In the past several years, people working in corporate sustainability and environmental policy have begun to feel a new wind at their back—one I believe will prove more powerful and long-lasting than today’s political headwinds. Recent technological breakthroughs are poised to transform the way we solve environmental problems. They include cheaper and more precise pollution sensors and satellite instruments, more powerful data analytics, and the game-changing innovations of blockchain and machine learning.
This megatrend is already providing a broad array of people and groups with powerful ways to drive progress. It helps create new ways for environmentalists to partner with corporations. And it gives NGOs like Environmental Defense Fund, where I work, a set of capabilities once reserved for governments. Consider these recent examples:
- EDF scientists partnered with researchers from more than 40 academic institutions and energy companies to use a new generation of sensors—carried by drones, planes, helicopters and Google Street View cars—to measure methane emissions across the U.S. oil-and-gas supply chain. Results from the five-year project, published in 35 peer-reviewed papers, demonstrated that emissions of this potent greenhouse gas were significantly higher than EPA had estimated. The work led to stronger federal methane emissions standards.
- Because methane is a global problem, we’re working with the Netherlands Institute for Space Research to derive global methane emissions data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite, sent into orbit last year. But we need better data than even it can provide, so EDF is working with scientific partners to launch a compact satellite of our own, called MethaneSAT. It will let us map methane pollution with exacting precision soil and gas companies, governments, and citizens can all see it, and act on it. We have an aggressive target of three years to launch.
- Satellites also track deforestation. The World Resources Institute is using one to monitor forest loss in the Amazon, displaying data on a web site that can help alert local authorities and the public to fires.
- The Nature Conservancy is working to help fishermen in Indonesia track their catch using facial recognition technology for fish. It identifies not an individual fish, of course, but their species. Since it’s hard to stop overfishing when we don’t know what’s being caught where, the group is designing a smartphone app that will detect species from photos, enabling fast, accurate sorting and reporting of fish at sea or in processing plants.
- Retailers, consumer brands and tech companies are working together to use the digital ledgers known as blockchain to improve traceability and accountability across supply chains—from verifying the sustainability claims of tuna supply chains in Indonesia,to managing energy trading across a solar-fed microgrid in Brooklyn.
- As corn growers rapidly invest in precision agricultural tools, they are not only increasing farm yields but measuring fertilizer application with pinpoint accuracy. These tools enabled Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, to commit to reducing fertilizer use on the farms that supply it with feed since 2017. Smithfield buys some 2 million tons of corn each year and has a goal of cutting supply-chain greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025. The company is the first in the industry to set such a target.
- EDF put high-resolution sensors on Google Street View cars to map air pollution threats in West Oakland, CA on a block-by-block basis. Local citizens are using the data to help make the case for emissions reductions under California’s new air quality law. We also challenged entrepreneurs to develop cost-effective, stationary, continuous methane monitors, and they responded with sensor and laser technologies, now being piloted in oil and gas facilities owned by Statoil, PG&E and Shell.
We call all of this the Fourth Wave of environmentalism. The First Wave started at the turn of the last century, with national parks and forests to preserve America’s natural heritage. The Second Wave broadened the focus to protect people and nature from pollution, starting with Rachel Carson in the 1960’s. It led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. During this period, EDF was launched in 1967 by three scientists who soon succeeded in banning domestic use of DDT, which is widely credited with saving our populations of bald eagle, osprey, and other great birds of prey. Two decades later, EDF helped usher in a Third Wave, which focused not only on addressing the immediate causes of an unhealthy environment, but on solving underlying problems through corporate partnerships and market-based policies.
Now, in this Fourth Wave, technological innovations are supercharging those approaches by letting us measure pollution and understand its impacts—making the invisible not only visible but actionable. That can create both greater accountability for environmental laggards and greater rewards for environmental stewards. By harnessing the power of transparency and precision measurement, these tools can help improve operations across corporate supply chains, build trust in voluntary corporate actions, and ensure that we use the least intrusive rules to get the job done.
The Fourth Wave enables broad coalitions. For example, more than four hundred companies in Walmart’s supply chain are contributing to its ambitious effort to reduce a billion tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions—more than the total emissions of Germany.
By driving down the cost of acquiring information, the Fourth Wave levels the playing field. No longer can government alone reveal—or choose to conceal—serious environmental problems. Sensors, big data, and instant communications put that power in the hands of the people. At this moment, when the federal government is stepping away from its responsibility to protect public health and the environment, advocates are putting these tools to work and channeling them for good.
As a result, the Fourth Wave can help restore public trust in the power of scientific evidence. These tools personalize information in a way that spurs action, as when local groups identify and fight pollution hotspots in their own backyards. And they can help us meet the challenge of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals—for climate action, air and water pollution, species survival, and urgently needed advances in public health.
As former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg likes to say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Yet measurement on its own does not ensure proper management. It remains to be seen whether Fourth Wave tools will help us stabilize our environment or merely allow us to monitor its steady deterioration in exquisite detail. The outcome is up to us.
So our challenge is clear: to use Fourth Wave tools not only to document damage but to drive action. Business leaders have a role to play, and increasingly, they know it. A recent EDF survey of 500 business and technology executives found that 72 percent are seeing greater alignment between environmental goals and business objectives. The survey also showed that the leaders see technological advancements as the key driver of this alignment.
In the industrial age, environmentalists and forward-thinking business people used the corporate and regulatory levers of their time to meet environmental challenges. Now we must embrace the flexible, networked methods of a global digital era to build partnerships and devise policies that solve today’s complex problems. Cooperative action between companies, citizens, and civil society will be the glue that links Fourth Wave tools to the progress we so urgently need.
Eric Pooley is senior vice president for strategy and communications at Environmental Defense Fund. He was formerly managing editor of Fortune and chief political correspondent at Time. EDF president Fred Krupp will share more about environmentalism’s fourth wave on the first day of Techonomy NYC, May 8. See the full agenda.