At Davos 2019, 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg told business leaders that we need to start treating the climate crisis as a crisis. She is right. We need the fastest energy transition in history. From how we consume, produce and work to what we eat, the world needs to cut climate emissions in half by 2030. That’s 12 years away.
Some call for a Green New Deal, a Marshall Plan or even wartime mobilization of economic sectors. We probably need all of the above. But don’t forget that transformation is unstoppable in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). When it comes to climate change, the 4IR is the biggest wildcard out there. Bill Gates once said that “we overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction”. We agree.
Through e-commerce, search and social media, tech giants influence the decisions of billions of Earth’s consumers and voters every day. This could drive up emissions and spin back the climate clock 50 million years to a Hothouse Earth. Alternatively, as recent research has shown, it could drive extremely low energy demand and help nudge Earth onto a long-term sustainable pathway.
We have just published a report showing 12 ways that existing digital technology – search, e-commerce and social media – can help the world halve emissions in 12 years, based on our Exponential Climate Action Roadmap report launched at the recent Global Climate Action Summit.
1. Become genuine climate guardians. You don’t build a trillion-dollar tech company without a grand global vision. With the exception of certain companies, including Ericsson and Salesforce, few of the big firms’ visions include a stable and resilient planet in their plans. This needs to change.
Tech analyst Scott Galloway calls Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google the Four Horsemen for good reason: they disrupt entire industries. These companies and their wannabes – Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Alibaba and more – influence the decisions of four billion consumers every day. Sure, all of them have ambitious targets to reduce their own emissions and emissions along their supply chain. But this must extend to their consumers’ work and lifestyles.
The four horsemen may not be around forever. The hyper-growth unicorn companies with valuations in excess of $1 billion may topple the old guard. But only one in seven unicorns has a climate target. This must change.
2. Hey Alexa, are your algorithms climate smart? Increasingly, consumers will delegate shopping decisions to weak artificial intelligence such as Alexa and Siri. Welcome to a world of zero-click purchases. Algorithms and information architecture should be designed to nudge consumer behaviour towards low-carbon choices, for example by making these options the default.
3. Use social media for good. Facebook’s goal is to bring the world closer together. With 2.2 billion users, 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 but toxic cloud of confusion and anger with terrifying implications for democracy. This has been linked to the rise of nationalism and populism, and the election of leaders who shun international cooperation and climate action when we need it more than ever. Social media tools should be re-engineered to help people make sense of the world, support democratic processes and build communities around societal goals. Make this your mission.
4. 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 to design products for sharing and re-use.
5. 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 is committed to becoming 100% circular as soon as possible. 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.
6. Reward low-carbon consumption. E-commerce platforms can create incentives for low carbon consumption. The world’s largest experiment in greening consumer behaviour is Ant Forest, set up by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial. An estimated 300 million customers – almost equivalent 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 and iteration for big impact.
7. Make information more useful. Even after the information revolution, reliable knowledge about the world remains fragmented and unstructured. Build the next generation of search engines to make the world’s information useful. We need shared world views of the state of the planet based on the best science. New AI tools being developed by start-ups such as 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.
8. 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. Research shows people appreciate nudges if it supports their own personal goals.
9. We are what we eat. It is no secret that tech is about to disrupt grocery. Amazon and Alibaba are investing heavily in grocery and supermarkets. 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 slash greenhouse gas emissions.
10. The future of transport is not cars, it’s data. The 2020s look set to see the biggest disruption of the automobile industry since Henry Ford unveiled the Model T in 1908. Two seismic shifts are on their way. First, electric cars compete favourably with petrol engines on range and will reach an inflection point within a year or two, once their price competes favourably. Most major car manufacturers have set end dates for production of internal combustion engines, but the change may come even sooner. Uber recently announced a passenger surcharge to help London drivers save around $1500 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 close, with large implications for emissions.
11. Clean energy living and working. Most buildings are barely used and inefficiently heated and cooled. Digitalization can slash this waste and emissions through measurement, monitoring and new business models to use office space. Yet just a few unicorns are currently in this space.
12. Create 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 such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. But beware smart cities that turn out to be not so smart. Efficiencies can reduce resilience when cities face crises.
Of course, it will take more than technology to solve the climate crisis. But it also won’t be solved without exponential thinking. The tech sector is setting a good example: its emissions are declining as value and data are growing. But its leading companies must now acknowledge a much broader responsibility they have in society and in influencing behaviour.