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When the climate crisis and 4IR converge, a new economy beckons


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

Two of the most pressing global issues are those of the climate crisis and the future that is promised by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Taken together, a brave new world of job creation and research opens up for us.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we are coming under immense pressure to pursue a green economy. Few of us would have suspected that soon after Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist, criticised world leaders for not dealing with global warming and the climate change crisis, fires would ravage parts of Australia. The runaway inferno destroyed entire ecosystems, killing at least 28 people and more than 1 billion animals.

The fires were so immensely destructive that they could be seen from space as dense clouds of brown smoke spread across the Tasman Sea. This is not a tiny isolated case, and people are taking notice. At the start of the school year, Raeesah Noor-Mahomed, a 17-year-old student from Parktown Girls High School posted a video on Instagram demanding that the Department of Environmental Affairs declare a climate emergency. Following the lead of Thunberg, Noor-Mahomed announced that she would be boycotting classes every Friday to protest against inaction over the climate crisis. As she sat for six hours outside the school last Friday, she had a grim message: “Things will get worse.”

This, of course, comes as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) unfolds before us. Not only do we have more access to information than ever before, but we also see a confluence of cyber, physical, and biological technologies which no longer exist only in labs but impact us every day. Our focus cannot be on embracing the 4IR if we are not also scrutinising issues of sustainability. How do we harness digital technologies so that development is not dependent on exhausting finite resources and increasing emissions?

Perhaps it went unnoticed by many that the dystopian novels and films that warned against the robots taking over and the end of humanity often included dreary images of the environment. As British scientist Stephen Hawking said in one of his final messages for humanity: “If robots don’t get us, climate change will.” While we have focused on human-friendly artificial intelligence (AI) to quell our fears, we also need to focus on environmentally friendly AI. The 4IR presents a unique opportunity to interrogate how we can transform industry as our natural environment deteriorates.

Science and innovation have the potential to facilitate development, mainly when our global challenges include water shortages, food insecurity and deep inequities. The past industrial revolutions have placed immense strain on the planet. As the World Economic Forum puts it: “For 10,000 years, the Earth’s relative stability has enabled civilizations to thrive. However, in a short space of time, industrialisation has put this stability at risk.” According to this report, six challenges require urgent action:

First, we need to address climate change. In 2018 it was projected that despite the current Paris Agreement pledges, “global average temperatures in 2100 are still expected to be 3°C above pre-industrial levels”. Now, teams in six countries, using new climate models, claim that we have underestimated the warming potential of CO2.

Second, the biodiversity of the earth is deteriorating at rapid rates, and 20% of species on our planet now face extinction.

Third, the chemistry of the oceans is changing more rapidly than at any time in perhaps 300 million years.

Fourth, water security is dwindling and by 2030, the global freshwater shortage is estimated to be 40% as pollution and climate change affect the global water cycle.

Fifth, pollution has worsened to such an extent that approximately 92% of the world’s people live in places that fail to meet the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines.

And sixth, weather and disaster resilience are deteriorating such that in 2016 there were three times more environmental disasters than in 1980.

The challenges, particularly for Africa, are stark. As Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, reminded us this year: “Africa is the least emitter of carbons, but we are the most affected by the climate crisis.” Climate change has had a devastating impact on the agricultural sector, on which many economies on the continent still depend. Increases in temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns and extreme weather events not only disrupt entire industries but reduce food availability and impact food quality.

Then, of course, there is the challenge of energy as many African economies are growing fast and require sufficient power. You can hone in on South Africa as a case study as we struggle to keep the lights on with our existing energy strategies, and this places a strain on the environment. Africa is the fastest urbanising continent, and this will impact on service delivery.

Here, AI can help transform traditional sectors and systems to address climate change, deliver food and water security, build sustainable cities, and protect biodiversity and human wellbeing. AI solutions can be deployed for each of the six climate challenges. The impact of climate change, for instance, can be lessened by adopting cleaner power sources such as renewable energy or smart grids. AI-enabled electric cars and shared transport could have a similar impact. At the University of Johannesburg (UJ), for instance, there is a constant exploration of other sources of energy such as solar power.

Similarly, research at the Water and Health Research Centre at UJ deals with the relationship between water and human health based on the premise that no other advancement in the field of medicine and health have attributed more to increased lifespan and improved general health than access to safe water as well as improved domestic hygiene and sanitation.

In 2015, UJ established the Institute for Nanotechnology and Water to realise the potential of nanotechnology applications to alleviate many of South Africa’s water problems, the results of which can be applied to other countries in Africa. Moreover, UJ also focuses on the use of plants as medicine. Given the recent development of multi-drug resistant pathogens, there is a need to focus on how we can explore indigenous plants which for centuries have been used to deal with this issue. This is where a university takes centre stage because it is through the lens of research that the uses, side effects and correct mixing of plants for medical purposes can be explained.

The Department of Energy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has introduced a Demand Side Management and Energy Rationalisation Strategy which features nine core programmes such as building retrofits, demand response and water reuse, among others, with a high potential to reduce water consumption by 32% and energy consumption by 22% by 2030 compared to 2013 consumption rates.

For South Africa to make this kind of progress, there needs to be an emphasis on skills development and education – particularly as we battle an almost 30% unemployment rate. One of the critical things we should do is to invest in human capital. It is essential, then for education to keep up with the changing face of work while aligning to the goal of sustainability. Already, the threat of the 4IR to jobs is palpable for both skilled and unskilled workers. The reality is that creating green industries will rely on high-skill workers with specific training. It is estimated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that the green economy will create 60 million new jobs in the world by 2030.

In the 4IR, demand will be for a combination of skills which are stacked upon each other, are aligned to industry and allow people to enter and exit the system at multiple points as part of a lifelong learning process. Then, there is a need to invest in strategic projects for mass skills development which can be scaled for exponential skills pipeline development and market absorption.

This could be particularly effective in the manufacturing, agricultural and tourism sectors which provide immediate opportunities for such programmes. Part of succeeding in the 4IR is refining problem-solving skills, deepening computational abilities, multi-disciplinary thinking, thinking systematically and most importantly, mastering the social world. The takeaway is that all facets of society need to be prepared to not only reskill but to approach skilling as a continuous process, especially to move towards a green economy.

Moving into the 4IR calls for a move into the green economy. To quote Pope Francis: “The violence that exists in the human heart is also manifested in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things.” DM

Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises for President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution


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