Risks and opportunities of emerging technologies in the climate decade
Where emerging technologies meet the climate crisis


More than 840 million people around the world still lack access to electricity, an average of 26.5 million people have had to migrate over the last decade due to disasters fuelled by climate change and environmental degradation, and in 2017, for the first time in human history, more than 100 billion tonnes of materials (including minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass) entered the global economy in a single year.

This report assesses the potential for emerging technologies, through their potential to radically change economies, societies, and the biosphere can help overcome this climate and environmental emergency. With the right conditions, emerging technologies have the potential to positively impact 103 of the 169 targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, significantly contribute to the global transition towards a circular economic model and reduce up to 10 times more carbon emissions than they emit in the same year.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C, or even 2°C, requires a shift from incremental to exponential climate ambition. The opportunities the digital revolution offers can help reorient entire industries towards this shift, and usher in net-zero, circular, regenerative economies but issues such as e-waste, increasing levels of energy consumption and the environmental impacts of ICT networks cannot be overlooked.

To this end, this report gathers evidence and findings from over 200 sources, including interviews with climate and tech experts, analyses of research papers, articles and industry publications, and the news media. It explores the impacts of emerging tech in terms of environmental degradation, e-waste, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. also demonstrates the benefits of digitalisation in creating new and more resource efficient businesses, in achieving net-zero carbon and de-materialised economies, in making material cycles more circular, and in helping to overcome critical biodiversity and conservation challenges.
The digital world is inherently connected to the physical environment. Living a world of finite resources means that the digital realm cannot be considered as limitless.
Lluís Torrent i Bescós. International consultant on environment and climate change

The Exponential Roadmap Initiative (ERI), who pursue the goal of reaching net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, from incremental steps to an exponential leap in climate ambition. The ERI proposes to follow what they call the “carbon law,” which is an exponential trajectory, inspired by Moore’s Law, that cuts GHG emissions in half every decade.

To follow the carbon law, ERI presents an Exponential Roadmap containing 36 solutions and seven strategies to scale the transformation across six sectors: energy, industry, transport, buildings, food consumption, and nature-based solutions (sources and sinks). These solutions require the involvement of cities, businesses and individuals, and are meant for a fast transformation to improve efficiencies in energy and material usage, reduce demand for energy-intensive activities, electrify as much as possible, produce electricity from renewable energy sources, shift agriculture from a carbon source to a carbon sink, and scale up carbon capture and storage.

Achieving the planned rapid transition across all economic sectors to shift towards sustainable consumption and production patterns requires a digital revolution. The exponential technological development that AI, cloud computing, blockchain, 5G and the IoT can bring, will be part of it. With the right implementation, these technologies can considerably reduce energy consumption and material waste in all sectors, while supporting global health, sustainability, biodiversity, and economic goals. They can also accelerate shifts to new disruptive business models.

The digital revolution can redefine how production and consumption are being shaped, powering a new circular economy that works for people and planet alike. By implementing circular business models that circulate and use materials more efficiently, industry in the EU could cut an estimated 296 million tonnes CO2e per year by 2050 (56 percent of total GHG emissions), and industry globally could cut an estimated 3.6 billion tonnes per year globally.

Circularity is strongly aligned with the digitalisation trend that is spreading across every industry. Digital solutions can provide real-time data about an item’s location, condition, and availability. They can also increase traceability of materials, ease of access to products and services, and make processes more convenient and effective.

For example, recycling can have many synergies with digitalisation. Using sensor technology and IoT can rapidly reduce the cost of making different materials and products, supporting the automation of dismantling and sorting that is fundamental to more cost-effective recycling. Apple’s iPhone recycling robot Daisy, that takes apart iPhones to recover valuable materials inside, is an example of this synergy.

Download the report to learn more.

It is essential that the digital revolution has sustainability at its core. Emerging technologies are still far from that. Although sustainability is ascending the agenda of many big players in the tech sector, the sustainability of supply chains remains a critical challenge with ample room for improvement. Emerging tech developments, like new AI applications, edge computing and IoT, are still in a learning mode that is not sufficiently putting sustainability at its core. And, despite gaining attention and momentum, climate change and sustainability aspects are not being fully embraced in policymaking either. The development of digital industries must also adequately consider the real possibility of rebound effects, thoroughly covered by research but with little consideration in practice.

The findings of this report have generated a series of 12 recommendations intended for policymakers and key decision agents from the public and private sectors. The recommendations aim to leverage emerging tech in the fight against the environmental emergency while championing a new culture of sustainability around digital products and services.

Download the report to learn the 12 recommendations that lead towards a greener digital future.