivers of habitat destruction – not least of irreplaceable ancient rainforests – is animal agriculture. Vast tracts of the Amazon are being felled to make space for cattle, and to grow crops to feed them. Successfully developing tasty and price-competitive cultured meat – as many British entrepreneurs are working on – will render much of ‘conventional’ agriculture redundant.

Again, as I have explained on these pages before, the environmentally friendly food revolution isn’t confined to animal produce. Genetic editing could allow us to boost the yields of all sorts of crops, leaving more space for nature, and minimising our impact on the land through lower fertiliser and pesticide use. (A bill to regulate genetic editing is currently going through Parliament. Ensuring it goes through in a form which enables, rather than stifles, this miraculous technology should be of paramount importance.)

Access to energy is an issue which has risen to prominence this year, and is one which intimately impacts on the environment. Of course, when we generate energy by burning fossil fuels, this causes climate change – an omnipresent threat to all habitats. But there is also the question of how those fossil fuels are sourced. Open cast coal mining, for example, scars the land on which it takes place, and can pollute watercourses as metals leach out of the tailings.

Fortunately, we’re well on our way towards a cleaner energy system, but there are still ample opportunities for new innovation to speed us along on that journey. If advancements in nuclear energy – from small modular reactors to ones powered by fusion – can be commercialised, we could generate all our energy needs and more at a fraction of the footprint that today’s energy system leaves on the Earth.

Innovation isn’t always about pioneering breakthroughs turning industries on their heads though. At a more basic level, innovation can simply be the act of becoming more economical with resources. Making products lighter, requiring fewer material inputs, or making them recyclable can help. Or we might shift from consuming things as goods to things as services. In my lifetime alone, I’ve gone from listening to cassette tapes, to CD-ROMs, to using Spotify. Not only has that made my music consumption far more convenient and less expensive, but it has also obviated all the packaging involved in producing that music physically – packaging made from materials which, nowadays, no longer need to be extracted from the Earth.

Indeed, as was identified by Chris Goodall more than a decade ago, developed economies have been steadily ‘dematerialising’. Data suggests that, despite our economic output having nearly doubled in size since the turn of the millennium, we are using fewer inputs of all sorts of basic materials – from paper, to water, to cement, to primary energy – and, in some cases, have been for some time. ‘Peak stuff’ is long behind us. It is this sustained refinement of production processes – the ekeing out of ‘more from less’, as Andrew McAfee puts it in his book of the same name – that will ensure prosperity need not come at the expense of the planet.

Innovation alone cannot solve the biodiversity crisis which nature has been contending with for decades. Strong governance will also be key, and individual decision-making matters too. But technological advancement, dreamt up and delivered by entrepreneurs, ought to be regarded as the workhorse that delivers the solutions for humanity to co-exist more harmoniously with all creatures great and small.

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Eamonn Ives is the Head of Research at The Entrepreneurs Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.