Nevertheless, technology and human ingenuity have a significant role to play.
From quantum computing and artificial intelligence to DNA sequencing and advanced robotics, we have an opportunity to create transformative approaches for sustainability. And of all new technologies that make up the Fourth Industrial Revolution, perhaps blockchain shows the most promise for radical disruption.
As a digital, tamper-proof record of information accessible to everyone, blockchain means that soon a simple scan of tuna packaging using a smartphone will reveal where and when the fish was caught, and by which vessel and fishing method. Consumers will have certainty that they’re buying legally-caught, sustainable tuna, free of slave labour.
Besides seafood, blockchain can transform certification and traceability for all manner of commodities — by tracking products from producer to consumer, by creating binding contracts without the need for third-party enforcement, and by eradicating the manipulation of data on origin, content, production, and health and safety.
Programmes such as Recycle to Coin and Plastic Bank are using blockchain to reward recycling with cryptographic tokens as well as to track quantities, costs and impact. Extended and replicated, such approaches can turbo-charge the development of circular and shared economies.
Emerging platforms like Electric Chain could help people invest directly in renewable energy installations, and blockchain could support a clean, resilient and affordable energy system that integrates centralised power with distributed renewables, distributing energy from where it is produced to where it is needed with maximum efficiency.
Tracking carbon footprint, blockchain could drive the production and consumption of low carbon products and help establish appropriate levels of carbon tax. And by tracking compliance with global environmental agreements — without the need for third-party auditing — it could incentivise governments and corporations to deliver on commitments and reporting.
Last but not least, blockchain can support civil society accountability by tracking funds and ensuring they support conservation, as well as by tackling bureaucracy and corruption, and releasing funds where needed without sophisticated banking infrastructure.
In essence, a distributed, transparent, autonomous and immutable peer-to-peer system for exchange, blockchain can help individuals, government and companies see the real impact of action in a complex world — something especially useful in delivering sustainability.
Yet while it has tremendous potential, the technology is in its infancy. We need to overcome potential weaknesses, and we need to experiment. And we will likely need to fail before we fully understand how we can harness its power for a sustainable future.
In doing so, we must remember that change does not happen by itself. Technology is no silver bullet. It will not magically protect forests, save tigers or restore ocean health but used well, it can facilitate smart choices by producers and consumers, governments and corporations, whether for sustainable tuna, distributed energy, or other system change.
Mission Earth is too big a challenge for one organisation, business or country to deliver alone. And along with robust regulation and public policy, it is only through dialogue, collaboration, commitment, innovation and imagination that we will succeed.
We should embrace the revolution — but beyond radical transparency, automation, smart contracting and elimination of uncertainty and blind trust, only the vision and ingenuity of people and partnerships can realise the true potential of blockchain technology for our wellbeing, enterprise and future prosperity.