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Sustainable Development – Realistic Future or Pipe Dream?

Sustainable Development – Realistic Future or Pipe Dream?
Humanity has come a long way. From the invention of the wheel to nanotechnology - humans have constantly strived to solve existing problems. But this coin has two sides, as new problems have arisen from those solutions.

Humanity’s progress depends on energy resources and raw materials. However, it seems that we are approaching a point of no return, when extreme reliance on available energy technologies and extraction of natural resources in the long term will prove detrimental – in other words, in the pursuit of progress, humanity has deprived future generations of the same possibilities.

We consume too much, too fast. The umbrella term “green technology” is often considered as the cure-all for humanity’s industrial hubris, promising continued economic growth while at the same time offering a sustainable future. But how green is green technology, really?

Owen Gaffney, Director of Communications in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

"With some green technologies you need to think about the whole lifespan, the lifecycle of the materials that are used and how it’s then disposed of and what kind of energy resources it takes to do the whole lifecycle and whether or not you are saving energy and whether you’re using a lot of fossil fuels just to make it or not."

Wind farms and solar panels by and large they’re considered good. They do reduce emissions and they do reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but they don’t have a perfect carbon footprint as you’d think.

Another dangerous foray into potentially game-changing technology is, of course, nanotechnology. Like any other new technology or industry – remember luddites in the 19th century, who opposed industrialization – there are those who are concerned about this new, but rapidly developing branch of science. Some of these concerns are well grounded: there are reports indicating that inhaling nanoparticles and nanofibers may result in pulmonary diseases, such as fibrosis. 

Mike Treder, co-founder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and Managing Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, believes that special supervisory organizations should be formed, to make sure nanotech saves the environment, not destroys it.

Part of the challenge is that the technology is still far enough away – from 2015 to 2020 – that it’s beyond the planning horizon of many organizations and even governments but it’s approaching fast enough that we think we need to get these conversations going because it won’t be easy. First of all, to reach an agreement – international agreements are needed – and then to design a structure that would be effective and get it implemented.

But perhaps the most important problem green technology has is the price we have to pay, but refuse to – making the switch. Using clean energy is inefficient, inconvenient and expensive – sure — but only in the short term. Scientists worldwide believe that the net result of the switch would be beneficial – both in terms of ecology and finances – and yet humanity, for the most part, is reluctant to shake off its dependence on fossil fuels. Bjorn Lomborg, Head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, explains the problem.

Well, fundamentally cutting any substantial amount of CO2 costs a lot because the alternative technologies, the green energy is not ready in any big scale, and to the extent that you can, it’s much more expensive than fossil fuel. At the end of the day we will only cut carbon emissions if green energy becomes sufficiently cheap. If we innovate the price of Princeton solar panel eventually to the low fossil fuel and we all will buy it, not because they are green, not because they are ordered to buy to PIN or Kyoto but because it’s cheaper.

So there you have it. The price we pay for progress in the long run is so high is because humanity is mostly interested in the short run bottom line.

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