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Can Big Tech save the planet? Maybe not, but it won't be for lack of trying.

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles September 21, 2020
Big tech is playing a growing role in fighting climate change and promoting the use of data to encourage energy efficiency.

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(Pete Linforth at Pixabay)

California is burning.  Hurricane watchers have exhausted the list of people names for hurricanes and have moved on to the Greek alphabet with two months to go in the season. There are flood warnings for the Charleston area, SC where I live. That means the water will spill over the seven-foot harbor floodwall downtown where the most expensive homes are located. This happens all too frequently these days. Not to mention that the U.S, just passed 200,000 Covid-19 deaths and birds are literally dying in midflight and falling from the sky

Welcome to America in the year 2020--a long and brutal slog around the sun for the planet if ever there were one. As my longtime friend and colleague Osvald Bjelland, founder and CEO of Xynteo, an Oslo headquartered climate and leadership consultancy reminded me recently in a text exchange, we mustn't lose hope:  

The future feels much less certain than it did nine months ago. But, I'm an optimist. We have the technology, capital and talent to build a better-prepared, more sustainable world. What we need most is for business leaders, scientists, policymakers and ordinary people to come together to develop a new growth model that works for both humankind and the planet. 

The most encouraging signs that business leaders are looking beyond the current crisis  to being better prepared the next big existential challenge is a flurry of announcements from the tech industry that appear to go beyond the usual public relations aspirational into the realm of concrete and practical.  

Last week, Amazon named the first recipients of capital from a $2 billion venture fund called The Climate Pledge Fund that it rolled out in June to help companies develop climate friendly technologies across a number of industries, including transportation, energy generation, battery storage, manufacturing and food and agriculture. 

The goal, the company said, is to help Amazon and other companies reach a goal of "net zero" carbon emissions by 2040; power its facilities and operations with 100% renewable energy by 2030; and buy 100,000 electric delivery vans.

The initial recipients are CarbonCure Technologies, a Canadian cleantech company that develops carbon dioxide removal (CDR) solutions for the concrete industry;  Pachama, which  uses of machine learning and satellite imagery to measure and verify CO2 removal; Redwood Materials, the battery and electronic waste recycling company launched by Tesla's former chief technology officer JB Straubel and Turntide, which builds "smart"  efficient electric motors. Said Robert Niven, CEO and co-founder of CarbonCure. 

We witnessed the tech industry setting climate change trends with their adoption of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. This investment in CDR signals a broader change for public and private infrastructure projects as industries and governments turn their focus toward the reduction of embodied carbon.

Amazon's Climate Pledge Fund co-led the initiative with Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) and the investment syndicate includes Microsoft, BDC Capital, 2150, Thistledown Foundation, Taronga Group, and GreenSoil Investments.

Meanwhile, Google announced last week that it intends to run all of its data centers and corporate campuses around the world on 100% carbon-free power by 2030. This is a giant leap forward.  Said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, in a blog post:  

This is our biggest sustainability moonshot yet, with enormous practical and technical complexity. We are the first major company that's set out to do this, and we aim to be the first to achieve it. 

We'll start by working towards 24/7 carbon-free energy at all of our data centers and campuses around the world. Our data centers power the products and services you've come to rely on every day. This will mean every email you send through Gmail, every question you ask Google Search, every YouTube video you watch, and every route you take using Google Maps, is supplied by clean energy every hour of every day.

Last September, Google announced a 1.6-gigawatt package of renewable power deals in the U.S., South America and Europe that the tech giant called the "biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history."

On September 15, Facebook pledged to slash greenhouse gases and purchase enough renewable energy and offsets to cancel out carbon dioxide emissions from its global operations this year. The company also pledged to reach "net zero" carbon emissions by 2030 which would allow it to offset its global power consumption and pollution by investing in renewable energy projects and initiatives that capture and store carbon dioxide. 

The social media giant is also setting a more ambitious target of reaching net zero emissions for its supply chain, employee commuting, and business travel by 2030. (Snarky comment alert.) Now if it could only stop bad actors from spreading malicious misinformation about the origin of wildfires in the West.)

Apple announced in July that it intended to become carbon neutral across its entire business, manufacturing supply chain, and product life cycle by 2030. The company is already carbon neutral today for its global corporate operations, and this new commitment means that by 2030, every Apple device sold should have net zero climate impact. CEO Tim Cook said in a blog post at the time:

The innovations powering our environmental journey are not only good for the planet - they've helped us make our products more energy efficient and bring new sources of clean energy online around the world. Climate action can be the foundation for a new era of innovative potential, job creation, and durable economic growth. With our commitment to carbon neutrality, we hope to be a ripple in the pond that creates a much larger change.

Microsoft kicked off this year with a pledge in January to be carbon negative, and by 2050 to remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. The company also  launched an initiative to use Microsoft technology to help its suppliers and customers around the world reduce their own carbon footprints and a new $1 billion climate innovation fund to accelerate the global development of carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies.

In a real life test of that notion, Microsoft is partnering with British Petroleum (which, apparently, now insists on being called "bp" instead of "BP") to help the oil giant cut its emissions while supplying renewable energy for the tech giant as it evolves away from oil.

My take

That's a lot of commitments that seem to go beyond the usual corporate imaging efforts that we've come to expect from large enterprises. Sure, they may help to distract from some of the oversight and regulatory flack they've taken in recent years but I'm willing to accept that much of this truly reflects the values of the corporations involved and especially the bright young people who work there. The world could use a little less cynicism right now.

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