Photo: The businessman, ecologist and former mayor of Quito, Roque Sevilla. Credit: Courtesy of interviewee
By Sara Elisa Fernández
The president of the organisation Grupo Futuro, Roque Sevilla, says that countries should join efforts and create initiatives to address the climate emergency in a much more aggressive and urgent way. The entrepreneur, public servant and conservationist has dedicated his life to protecting the planet. He was recognised as the third most influential businessman in Ecuador and founded the Fundación Natura, one of the most important conservation organisations. In addition, he served as director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the U.S. and mayor of Quito in Ecuador.
As current efforts for environmental protection in Latin America and the U.S. are woefully inadequate, Sevilla is betting on technology as the key to solve the problem: from simple advances, such as using old mobile phones that help to protect Ecuador’s biodiversity, to its most innovative and cutting-edge forms, such as drones and satellite imagery.
As we do every year, MIT Technology Review in Spanish has published a list of the 10 technologies capable of changing the world. Among this year’s selections are green hydrogen, which provides clean, carbon-neutral energy, and a new type of lithium-metal battery, which could make electric vehicles as competitive as petrol-powered vehicles. What are your thoughts on these advances?
Both examples are among the many technological advances that will change the energy management process, especially with regard to transportation. Green hydrogen is ideal for ships and airplanes, and the latest generation of batteries will replace combustion engine vehicles. All of these powerhouses will bring about a conceptual change that we need to set in motion because of the imminent dangers of climate change: the pandemic has made us realise that we are running out of time.
Our atmosphere can no longer sustain life. Green hydrogen and lithium-metal batteries put us in the right direction, but there has to be greater and more accelerated efforts.
Which of the latest technology trends do you consider most relevant in the field of environmental sustainability?
There are several technologies that will allow us to be more effective. I will give the example of the struggle that we are fighting for, here in the Galapagos Islands, to expand the marine area and protect the Insular Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Currently we only protect 133,000km2 and we would like to double the protection zone and control the entire 750,000km2 of the EEZ. However, this means having to control an area three times the size of the equator. And that is where technology is important. First, instead of using the Navy, we have satellite technology that observes what is happening on the surface in such detail that we can anticipate and know who is affecting this protected area.
The second is drone technology which, at a very low cost, makes it possible to travel very long distances and film what is happening. This is very useful in the fight against illegal fishing, fuel smuggling and the drug trade. Finally, thanks to advanced engine technology, we are able to use small, high-speed boats that can quickly travel to where the environmental crime is taking place.
Much simpler technologies can also help us. We have a reserve in Ecuador’s Chocó region, the western part of the Andean Mountain range, which is characterised by a spectacular biological diversity. In its 2,500 hectares we find 420 bird species, while throughout the entire United States there are only 750 bird species. In other words, in 2,500 hectares we have 56% of what the entire United States has.
We have applied a technology that is not advanced, but which is very effective and creative. We installed old mobile phones in the treetops of the cloud forest, connected to photovoltaic cells so that they do not run out of battery, and they record all the sounds of the forest. They help us to investigate what insects, amphibians and birds live in a specific place, but they also allow us to recognise the sound of chainsaws. If we hear it, our park rangers quickly go there and help to control deforestation.
I would also like to highlight the role of the camera traps, which take pictures and film everything that happens inside the forest. Most of the animals hide and only move at night, so this is the only way that we can find out more about their symbiotic relationships, conservation status and ecology. Thanks to these photographs, videos and recordings, we can check if the health of the forest is improving, since the presence of certain species indicates whether the ecosystem is stabilised or not.
What role should companies play in achieving the 2030 Agenda?
Companies must not forget that if we do not act firmly and courageously and prevent global warming, the next two generations will not have a future. Therefore, shareholders must be aware that building equity does not make sense if we do not address the problem of climate change first.
We, for example, have tried to maximise the potential of sustainability by reducing our emissions and, in those cases where it is impossible or where we do not have the technology available to reduce the environmental impact, we pay compensation.
In your opinion, how should the collaboration between governments, companies, the third sector and civil society be in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
The pandemic has made it clear that we are not going anywhere on our own. We are human beings who organise ourselves as a community to live together and we must put aside our differences in order to focus on collaboration. If we are smart enough to cooperate and show solidarity with each other, we can stabilise things and have a happy world, which is the ultimate goal of good governance and the SDGs. Therefore, public-private collaboration is essential.
What is your assessment of Latin America’s ecological transition efforts?
Efforts in the region have been extremely poor. First, we should focus on the danger of climate change and its consequences in order to achieve the ecological transition. We are countries that, with the justification that we are underdeveloped, have not polluted the atmosphere and that others are responsible for the climate breakdown, have not actively collaborated to avoid planetary collapse due to a rise in temperature. This attitude is not useful: we not only have the moral duty to collaborate, but we can make many contributions.
For example, in Ecuador we have plenty of water, mountains, and being in the equatorial zone, we have optimal solar radiation. We can develop renewable energy sources, such as solar, hydroelectric and geothermal, and quickly become carbon negative.
In addition, here in the equatorial zone, trees do not lose their leaves, and they grow quickly because they do not stop the photosynthetic process or their growth at any time of the year. This makes forestry activity twice as efficient as in the northern and southern hemispheres. As a result, we can increase vegetation cover and absorb more CO2 than anywhere else on the planet.
As former president of the Metropolitan Touring company, do you believe that this crisis could spur further ecotourism?
I think it is now essential not only for companies but also for individuals to pay carbon offsets. Companies should not allow tourists to travel if they do not agree to pay per ton of CO2 emitted.
We do this: on our salespeople’s computers there are CO2 calculators and, as the trip itinerary is put together, the amount of CO2 the trip causes is calculated. For each tonne emitted, the traveller pays $16 [13 euros], and the total is added to the bill. All this money goes to a trust fund that pays the owners of the forests for their conservation. Soon airlines will do the same, protecting the Earth’s most valuable forests.
In your opinion, what skills should leaders develop in order to adapt both to the situation of uncertainty that we are currently living and the changes resulting from digitisation?
They must have what Darwin recommended so much: the ability to adapt. The key is to constantly transform our paradigms, not to get stuck, but rather, to think outside the box and act quickly so as not to disappear.
In general terms, what do you think the world will look like after COVID-19?
The world will be very different. The first thing that has become apparent is our fragility as a species and that, in order to ensure the survival of the next generations, we need to develop our collaborative and caring skills.
On the one hand, we are becoming aware that we are all in the same boat and that if we do not take care of it we will all disappear, and that the divide between the north and the south, between regions and nations, between races, genders, religious beliefs, between the rich and the poor must be overcome and we must cultivate a spirit of solidarity and collaboration.
On the other hand, we must discuss the current systems of governance that are based on ideas that have been in place for centuries and millennia. Today’s technology shows that the obsolete must be replaced, and I believe that it is necessary to discuss new and efficient systems of governance in order to ensure that the vast majority of humanity becomes happy.
Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition