Hands up for Net Zero! Salesforce CEO Benioff's tech rallying call from Davos

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 19, 2023
There's an encouraging uptick in the number of people at Davos this year who say their organization has committed to Net Zero goals. But there's more to be done, says Benioff.

Salesforce CEO Benioff
Marc Benioff

I don't think everybody realizes that we all have to do this.

That was the observation made by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff as the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos turned its attention to sustainability. Following a succinct, but sadly downbeat presentation of WEF research, which concluded that the current position of the planet is in “the danger zone”, Benioff asked for a show of hands as to how many in the audience had embarked on a Net Zero strategy. 

The resulting show of hands was, he said, “encouraging. It’s not everyone in the room, but it’s encouraging”, adding that he now regularly asks this question when presenting and that the number of positive responses has been going up. But, and it’s a big but, it’s still not good enough, he argued: 

We all have to do step number one - we have to commit to be Net Zero, we have to reduce our emissions. We have no choice. This is the most important thing. We have to all make a commitment. We have to have intentionality. We have to decide, what do we really want? We have to know we want to be a Net Zero planet. We want to be a Net Zero world and we want to also be nature positive.

There should be two main objectives, he added: 

I think the evidence is crystal clear that it's two things. It's reduced emissions, number one, but it's also to restore ecosystems and conserve them, number two. I think that these two, these simple ideas, is kind of where it all starts.

On the second point, Benioff pointed to the 1t.org initiative to plant a trillion trees to sequester CO2 already in the environment: 

We have now commitments from all the folks here for 125 billion trees, but we still need to go to 875 billion more. The reason why is because we need to sequester 200 Gigatons of carbon and we need to do that right now. This is super important. That's not about planting trees necessarily, though that's certainly a part of it, but it's about protecting, its conserving. It's about taking care of trees.


There’s also a need to innovate and support the so-called greenpreneurs within industry, he said, those firms that are driving an ecopreneur revolution:

We need to get young people who are not going necessarily to create next generation software companies like I did, but go create all of those technologies that are going to help us to get [to Net Zero].  

He cited some examples to back up his case:

There's a great company, Planet Labs. They just launched a satellite called Carbon Mapper. It's the first time we have a satellite where we can see where's the carbon that we need to make sure that we can take care of. Where is all the methane on the planet, and where are the leaks? We have no idea yet still how to visualize the methane and this is the first time we'll be able to do that. 

Next generation battery technology also needs to be a priority, he said, pointing to his own home island in Hawaii which is powered by around 50% renewable energy today: 

We get that from solar, we get that from a volcano that we plug into, geothermal. But for us to get to the next 50%, we need to re-balance our grid with battery technologies, using next generation batteries. These things are happening and that's what's exciting. But we have to commit to be Net Zero, we have to commit to getting to 50% clean energy by 2030. And the folks that can make it happen, well, it's got to start right here, with all of us [at Davos].


Roshni Nadar Malhotra, Chairperson of Indian services giant HCL Technologies, backed up Benioff’s emphasis on the emerging generation of ‘green tech’ companies: 

There are amazing solutions, entrepreneurs, and innovations which are in many parts of the world. One of the things that we can do is [address] how do we actually get them to collaborate, to connect, to even pilot in different parts? I think some solutions tend to be local, but how can you actually take them global? 

Malhotra’s focus is on fresh water: 

It all comes back to, we cannot solve the climate crisis unless we address the fresh water crisis. We have to look beyond carbon. I do believe that there are many solutions out there and we play the role of facilitators to allow those innovations to scale at speed.

All biospheres are connected by the need for fresh water, she said: 

I come from India, I live in India, and I can say that 85% of natural disasters in India - and perhaps in the rest of the world - are related to water and fresh water in specific. Longer wet seasons, longer droughts, livelihood impacts on the most under-served, women as well as children. So I think that a systems thinking approach, keeping fresh water at the center, and realizing that all stakeholders are actually committed and connected, is very important. 

Industrial companies are also playing their part in the development of new technology, a case in point being Australian mining giant, Fortescue Metals Group, which pitches itself as transitioning to become “a global green energy and resources company”. Chairman and founder Andrew Forrest argues that the goal ought to be beyond Net Zero and onto Real Zero. He cited comments made by the Secretary General of the United Nations to the effect that the technology might not be here yet, but it is coming: 

May I assure you, we have the technology right now. It's getting better. Sure. It's improving? Absolutely. But every industry in the world has sufficient technology now to start moving away from fossil fuels.

For its part,  Fortescue Metals has committed AUS$6.2 billion to become Real Zero by 2030 and tech will play its part in that, according to Forrest: 

We know how to do that. The technology is going to improve and people who come after us will do it quicker and cheaper…My earnest request to every business leader is - start! Believe you can take action. Collaborate! I will share all the technologies we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year developing. You can have our technology for free. But make a start!

Final word to Benioff, who concluded: 

I hope that the next time I ask the question, ‘How many folks here are committed to the Net Zero and nature positive?’, that every hand goes up!

My take

An important topic - one that diginomica has been tracking across the enterprise tech sector for a long time. Not everyone’s got a volcano to tap into for their power, of course, but Benioff’s rallying cry for action from all quarters is entirely appropriate. Given the current macro-economic downturn and the geopolitical instability across parts of the planet, there must be a concern that many organizations will be tempted to shift their ESG strategies across into the ‘nice to have’ column. Saving the planet can wait until we know we’ve saved the company, sort of thing. That’s an understandable reaction in many respects, but unequivocally a false economy on a planetary scale. We are making progress and now is not the time to take the corporate/governmental foot off the pedal. While I suspect Benioff won't see every hand going up if he asks the same question this time next year, it's to be hoped that he will see a lot more in the air. 

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