This was Global Health Night 2021: Can technology be a force for good in improving planetary health?

Every year, SOGH collaborates with the SIGHT Student Organisations Network on our annual event Global Health Night. The event provides a platform for students and experts across several disciplines to discuss burning issues across the global health landscape. At the most recent event “Global Health Night and SIGHT Award 2021”, we aspired to keep momentum following the recent COP26 and called for action to achieve a livable future despite climate change. Specifically, we discussed whether technology could be a force for good in improving planetary health. Today’s post gives you a wrap-up and the main conclusions of this stimulating event.

The concept of planetary health

We begin by discussing the concept of planetary health, a topic that has become one of SOGH’s main focuses. Planetary health emphasizes the interaction between the health of humans, animals, and the environment. In research, it facilitates education and interdisciplinary collaborations while integrating indigenous knowledge with the hope of strengthening public policy. Despite increasing awareness, the field needs more worldwide representation and engagement, and requires interdisciplinarity among various fields that support each other to promote knowledge, innovation and exchange with decision-makers.

Policies still frequently fail, despite growing knowledge and visibility of the negative impact of poor planetary health. Much more could be achieved if policymakers and researchers would work together for sustainable implementation, such as context-specific research and tailored policies targeted for individual settings.

Promoting planetary health through technologies

For decades we have had the knowledge, science, and technology to catalyze economic growth. However, the individualistic approach used, not taking into account externalities for the planet as a whole, has led us to surpass the planet’s bio-productive capacity. In 1972, the first UN Conference on the Environment was held in Stockholm. Since then, we have seen change in the discussion on biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, but not enough immediate and long-term solutions. It is not the lack of scientific facts or technology, but rather, the challenges to communicate and act upon evidence to govern technology and economic growth are what hamper our progress towards a healthier planet. In addition, we need cultural and social change driving the implementation of policies that value the planet and health as a whole.

The benefits of technology for human and planetary health

Technology innovation has been a major source of global development. The energy sector has become a key sector when it comes to both posing and solving one of the biggest challenges of modern human development. For example, technology helps us to detect diseases and to analyze disease models for decision making. It has further proven to be an essential tool in assisting healthcare staff to improve human health. In the industrial sector, innovation in technology is a power to solve environmental issues caused by existing ones. “Technology, as in this case, is how we are succeeding to remove a lot of the problems, finding new ways and challenging the ways that we’ve always done things and produced things,” said Eva Petursson from SSAB, a steel company that has successfully created hydrogen steel, which is promising to cut down the carbon footprint of the current production lines.

Technology justice – Leaving no one behind

It is pivotal to acknowledge that we are facing uneven access to technologies globally. One of the best examples is the ongoing Covid-19 vaccine inequity. With pandemics escalating in LMICs, broad intellectual property waiver, which extends to sharing all kinds of covid-19 technologies could address global vaccine apartheid and accelerate the end of the pandemic.

Aligning with the scope of planetary health, the achievement of the Paris Climate Agreement requires cutting-edge, innovative technologies that will be cost-effective, ethical, environmentally sustainable, and socially acceptable, as well as new business models that need to be developed for the successful utilization of emerging technologies.

Environmentally friendly technologies can provide energy efficiency measures to halt the climate crisis, but these technologies alone will not save the world from the climate crisis. Over-dependence on new technologies will result in delaying the reduction of emissions, creating false tech promises, and re-examining climate change targets. It will require strong climate leadership and prudent policies to tackle and shape our consumption behavior, reduce e-waste and delay the devastating consequences of climate change.

Governance of technology

It is evident from the extensive debate at Global Health Night that technology can be an asset, as well as a liability in the move towards better planetary health and people’s wellbeing. Technological tools and their impact are ultimately determined by how they are used and governed. Where careful and efficient governance has helped us take strides towards sustainability, (for instance, through renewable energy), deficient and inconsiderate governance has only amplified existing issues. Often centred in current planetary health discourse, there is a clear abundance of innovation in the creation of marvellous technological solutions. The same cannot be said for the political and social landscapes that regulate how technology is produced, consumed, and distributed.

Unfortunately, inequity in wealth and power are embedded in our current global economic and political systems. Any new technology created within this system will inevitably reproduce these inequities, making sustainable and healthy lives accessible to only a selected few. However, what is clear from our discussions is that planetary health requires equity.

Next generation decision makers demand to achieve a healthy planet

How does one create and govern technology in moral accordance with the goals of planetary health? The answer to this question is complex and ever-evolving. However, the Global Health night panel concluded on some essential steps to take for decision-makers to achieve planetary health for all:

  • Diversity when decisions regarding the production and use of technology are made. Active effort must be made to incorporate marginalized voices and ideas in the technosphere. After all, diversity is only an asset to innovation
  • Respecting Sovereignty: No technology should be produced or implemented at the expense of peoples’ physical and mental safety and wellbeing.
  • Equality of Ownership & Access: Technology, particularly when life-saving, should be accessible to all who require it, regardless of their socio-economic status or geographical location.
  • Robust mechanisms of accountability: Those with authority should be held accountable for their actions and decisions. Policymakers and legislators should introduce laws aligned with net-zero agreements that are addressable, effective, explicit, and open for scrutiny.

 

All of this is, of course, easier said than done. However, for good planetary health and a sustainable future for all, not the least the younger generation, we need to take on the challenge. We must raise our voice to speak for technology to be used, not as an instrument of inequality but as a tool for justice for the planet and all the beings that call it home.

Did you join Global Health Night 2021? Let us know in the comments below what knowledge you took home from the event.

For comments and questions, drop us a line at blogger@sogh.se.

 

By: SIGHT Student Organisations Network, Edit: Fiona Koeltringer