This is how we save the planet

February 14, 2013

The author is the Director of the Molecular Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Alicante and founder of Rive Technology. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies.

It almost goes without saying that the way we produce goods, food, fresh water and energy have caused major environmental, economic and social problems. These include, of course, climate change, resource scarcity, and pollution.

The role of technology to date has been mainly to improve the efficiency of these production processes in order to significantly increase output relative to input — in other words, creating more with less. This has resulted in products such as improved combustion engines or faster transistors.

These incremental improvements do not represent the most important challenge we face. The real challenge is finding a way for society to transition from a linear production system where raw materials are used but rarely-to-never reused to a circular economy where “waste” is reintroduced into the production chain. Establishing a circular economy would minimize the need for resources and reduce our impact on the environment.

Given that reducing the cost of goods and services makes so much sense, why isn’t the circular economy already a reality? Well, in some cases, it is. Today, of course, we recycle paper, cans, bottles, car components and even water. Recycling makes economic sense when all of the life cycles of a recycled good are taken into account and, as any trendy company will tell you, recycled products are especially popular with high-end customers.

A timeline of the Mars rover Curiosity through its two-year mission on Mars.

In order to expand on these existing production circles and create new ones, emerging technologies are critical. A good example is crude oil. The production of crude oil is a linear process that, simply, starts with drilling and ends with increasing carbon-dioxide levels. None of the existing alternative circular processes makes economic sense, making it a prime target for disruptive, emerging technologies. Solar energy could be used to split water molecules and produce clean, abundant hydrogen. That hydrogen could then be used as fuel with water as a byproduct, thus closing the circle.

But these emerging technologies are difficult to forecast. Nobody really knows which one will be able to close the loop on our production chains. The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, which launched its top ten emerging technologies in 2012, is releasing a new list this year looking at current technological trends. And, at its center, is the goal of making our production systems more sustainable — all while satisfying the demands of the world population.

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