Welcome to the Fourth Wave: A new era of environmental progress

Fred Krupp

Since November, the Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite has been in orbit 500 miles above Earth, capturing and measuring bright red and orange air pollution “hot spots” on the continents below.

Soon, the imaging spectrometer aboard this satellite will also visualize methane gas leaking from oil and gas production areas worldwide, helping our scientists and their international research partners pinpoint sources of this powerful greenhouse gas.

The satellite is just one example of how innovation is unleashing a new era of environmental progress, an emerging megatrend I just described in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. I call it the Fourth Wave of environmentalism – an era when people will have the power to scale solutions as never before.

It will transform and supercharge our work

Environmental progress doesn’t just happen; it has been propelled by successive waves of human ingenuity: first, the land conservation movement led by President Teddy Roosevelt; second, the anti-pollution laws of the 1960s and 1970s; and finally, the rise of powerful market-based solutions and corporate partnerships in the 1990s, widely known as the Third Wave.

The Fourth Wave will fundamentally transform how we solve environmental problems, supercharging previous approaches. And at this moment of widespread frustration with our government’s inability to address those problems, it can provide momentum outside the political arena.

Innovation, people and action

Fourth Wave solutions are driven by innovation – technological breakthroughs, new public policy ideas, and new ways to collaborate and communicate – that gives people the power to take action.

Fourth Wave tools are leveling the playing field by giving groups such as Environmental Defense Fund capabilities once reserved for governments. And in the world of business sustainability, these tools are making environmental partnerships more productive and measurable. Here are three recent examples:

  • Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, is using precision agriculture tools to reduce fertilizer waste on the vast network of farms that supplies the company with corn. It’s part of Smithfield’s goal of cutting supply-chain greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025.
  • Sensors on Google Street View cars have mapped methane leaks in Boston, Chicago, Dallas and other cities. Google Earth Outreach has also mapped air pollution threats in West Oakland on a block-by-block basis, giving local citizens high-resolution data that bolsters their case for emissions cuts under the state’s new air quality law.
  • Oil and gas facilities owned by Statoil, PG&E and Shell are piloting methane detection units after we challenged entrepreneurs to come up with affordable and effective solutions to help operators catch leaks.

This disruptive change is bringing progress

Fourth Wave work is taking hold across the environmental community today.

World Resources Institute is using satellites to track Amazon deforestation on a website that can alert local authorities and the public to fires. Blockchain technology is being used to verify sustainability claims of tuna supply chains and manage energy trading across a solar-powered microgrid.

The Nature Conservancy is even developing facial recognition technology for fish to help fishermen identify and track their catch. “The solutions are out there,” says the group’s chief executive, Mark Tercek. “And these innovative technologies are helping us find them, deploy them, and scale them up.”

The Fourth Wave of environmental innovation is unleashing the power of human ingenuity to help drive transparency, responsibility and problem-solving. This megatrend will help people and nature prosper – no matter who happens to be living in the White House.

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