EPFL hones efforts to ensure new technology is sustainable

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The environmental sustainability of up-and-coming technology is among the issues addressed by EPFL’s International Risk Governance Center (IRGC). The Center aims to develop a number of best practices and decision-making guidelines in this area.

Much of the new technology coming out of labs today is directly intended to protect the environment, whether by fighting climate change, preserving biodiversity or improving sustainability. But what about technology developed for other purposes? Scientists and engineers are working on important breakthroughs in all sorts of industries not directly related to the environment - but some of those breakthroughs could have unintended long-term consequences on the climate or our ecosystems. For example, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) revolutionized the cooling and propulsion industries, until scientists discovered these gases were destroying the ozone layer. And neonicotinoids, although banned in some jurisdictions, are still commonly used even though ecologists have highlighted the damage they’re causing to biodiversity. It would have been more effective to investigate these potential consequences while the technology was still in the development stage.

That’s the idea behind a new edited volume issued by the IRGC on the environmental sustainability of emerging technology. The goal is not to restrict or tightly regulate new technology. Rather, it calls on researchers to consider the broader environmental impacts of their discoveries and provides guidance for lawmakers, regulators, R&D centers, funding agencies, investors, businesses and standards-setting bodies. The edited volume also urges stakeholders to assess the full complexity of even the most appealing and promising technology based on a long-term, sustainability-oriented view. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

A lot of uncertainties

"We want to make sure that new technology won’t damage the environment once it’s rolled out on a large scale," says Marie-Valentine Florin, the executive director of the IRGC. "Today, society is facing major challenges that must be resolved urgently. But if we move too quickly, we might miss other problems that are brewing in the background and could come back to haunt us later." Examples already abound of new technology whose potential negative effects weren’t given enough attention in the early stage of development, meaning it had little scope for long-term adoption. Even if, in some cases, companies reaped profits in the meantime, such as with CFCs and neonicotinoids.

We want to make sure that new technology won’t damage the environment once it’s rolled out on a large scale.

That said, it’s not easy to evaluate the environmental sustainability of new technology. That’s partly due to the uncertainty inherent in any type of R&D - such as what the end applications will be and under what conditions a given technology will be used - and partly because such evaluations can be subjective and change over time. One method commonly used for these evaluations is a life-cycle assessment (LCA), but it comes with caveats. "LCAs must be done early in an R&D project, notwithstanding all the uncertainty," says Florin. "And there’s no consensus on how exploratory LCAs should be performed. Three different assessments can give you three different results." What’s more, LCAs don’t factor in a number of variables like cost, revenue, social acceptability and business priorities. Science on its own can’t determine what’s generally acceptable, and researchers often have different viewpoints on how sustainable a new product is.

From space to lab-grown meat

The edited volume consists of articles written by experts who examine specific new technologies and their potential applications from an environmental-sustainability perspective. For instance, Romain Buchs, an EPFL graduate and Space Policy Analyst at ClearSpace, an EPFL spin-off, looks at the sustainability of space technology. He explains that much of what relates to environmental protection on Earth can also be applied in space. He also points to problems such as radio and optical interference, atmospheric and marine pollution, interplanetary contamination, and the risk of collision between space debris. When it comes to space applications, LCAs can’t be used to compare new technologies, as is usually done, and they make it hard to account for effects occurring outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Buchs describes how capacity in space is actually limited and concludes that in most cases, sustainability is neither fully nor systematically evaluated in space R&D.

Another article comes from Priscilla Calliandro and Andrea Vezzini at the Bern University of Applied Sciences. They discuss efforts by politicians and lithium-ion battery makers to encourage the widespread use of these batteries in transportation and energy systems. The authors identify three major environmental problems with such an approach: the amount of infrastructure needed to recycle all the used lithium-ion batteries, the lack of information available on how to reuse or recycle the batteries, and the poorly designed circular-economy strategies in most areas. Today, only between 15% and 50% of lithium-ion batteries worldwide are recycled. Some 21 million electric vehicles are currently on the road - what’s going to happen in 2030 when there’s an estimated 350 million? How will all those batteries be managed, what chemicals and other compounds will they contain, and how will their usage be traced? The EU has introduced a Battery Passport as a first step to address these issues, along with regulations to reduce sustainability risks.

Christian Nils Schwab, the executive director of EPFL’s Integrative Food & Nutrition Center, and his colleague Marine Boursier are the authors of a third article, on lab-grown meat. Made by cultivating stem cells, this form of protein could be a promising alternative to conventional meat as it generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions and uses less water. Initial studies suggest that if at least 30% of the energy used to produce lab-grown meat is renewable, it has a smaller carbon footprint than conventional beef but a comparable footprint to the global average for pork and chicken when standard energy sources are used. However, no industrial-scale studies have yet been done to confirm this. The authors go on to state that factors related to health, safety, costs, industrial deployment and consumer adoption may need to be considered even before environmental aspects.

The IRGC hopes that such initiatives will encourage stakeholders to adopt robust, methodical decision-making and governance processes so that new technology incorporates environmental sustainability right from the start, with both a shortand long-term view. The Center is now putting together more elaborate guidelines that should be issued in May.


Ensuring the environmental sustainability of emerging technologies

Theá Project

Edited volume

First Report