Virtual Worlds: digital technologies in climate and biodiversity governance

Thor Balkhed

Virtual Worlds explores the role of digital technologies in managing climate change and biodiversity loss. The program reviews how technology can improve environmental governance and include local knowledge for sustainable development.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are two interlinked crises. In the international work to manage them, higher and higher expectations are placed on digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and digital twins. New digital tools can provide increased opportunities to monitor, review and control environmental and climate challenges. Algorithms, machine learning, and visualization techniques can be used to collect, process, and analyse growing amounts of data. In the context of international environmental and climate negotiations, digital technologies are being mobilised, as it is assumed that they can enable robust and transparent monitoring, scrutiny, and verification of how countries contribute to the achievement of agreed goals and commitments.

However, these tools have also been criticised for simplifying the understanding of complex interactions between climate and biodiversity. Critics warn of the risk that the options for action will be limited to technical and formalistic measures, thereby ignoring the diversity of measures needed for societies to be able to transition to long-term sustainability. For this reason, many have advocated the inclusion of local and traditional knowledge in the negotiation, monitoring, and review of international negotiations on climate and biodiversity. A key question is how this can be harmonized with an increasing focus on digital technologies.

Virtual Worlds is a research programme based at Linköping University (LiU) that investigates how key actors understand and relate to new digital technologies and analyses their risks and opportunities for climate and biodiversity governance. The programme explores to what extent and in what ways technological innovations in the context of climate and biodiversity can help to avoid reductionist approaches in the management of global environmental change and instead contribute to inclusive and legitimate pathways to change.

In collaboration between researchers at LiU and the University of Helsinki, the programme is based on two separate but complementary projects: "Seeing, Knowing and Acting in the Climate-Biodiversity Nexus," funded by Formas, and "Exploring the Transformative Power of Digital Technologies in Global Environmental Governance," funded by the Marcus and Marianne Wallenberg Foundation.

The two projects work with different case studies and combine a range of methods, such as surveys and interviews with participants in international climate and biodiversity negotiations, document analysis, digital ethnography and arts-based methods such as visual storytelling.

Virtual Worlds want to increase understanding of

  • how key actors in environmental governance view drivers of societal transformation and to what extent digital technologies can act as drivers or barriers to change.
  • how digital technologies can meet knowledge needs to support international efforts for climate change adaptation and biodiversity protection.
  • how digital technologies can be applied to understand and explore different pathways to societal transformations to achieve climate and biodiversity goals.