The first documented mention of environmental sustainability issues at the World Economic Forum (WEF) occurred in 1986 when Volkswagen Chairman Carl Hahn offhandedly called for more attention to environmental protection. “In the long term,” he said, “this is our only chance.”
In 2020, WEF’s 50th anniversary, climate issues — unresolved and undeniably far more serious — were elevated to the top of the agenda. So it’s no surprise that leaders from industry, academia, and government again addressed the issue of technology helping climate change and environmental sustainability at WEF 2021. Given the intractability of the problem, it’s likely that climate will be a top issue for years, and that technology is the most important element — maybe even more important than human behavior — to containing the crisis.
Despite the seriousness of the climate issue, there has been important progress made recently. To name just a few:
- General Motors, one of the world’s largest carmakers, became the first to pledge to completely phase out gas and diesel vehicles, by 2035.
- Venture funding for climate tech startups hit $16 billion, three times the growth rate of VC investment in artificial intelligence between 2013-2019.
- 90% of companies in the S&P 500 now publish annual sustainability reports, an indicator that industry is putting its money where its mouth is.
- The global pullback on travel due to COVID-19 resulted in a more than 9% drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. While not sustainable, it shows that real change is possible and within reach.
- The cost of renewable energy sources continued to fall, hitting record lows in 2020.
- Thirteen additional major companies signed on to the Climate Pledge, a commitment to be net zero carbon by 2040, a decade ahead of the Paris Agreement’s goal of 2050.
Harnessing technology to reach net zero
At the WEF, one group of leaders addressed how technology facilitates better and faster action on climate.
“Technology is part of the [climate] solution, not part of the problem,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. “We in the UN and our Secretary General speak about two mega-trends that we need to be mindful of. One is climate change, and the other is digital technology.” Understanding how these two mega-trends intersect will be key to combating climate change.
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Salesforce is doing its part to help organizations get a grip on their own carbon footprint. One example is Net Zero Cloud, which started as an internal tool to track and control our own emissions. Now, any organization can understand its impact and take action. The tool enables a deeper look at everything from business travel to raw materials transport and electricity consumption — all of which are crunched into emissions data and reported in a pre-built dashboard.
As a business maneuver, this is increasingly important as consumers seek products and brands that align with their personal values.
“I’ve spent my career as a technologist, and I like to think about this period of time as one where the superpowers of technology are greater than ever,” said WEF panelist Pat Gelsinger, newly-installed chief executive of Intel and former chief executive of VMWare. “We can use technology to attack major issues including pandemics, social change, and climate change at scale. It is not only our opportunity, but the obligation of tech leaders to shape technology as that force for good.”
Case in point, Pachama, a company that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze satellite images of global forests. Machine learning algorithms process data to identify features like tree crown sizes and shapes; these features estimate carbon levels. The goal, says Founder and Chief Executive Diego Saez-Gil, is to develop these tools into a suite that organizations and individuals can use to create new forest carbon-reduction projects.
“We work with corporations…that are looking to achieve net zero [carbon] by supporting projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere,” said Saez-Gil. “Technology plays a fundamental role in bringing transparency, accountability, and efficiency to these markets. Carbon markets have enormous potential to drive funding to the necessary solutions to climate change, but we need all the latest technologies to make them work effectively.”
Building net zero cities for a sustainable future
Technology helping climate change will also be critical in helping local municipalities address their carbon footprint. In another WEF session, panelists noted that cities account for 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
“Digitization is a fantastic disruptor,” said Jean-Pascal Tricoire, chairman and CEO of Schneider Electric, France. “Technology is the enabler to systemic efficiency. What wasn’t possible before is possible now.”
Specifically, the internet of things (IoT), AI, big data, and mobile now enable a level of visibility, analysis, and measurement that didn’t exist before. Importantly, organizations can weave together previously siloed systems to drive a more coordinated, impactful response to sustainability. “Measurement is the basis of progress,” said Tricoire. “It’s a tool for efficiency everywhere. In buildings, in industry, and in all networks.”
WEF has formed a group to study and propose ways to help cities reduce emissions. In January, they published a framework for stakeholders to develop an integrated approach to cleaner cities. The group outlined needed action on three fronts: greater use of renewable energy, more electric vehicles, and more efficient systems. This involves making everything — homes, factories, transport, and devices — energy efficient and interconnected.
“Digitization is key to integrating assets and actions to make decarbonization successful,” the framework notes.
Cities must leverage digital technologies to integrate and connect individual, previously disconnected assets, designing and retrofitting cities to be more compact and accessible.
“The technologies to bring about such systemwide efficiencies already exist,” WEF said in its framework document. “Cities can take full advantage of their potential and recognize that investments in greener, more efficient cities benefit not just the environment, but also the jobs market, public health, the well-being of communities, and the overall livability and sustainability of an urban area.”
Technology is helping climate change and almost all aspects of environmental sustainability, from identifying problems to developing solutions and integrating systems. As Saez-Gil said, “We need all hands on deck. Every engineer, every scientist should be thinking, ‘how am I going to contribute to solving climate change?’ and using human ingenuity that has brought us so many good things in the world now to solve this big challenge.”
Volkswagen’s Hahn probably could not have imagined how dire the climate crisis would become when he sounded the alarm at WEF in 1986. But he also could not have imagined, 34 years later, the quantum leaps in digital technology now at our disposal to rectify it.
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