Citation suggestion: Laura de Vries , LDV (2023). The Impacts of Climate Technology on Equality and Democratic Freedom. Future Europe, 3(1), 73–79.
Amidst the worsening climate crisis, there has been a surge in investment in technology designed to combat climate change. However, the use and development of so-called “climate technologies” are accompanied by uncertainties and societal risks that require urgent attention. This article critically examines this development.
First, I explain why these climate technologies may not be effective at addressing climate change and may, in fact, exacerbate the climate crisis. For example, many climate technologies require large amounts of water and electricity as well as finite raw materials. There is also scientific uncertainty regarding the long-term effects of geoengineering technologies on the planet. Second, I argue that climate technologies present two major societal risks. The development and use of climate technologies may reinforce existing inequalities both within and between countries. The centralisation of knowledge and expertise regarding climate technologies in the Global North is just one illustration of this development. Second, there is a risk that future climate technologies will be “privatised”; that is, there is a risk that democratic control over the future of climate technologies will be lost to profit-seeking corporations and commercial interests. This should worry liberals who are concerned with the democratic rights of citizens. Finally, I present three proposals for ensuring the democratic control of future climate technologies.
Introduction: The Rise of Climate Technologies
Climate technology, or “climate tech”, is experiencing a surge in investment and application. The Microsoft Planetary Computer is capable of analysing trillions of pieces of data about the Earth’s climate. The American investment company TPG invested $100 million in Climavision, a system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse and predict weather patterns across the planet (Climavision, 2022). In 2021, Elon Musk announced that he would award $100 million in prize money to any organisation that can develop technology to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
Technologies that promise to help solve the global climate and ecological crises indeed hold great promise. Artificial intelligence can be used to map deforestation, detect river water pollution, reduce agricultural wastewater, conserve heat and light and detect pollution in commercial supply chains. In 2019, PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated that by 2030, AI applications could reduce CO₂ emissions by 4%. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already incorporated the anticipated development and application of technologies in its predictions of various future scenarios. For example, in the scenario where global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the panel assumes that technology will be used to capture and store CO₂ emissions from the air and biomass. The two main technologies in this category are direct air capture and storage and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (Haikola et al., 2021; IPCC AR6 WG III). Companies such as Carbfix in Iceland and Climeworks in Switzerland are already removing CO₂ from the air and storing it underground.
Climate technologies thus hold great potential for combating climate change. Nevertheless, they also present major uncertainties and potential global societal risks that require critical examination. To what extent do climate technologies offer a solution to climate change? Who determines what the implementation of these climate technologies looks like? How are the benefits, risks and drawbacks of these climate technologies distributed between and within countries? In this paper, I first focus on the potential for climate technologies to combat climate change. Second, I elaborate on the potential for climate tech to increase inequality. Third, I examine the role of the private sector in the development and application of climate technologies, arguing that democratic control is essential for a just and fair application of these technologies.1
A double-edged Sword
Climate technology investments increased considerably between 2020 and 2022. PwC has calculated that worldwide, around 87.5 billion dollars were invested in climate technologies from the second half of 2020 to the first half of 2021 – a growth of 210% over the previous year (PwC, 2021). According to Tech Nation’s Climate Tech Report 2022, investments in greenhouse gas removal technologies increased by 717% in 2021 and 2022. In the Netherlands, one-third of investments in tech companies in 2022 were in start-ups developing “climate solutions” (Bronzwaer, 2022). In August 2022, the $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act was passed by the United States Congress and was subsequently signed into law by President Joe Biden. The Act is intended to promote energy-efficient buildings, energy storage and renewable energy.
Researchers warn that the development of climate technologies may reduce the urgency around the need to decrease global CO₂ emissions (e.g., Taebi, 2021). For example, Jacobson has referred to climate technologies such as carbon capture, direct air capture and blue hydrogen (a hydrogen production process that involves storing CO₂ emissions underground) as greenwashing technologies. Jacobson writes, “Those three are all designed to keep the fossil fuel industry in business, and they’re being promoted by the fossil fuel industry because it keeps them alive and allows them to pollute more, kill more people through their air pollution. All these technologies, biofuels, bioenergy, that’s a greenwash technology, sustainable aviation fuels, that’s a greenwash technology” (Financial Times, 2022). According to Jacobson, instead of investing in new technologies, governments should scale up technologies that are already available, such as solar, wind and hydropower. That is, rather than capturing CO₂ emissions created by “dirty” energy production facilities, such as coal plants, efforts should focus on limiting CO₂ emissions in the first place.
Climate technologies are not inherently effective at fighting climate change. The development of new technologies consumes enormous amounts of electricity and water, which is often used for cooling. In 2018, Google and Microsoft used approximately 15.8 billion and 3.6 billion litres of water, respectively (Mytton, 2021). In 2021, Google’s data centres consumed over one quarter of the total water used in the city of Dallas, Texas (Rogoway, 2022). That same year, data centres were responsible for approximately 0.9% to 1.3% of global electricity use (IEA, 2022). Moreover, training an AI model can potentially emit as much CO₂ as five cars over their entire lifetimes (Hao, 2019).
Furthermore, technology production infrastructure often requires the extraction of finite raw materials, such as cobalt and nickel. Raw material extraction often involves human rights violations and environmental destruction, particularly when it occurs in the Global South.i In Indonesia, for example, the extraction of materials for electric vehicles relies on fossil fuels, such as coal, and pollutes the environment by spreading sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and coal ash into the air. Citizens living near such extraction sites regularly develop respiratory diseases, likely due to pollution. In Indonesia, villagers who have been living in the same place for generations may be forced to leave their ancestral homes (Timmerman, 2022). In Nevada in the United States, the company Lithium Americas plans to open a lithium mine on sacred indigenous land despite opposition from the Paiute tribe (Milman, 2022).
Moreover, the long-term effects of these technologies remain uncertain. This particularly applies to geoengineering or climate engineering technologies, which seek to directly intervene in the climate and limit or even reverse global warming trends.ii For example, growing algae in the ocean may benefit the storage and removal of CO₂, as algae naturally absorb CO₂. However, large-scale algae cultivation could also acidify the sea, reducing biodiversity in the ocean. Climate technologies are, therefore, best described as a “double-edged sword”: They can contribute to the fight against the climate and ecological crises, but they can also hamper this fight or even exacerbate the crisis.
Stressing the link between the fight against climate change and technological development, the European Commission refers to the digital and green transitions as “twin transitions”.iii Muench et al. (2022) put forward that technology can play an essential role in achieving the commission’s sustainability goals. For example, AI applications, such as AI-assisted crop management, could make agriculture more sustainable by helping to prevent chemicals from spilling into the soil. Supply chain tracking is another possible application of AI in agriculture. According to the research centre of the European Commission, the Joint Research Centre, the impact of new climate technologies on the environment depends on their energy and raw material usage, as well as CO₂ emissions. The extent to which technology will contribute to tackling the climate and ecological crises, therefore, depends on how new technologies are developed and applied. The connection between the green and digital transitions demonstrates that there is no “quick fix” to the climate crisis: Whether new technologies will contribute to a sustainable future depends on political decisions that prioritise certain values and societal interests over others.
Climate Technologies and Inequality
Climate technologies also raise important questions concerning social and economic equality. Because decisions regarding climate technologies are inherently political, it is important to understand who is making these decisions and how. Who holds the power and means to determine which climate technologies will be developed? Who has the opportunity and resources to deploy climate technologies? Researchers have warned against two types of power imbalances related to climate technology: the power imbalance between countries and the power imbalance between companies and citizens (Nost & Colven, 2022; Lahsen, 2020).
First, climate technologies can reproduce social forms of exclusion and increase existing social and economic inequality between countries. The Global North is responsible for most investments in climate technology, and these investments are primarily aimed at assisting countries in the Global North to mitigate and adapt to climate change. For example, Microsoft’s AI for Earth programme, which provides developers and researchers access to global climate data, aims to “democratise” climate technologies by making them accessible to the public. In practice, however, the researchers who have access to this data are mostly Europe and American researchers, and projects that use this data mainly focus on the countries where the researchers live (Nost & Colven, 2022). Indeed, research shows that as much as 78% of research funding for climate technology between 1990 and 2020 went to the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU (Abbas et al., 2022).
Various funding schemes have attempted to democratise access to climate technologies for all countries. For instance, since 2008, the UN Climate Technology Centre and Network has invested in the development of technologies across the globe and the transfer of technologies to the Global South (Lee & Mwebaza, 2020). In 2010, the UN also established the Green Climate Fund, an organisation represented by government officials that invests in climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. The EU, as part of the Global North, plays a crucial role in promoting such initiatives and sharing knowledge and expertise on climate technologies. Through these initiatives, the EU should invest in existing technologies such as solar, geothermal and wind, as the effects and long-term consequences of these technologies are better understood compared to more experimental technologies, such as solar radiation management (SRM). The EU should also advocate for democratic safeguards in the use of these technologies, ensuring that their development and implementation are subject to democratic scrutiny.
This sharing of expertise may even require reforms to intellectual property laws governing these climate technologies. The EU’s attempt to lift COVID-19 vaccine patents during the pandemic was criticised for its lack of transparency and failure to increase access to vaccines. Therefore, more recently developed intellectual property regimes may be better suited. Open-source access regimes and licensing pools that enable technologies to be shared within a “pool” of countries or organisations might be able to provide access to technologies without negatively affecting profitability or research and development (Otero, 2022). However, it will be crucial that private companies pursue social and ecological values that serve the public interest rather than financial value for shareholders. Similar to how the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic was and is in the public interest, the fight against climate change must also be waged in the interest of the public.
Climate researchers also warn that unequal access to climate engineering technologies can increase existing inequalities and even increase the risk of conflict (O’Lear et al., 2021). For example, SRM blocks sun rays to prevent further global warming. This works by diffusing aerosols such as titanium dioxide in the air to form a layer between the Earth and the sun, blocking the sun’s radiation from reaching the Earth (Pope et al., 2012). Critics argue that SRM will negatively affect predominantly countries that have neither the knowledge nor resources to apply the technology or counteract its effects. This is not a science-fiction scenario. China and Israel have already started artificially boosting rainfall, which has resulted in geopolitical tensions. In 2018, Iran accused Israel of “stealing” its rain by manipulating weather patterns in the region.
There is an urgent need to formulate international agreements on climate engineering. In January 2022, a group of international climate scientists and public administration experts made a plea regarding the necessity of reaching an international agreement banning the use of SRM. They argued that the technology is “not governable in an inclusive and just manner within the current international political system”.iv Roeser et al. (2019) suggest that “reversibility” could be established as a requirement for applying climate engineering. This would outlaw climate engineering technologies that have the potential to trigger self-reinforcing and irreversible spirals; for example, aerosols diffused into the air would need to be continually replenished through reinjection.v
Democratic Control and Democratic Freedom
The second form of power inequality relates to democratic control over climate technologies and the potential for inequality to develop between companies and citizens. Ultimately, although private companies have invested enormous amounts of capital in the development of climate technologies, they should not have the sole authority to determine what kind of technologies are developed and how they are deployed.
According to Susskind (2018), there are three fundamental differences between governments and businesses that must be considered when discussing the concentration of technology in the hands of the private sector. First, government power in a parliamentary democracy is controlled by citizens through the parliament; businesses, however, are not subject to democratic control. Therefore, Susskind argues that if decisions on technological innovation are concentrated in the private sector, this will limit people’s democratic recourse over the future of technological development. The democratic ideal of freedom asserts that people are free when they can exert meaningful influence on the rules they must abide by. In the democratic sense, “freedom” implies that power must always be subject to democratic control and cannot be held by a few individuals or private corporations (Susskind, 2022). Likewise, climate technology must also be subject to democratic control and public scrutiny. Yet, this is not always the case. For example, in the case of the Microsoft Planetary Computer, it is Microsoft that determines who has access to the trillions of climate data points and who receives funding for which projects. Researchers have already spoken out about the lack of transparency regarding how projects and organisations are selected to receive support (Nost & Colven, 2022).
These researchers have warned that companies are taking advantage of the climate crisis by using it as an opportunity to train AI and to bring new products to the market (Ibidem, 2022). This relates to a second fundamental difference between the government and the private sector identified by Susskind: Although the state essentially serves the public interest, large corporations are usually beholden to the wants of shareholders, who do not necessarily prioritise public interest. The danger is that climate technology will be primarily shaped by the interests of technology companies. Moreover, the interests of the global public are at stake. For example, tech companies have invested millions of dollars in experimental algae-growing operations in the ocean to offset their CO₂ emissions. Critics of climate technologies fear that if financial interests become the leading factor in making decisions about tech deployment, these experiments will continue regardless of scientists’ warnings about potential dangers, such as ocean acidification and biodiversity collapse (Temple, 2022).
The third difference between the state and big tech firms is related to the legal framework that limits the power of big tech (Susskind, 2018). According to Susskind, big tech companies and the “code” they develop – such as the algorithms that shape, amongst other things, social media feeds – can be created swiftly, change quickly, and differ between companies. Susskind then asserts that, in contrast, mature legal systems in democratic countries take centuries to develop. This might pose a challenge for legal systems that try to make “big tech” function in accordance with public values and the interests of its citizens.
Currently, there is no clear legal framework for governing climate technologies.
In April 2021, the European Commission presented the AI Act, which included rules to bring AI applications in line with fundamental rights and European values. It classified certain technologies, such as biometric identification, as “high risk” because they can impact health, safety and fundamental human rights. Climate technology is not explicitly categorised as “high risk” and is thus not covered by this new legislation. Moreover, the effects of geoengineering can be global, which implies that international organisations such as the UN have a role to play in setting standards for geoengineering technologies.
Democratising Climate Technology
In this article, I have argued that climate technologies can help in solving the climate crisis; however, they do not offer a “quick fix”. Given that climate technologies can reinforce power imbalances and exacerbate inequality between individuals within a single country, between countries and between countries and companies, there is an urgent need to democratise the development and application of climate technologies to protect people’s democratic freedoms and ensure that climate technologies are implemented in accordance with fundamental rights and freedoms. For this purpose, I present the following three proposals:
First, in order to increase citizens’ democratic freedoms and ensure democratic oversight, citizens and researchers should be granted equal access to climate data. Democratic participation in climate technology should not be available only for people in the Global North; that is, it is crucial that participation be extended to people in countries where the impact of climate change is the greatest. This starts with sharing knowledge and expertise on existing climate technologies, such as solar and wind, with countries in the Global South. This may require intellectual property reforms to guarantee that the countries in need of climate technologies are able to access them. The EU should learn from its experience lifting COVID-19 patents and implement innovative intellectual property reforms to enable knowledge and expertise sharing related to climate technologies with countries in the Global South. Establishing open-data frameworks for climate technologies would be a positive step forward. Organisations such as the UN Climate Technology Centre and Network are already involved in transferring technologies to countries in the Global South; and therefore, the EU should take a proactive role in expanding and promoting the work of this network. For instance, the EU could increase its funding.vi EU countries should also pressure the Green Climate Fund to invest in the development of climate technologies in the Global South and ensure that decisions on climate technologies are implemented democratically.
Second, rules and regulations governing climate technologies should be urgently developed via fair and democratic processes. Clear international agreements must be reached regarding climate engineering to ensure that large tech corporations cannot simply experiment with the global climate, potentially unleashing unknown consequences. For instance, “reversibility” could be established as a requirement for implementing a climate technology.
Third, climate technologies should feature prominently in platforms that enable public discussion on the climate, such as the Citizens Convention for Climate, which took place in France in 2019 and 2020, and the convention that the Dutch minister for Climate and Energy announced for 2023.
Europe must urgently adopt an attitude toward the development of climate technologies that emphasises democratic control and citizen oversight. The question of whether climate technologies will contribute to solving the climate crisis or simply make it worse depends on crucial political decisions.
- I would like to express my appreciation to the reviewer for taking the time and effort to review this article and for thoughtfully commenting it. I would also like to thank İzel Biçerel for taking the time to support with the translation of the Dutch version of this article.
- To read more about the environmental and human rights consequences of big tech’s supply chains, see also Crawford, K. (2021). Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence, Yale University Press, and De Vries, L. (2022). De Psychische en Planetaire Pijn achter onze Tijdlijn, Idee, and Mr. Hans van Mierlo Stichting.
- Behnam Taebi, Professor of Energy & Climate Ethics, elaborates on this in a podcast https://www.bnr.nl/podcast/de-technoloog/10455541/www.bnr.nl, 1.50-2.25.
- See for instance https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_1467.
- The statement can be found at https://www. solargeoeng.org/.
- See also the interview with Professor Behnam Taebi and Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek in NRC, in which Taebi elaborates on reversibility as a requirement for climate technology https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2020/06/19/wie-mag-er-straksdraaien-aan-de-aardse-thermostaat-a4003374.
- Currently, the EU’s funding to the CTCN lies at 13,4 million euros, which is about 0,008 percent of its total expenditure; see https://www.ctc-n.org/about-ctcn/donors and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_the_European_Union.
AbdulRafiu, A., Sovacool, B. K., & Daniels, C. (2022). The dynamics of global public research funding on climate change, energy, transport, and industrial decarbonisation. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 162, 112420. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2022.112420
Bronzwaer, S. (2022, December 5). Terwijl grote techbedrijven duizenden werknemers ontslaan, komen er bij “groene” start-ups juist banen bij, NRC.
Clark, P. (2022, November 22). Climate tech to save the planet: Techno-optimism or greenwashing? Financial Times.
Climavision. ‘Investing in the Future’, Retrieved December 23, 2022. https://climavision.com/
COM. 2021/206 final.
Haikola, S., Anshelm, J., & Hansson, A. (2021). Limits to climate action – Narratives of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. Political Geography, 88, 102416. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102416
Hao, K. (2019, June 6). Training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes. MIT’s Technology Review.
Herweijer, C., Combes, B., & Gillham, J. (2019). Artificial intelligence and the fate of planet Earth, PwC.
IEA. (2022). Data centres and data transmission networks. https://www.iea.org/reports/data-centres-and-data-transmission-networks.
IPCC, Ar.6 WG III.
Lahsen, M. (2020). Should AI be designed to save us from ourselves?: Artificial intelligence for sustainability. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 39(2), 60–67. https://doi.org/10.1109/MTS.2020.2991502
Lee, W. J., & Mwebaza, R. (2020). The role of the climate technology centre and network as a climate technology and innovation matchmaker for developing countries. Sustainability, 12(19), 7956. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12197956
Milman, O. (2022, October 18). There’s lithium in them thar hills – But fears grow over US “white gold” boom. The Guardian.
Muench, S. et al. (2022). Towards a green and digital future. Publications Office of the European Union.
Mytton, D. (2021). Data centre water consumption. npj Clean Water, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41545-021-00101-w
Nost, E., & Colven, E. (2022). Earth for AI: A political ecology of data-driven climate initiatives. Geoforum, 130, 23–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2022.01.016
O’Lear, S., Hane, M. K., Neal, A. P., Stallings, L. L. M., Wadood, S., & Park, J. (2021). Environmental Geopolitics of Climate Engineering Proposals in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report. Frontiers in Climate, 3, 718553. https://doi.org/10.3389/fclim.2021.718553
Gonzalez Otero, B. (2022). IP in times of climate crisis – A problem or a solution? IIC – International Review of Intellectual Property and Competition Law. ICC, 53(4), 501–505. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40319-022-01192-9
Pope, F. D., Braesicke, P., Grainger, R. G., Kalberer, M., Watson, I. M., Davidson, P. J., & Cox, R. A. (2012). Stratospheric aerosol particles and solar-radiation management. Nature Climate Change, 2(10), 713–719. https://doi.org/10.1038/NCLIMATE1528
PwC. (2021). State of Climate Tech 2021: Scaling breakthroughs for net zero.
Rogoway, M. (2022, December 21). Google’s water use is soaring in the Dalles, records show, with two more data centers to come. Oregon Tech.
Roeser, S., Taebi, B., & Doorn, N. (2020). Geoengineering the climate and ethical challenges: What we can learn from moral emotions and art. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 23(5), 641–658. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2020.1694225
Rubin, A. J. (2022, August 28). Cloud wars: Mideast rivalries rise along a new. Front. The New York Times.
Taebi, B. (2021, September 21). Nuance in the quest for climate solutions. TU.
TU Delft. https://www.tudelft.nl/en/stories/articles/nuance-in-the-quest-for-climate-solutions.
Susskind, J. (2018). Future politics: Living together in a world transformed by tech. Oxford University Press.
Susskind, J. (2022). The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st century. Pegasus Books.
Temple, J. (2022, June 16). Running Tide is facing scientist departures and growing concerns over seaweed sinking for carbon removal. MIT’s Technology Review.
Timmerman, A. (November 28, 2022). The dirty road to clean energy: How China’s electric vehicle boom is ravaging the environment. Rest of world.