New technologies for a sustainable future and the green economy

There is great need for science, technology and innovation to help address the global challenges of climate change, species loss due to changing land and sea use, access to water, loss of topsoil and other critical environmental issues. Of greatest priority for green innovation may be renewable energy, the bioeconomy, and sustainable production methods. Innovation and new technologies are essential for bringing about cleaner growth and jobs, sustainable livelihoods and improvements in environmental quality. In addition to biotechnology, the range of relevant innovations is great. Nanotechnology, for instance, has many sustainability-related applications, including in next-generation solar-voltaic cells, batteries and efficient water purification. Space and satellite technologies allow increasingly accurate monitoring of agriculture, climate, transport, etc. New technology is expanding the economic potential of oceans (for mineral exploitation, tourism, fishing etc.), bringing a range of new risks and opportunities.

Breakthroughs in the advanced life sciences could lead to a greener and more sustainable economy. Genomics and synthetic biology offer new avenues for the more efficient conversion of biomass, and could also convert municipal waste to a new fuel source. Biomass can be used not only for the production of biofuel, but also various types of biomaterials amenable to “green chemistry”. The application of biotechnology to marine bio-resources could help develop innovative food production systems, new sources of renewable energy and sustainable industries. 

Other technologies are also progressing fast, as illustrated by Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing etc. These technologies might have a transformational impact on industry, with the potential to accelerate productivity growth while improving environmental sustainability. Many countries are now implementing strategies to address the challenge of this "Next Production Revolution" (e.g. "Industry 4.0" in Germany). There are three major challenges in terms of public policy: First, the challenge of creating the right conditions for sustained private investment to develop new technologies. With the aim of accelerating the development of breakthrough technologies, new instruments, like technology prizes, and new types of support mechanism (such as ARPA-E in the United States) have been created, and various types of Public-Private Partnerships have been set up. But there is still little knowledge of what works and what does not.

Secondly, there is a variety of policy fields (urban policy, environment, transport, energy, agriculture, tax etc.) and a variety of stakeholders (citizens, businesses, various ministries and levels of government) which need to be coordinated for some of these broader system-level innovations to be developed and implemented.

Thirdly, and related to the preceding issues, is the creation of a regulatory framework that builds public trust in new technological approaches and that controls possible negative externalities from the deployment of new products. Ultimately, the impact of the bioeconomy will depend on the interplay between governance and the competitiveness of biotechnological innovations.