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Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested $1 billion in Breakthrough Energy to fund next-generation solutions to tackle climate. But there is a huge risk that any successful innovation will only reach the market as the world approaches 2030 at the earliest.
We now know that reducing the risk of dangerous climate change means halving global greenhouse gas emissions by that date—in just 11 years. Perhaps Gates, Zuckerberg, and all the tech giants should invest equally in innovations to do with how their own platforms —search, social media, eCommerce—can support societal behavior changes to drive down emissions.
After all, the tech giants influence the decisions of four billion consumers every day. It is time for a social contract between tech and society.
Recently myself and collaborator Johan Falk published a report during the World Economic Forum in Davos outlining 12 ways the tech sector can contribute to supporting societal goals to stabilize Earth’s climate.
Become genuine climate guardians
Tech giants go to great lengths to show how serious they are about reducing their emissions. But I smell cognitive dissonance. Google and Microsoft are working in partnership with oil companies to develop AI tools to help maximize oil recovery. This is not the behavior of companies working flat-out to stabilize Earth’s climate. Indeed, few major tech firms have visions that indicate a stable and resilient planet might be a good goal, yet AI alone has the potential to slash greenhouse gas emissions by four percent by 2030—equivalent to the emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined.
We are now developing a playbook, which we plan to publish later this year at the UN climate summit, about making it as simple as possible for a CEO to become a climate guardian.
Hey Alexa, do you care about the stability of Earth’s climate?
Increasingly, consumers are delegating their decisions to narrow artificial intelligence like Alexa and Siri. Welcome to a world of zero-click purchases.
Should algorithms and information architecture be designed to nudge consumer behavior towards low-carbon choices, for example by making these options the default? We think so. People don’t mind being nudged; in fact, they welcome efforts to make their lives better. For instance, if I want to lose weight, I know I will need all the help I can get. Let’s ‘nudge for good’ and experiment with supporting societal goals.
Use social media for good
Facebook’s goal is to bring the world closer together. With 2.2 billion users on the platform, CEO Mark Zuckerberg can reasonably claim this goal is possible. But social media has changed the flow of information in the world, creating a lucrative industry around a toxic brown-cloud of confusion and anger, with frankly terrifying implications for democracy. This has been linked to the rise of nationalism and populism, and to the election of leaders who shun international cooperation, dismiss scientific knowledge, and reverse climate action at a moment when we need it more than ever.
Social media tools need re-engineering to help people make sense of the world, support democratic processes, and build communities around societal goals. Make this your mission.
Design for a future on Earth
Almost everything is designed with computer software, from buildings to mobile phones to consumer packaging. It is time to make zero-carbon design the new default and design products for sharing, re-use and disassembly.
The future is circular
Halving emissions in a decade will require all companies to adopt circular business models to reduce material use. Some tech companies are leading the charge. Apple has committed to becoming 100 percent circular as soon as possible. Great.
While big tech companies strive to be market leaders here, many other companies lack essential knowledge. Tech companies can support rapid adoption in different economic sectors, not least because they have the know-how to scale innovations exponentially. It makes business sense. If economies of scale drive the price of recycled steel and aluminium down, everyone wins.
Reward low-carbon consumption
eCommerce platforms can create incentives for low-carbon consumption. The world’s largest experiment in greening consumer behavior is Ant Forest, set up by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial.
An estimated 300 million customers—similar to the population of the United States—gain points for making low-carbon choices such as walking to work, using public transport, or paying bills online. Virtual points are eventually converted into real trees. Sure, big questions remain about its true influence on emissions, but this is a space for rapid experimentation for big impact.
Make information more useful
Science is our tool for defining reality. Scientific consensus is how we attain reliable knowledge. Even after the information revolution, reliable knowledge about the world remains fragmented and unstructured. Build the next generation of search engines to genuinely make the world’s knowledge useful for supporting societal goals.
We need to put these tools towards supporting shared world views of the state of the planet based on the best science. New AI tools being developed by startups like Iris.ai can help see through the fog. From Alexa to Google Home and Siri, the future is “Voice”, but who chooses the information source? The highest bidder? Again, the implications for climate are huge.
Create new standards for digital advertising and marketing
Half of global ad revenue will soon be online, and largely going to a small handful of companies. How about creating a novel ethical standard on what is advertised and where? Companies could consider promoting sustainable choices and healthy lifestyles and limiting advertising of high-emissions products such as cheap flights.
We are what we eat
It is no secret that tech is about to disrupt grocery. The supermarkets of the future will be built on personal consumer data. With about two billion people either obese or overweight, revolutions in choice architecture could support positive diet choices, reduce meat consumption, halve food waste and, into the bargain, slash greenhouse gas emissions.
The future of transport is not cars, it’s data
The 2020s look set to be the biggest disruption of the automobile industry since Henry Ford unveiled the Model T. Two seismic shifts are on their way.
First, electric cars now compete favorably with petrol engines on range. Growth will reach an inflection point within a year or two once prices reach parity. The death of the internal combustion engine in Europe and Asia is assured with end dates announced by China, India, France, the UK, and most of Scandinavia. Dates range from 2025 (Norway) to 2040 (UK and China).
Tech giants can accelerate the demise. Uber recently announced a passenger surcharge to help London drivers save around $1,500 a year towards the cost of an electric car.
Second, driverless cars can shift the transport economic model from ownership to service and ride sharing. A complete shift away from privately-owned vehicles is around the corner, with large implications for emissions.
Clean-energy living and working
Most buildings are barely used and inefficiently heated and cooled. Digitization can slash this waste and its corresponding emissions through measurement, monitoring, and new business models to use office space. While, just a few unicorns are currently in this space, the potential is enormous. Buildings are one of the five biggest sources of emissions, yet have the potential to become clean energy producers in a distributed energy network.
Creating liveable cities
More cities are setting ambitious climate targets to halve emissions in a decade or even less. Tech companies can support this transition by driving demand for low-carbon services for their workforces and offices, but also by providing tools to help monitor emissions and act to reduce them. Google, for example, is collecting travel and other data from across cities to estimate emissions in real time. This is possible through technologies like artificial intelligence and the internet of things. But beware of smart cities that turn out to be not so smart. Efficiencies can reduce resilience when cities face crises.
It’s a Start
Of course, it will take more than tech to solve the climate crisis. But tech is a wildcard. The actions of the current tech giants and their acolytes could serve to destabilize the climate further or bring it under control.
We need a new social contract between tech companies and society to achieve societal goals. The alternative is unthinkable. Without drastic action now, climate chaos threatens to engulf us all. As this future approaches, regulators will be forced to take ever more draconian action to rein in the problem. Acting now will reduce that risk.
Note: A version of this article was originally published on World Economic Forum
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