COP 26 - is the tech industry really being incentivised to tackle climate change?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 5, 2021
We share our initial thoughts on the UNFCCC DEFRA COP26 Technology for Climate Action Conference.

An image of half the world on fire due to climate change
(Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay )

The UNFCCC DEFRA Technology for Climate Action Conference forms part of the many events taking place at COP26 this week in Glasgow, as politicians, business leaders, scientists, activists and academics come together to try and form agreement on how best to tackle the climate crisis. 

Sitting in one room we had senior executives from the likes of Microsoft, ServiceNow, Cisco, Intel, CGI, and Atos, all sharing their ideas on how we can protect the future of the planet and humanity. I'm going to be doing a full write up next week of the CEO panels I sat in on, but I thought it may be useful to frame the event with some initial thoughts for how it was perceived as an attendee. 

I should preface this by saying that I am in no way a climate change expert, so I may fall short on the in-depth science. But what is clear is that drastic action is needed if we are collectively going to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, as per the Paris Agreement. In fact, by many measures, the climate crisis is getting worse, not better (as was mentioned many times today). 

And to give credit to all the technology organizations today, every single one of them said that they are on track to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. In fact, many of them were targeting 2030, or 2040 at the latest. 

Microsoft is going even further and has said that by 2050 it will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. 

And on stage, many of the CEOs and leaders of these technology organizations spoke passionately about the importance of this crisis and how they are working hard to carry out the necessary change. 

However, having had some off the record conversations, it seems that there are still frustrations about the speed at which change is happening and there are still questions left unanswered about the systemic shifts that are required to meaningfully move the needle. 

Things left unsaid

There were a few points that almost everyone in attendance were in agreement on today. For instance: the younger generations are angry and they want to see movement now; not focusing on sustainability and climate is bad for business; technology can enable some new operational models that could make a difference in the long run; and some competitive advantage could be gained from being a climate conscious business. 

However, a question that came up a couple of times that no one really gave a satisfactory answer to was: how does our current model of capitalism fit with climate responsibility? This was a stumbling block for many. 

Why? Because ultimately these companies are driven by growth and profit metrics. Sustainability and climate responsibility are clearly seen as important, but ultimately most of the companies on stage are measuring success by the returns that are delivered to shareholders and how the share price looks on a quarterly basis. 

From conversations I had outside of the mainstream panel, there was a quiet consensus that we need to perhaps rethink how we actually measure what a successful company looks like. 

This could have far reaching consequences, of course. If never ending growth isn't the end goal, global scale and multi-billion dollar revenues will perhaps be harder to achieve as a result. But if we really want to incentivise real change, now, then maybe more weight needs to be placed on sustainability, instead of profits? 

With KPIs that center on growth and profits above all else, this inevitably leads to price-based decisions that have consequences for everything from budget allocations to supplier choices. If companies - not just the technology industry - were really serious about swift action to address climate change, the success metrics should change too. 

A comparison could be made to countries like New Zealand, which have stopped placing so much emphasis on GDP and instead have added more weight to a ‘happiness index' that focuses on the welfare of citizens. Instead of just looking at the bottom line, the government will have to answer questions on: how does this improve the lives of people in New Zealand? 

This will likely have positive consequences for GDP too, but it isn't the end goal. 

There was much talk today about how COVID-19 has proven that ‘no' is often the answer until things need to adapt to survive. Literally overnight governments and businesses showed the world how quickly things could be turned on their head, if needs be. 

Which is why frustrations are building around the outcomes of COP26. What was left unsaid was that what's needed is systemic change for how our capitalist structures work, if we are serious about saving the planet. 

Regulation is needed so that companies are rewarded for sustainability efforts, whilst those purely focusing on economies of scale and growth should be penalised. But that's likely a conversation that many of these organizations that are very successful under the current system don't really want to have. 

So, whilst I left COP26 today feeling inspired by some of the individual efforts and the passion from some of these companies, the radical thinking wasn't entirely there. That being said, I will be writing up the sessions from next week to showcase some of the best practice and thinking that's being pursued under the current regime, which let's face it, is how companies are hoping they can keep climate change under control, at present. Keep an eye out for those next week. 

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