This is the most important year for climate action since the Paris Climate Agreement was passed in 2015. National governments are strengthening their national climate action plans; companies, cities and communities are setting more ambitious targets; global financial markets are beginning to demand significant decarbonization; and the world is gearing up for the most important climate negotiations of this decade, in Glasgow, Scotland at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26)
Meaningful progress on climate change in this decade will require significant changes to almost every sector of the global economy, including energy, transport, industry, agriculture, cities, finance, and land use. That, in turn, will require us to transform countless systems, build new ones, optimize those we can’t, and measure our overall progress as we go. None of this will be possible without digital technologies, new platforms and new applications in areas like internet connectivity and advanced broadband, remote sensing (including everything from the Internet of Things to satellites); data science and artificial intelligence, cloud computing and enterprise software. In countless ways, digital transformation will drive the sustainability revolution, and vice-versa.
To explore these issues, Planet recently hosted a thought leadership discussion on the role that new technologies can – and must – play in delivering action on climate change, with key leaders in Silicon Valley, climate science, and international climate negotiations. Streamed today on our YouTube channel, the conversation included Marc Benioff, CEO and founder of Salesforce, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, Katherine Hayhoe, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, Alok Sharma, president of COP26, Planet’s Co-founder CEO Will Marshall, and the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Climate & Environment editor Trish Wilson.
All the participants expressed both hope for making real progress on climate action, and concerns about commitment on the part of business, government, and citizens.
“It used to be that this was a future issue, but we can see the impacts of climate change right now, here today,” said Katherine Hayhoe. “We can see wildfires burning greater areas, heatwaves becoming more frequent and more deadly, hurricanes stronger and more damaging, the sea level rising, floods increasing, droughts getting stronger. The impacts are already here. So if that’s the case, why aren’t we acting?”
There’s no magical way to avoid the impacts of climate change, Hayhoe continued: “But the faster we cut our emissions, the better off we’ll be.”
Planet’s Will Marshall shared the urgency that we must move with in order to succeed in tackling some of our toughest climate challenges.
“There’s no question we have to act now. The way I see it is, that we [Planet] build spacecraft and actually the earth is a big spaceship hurtling around the sun with 7 billion astronauts on it. It has sensitive ecological and climatic systems and we have to monitor those systems.”
“We have to monitor it really regularly, and that’s where our data comes in,” Marshall continued. “I hope that with that, we can help see some of these changes, and accelerate some of these changes, because you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
The business world – and in particular, technology companies and their innovations – are best positioned to drive progress, panelists said.
“I strongly believe that business is the greatest platform for change,” said Marc Benioff. “All of us need to pivot all of our resources to address one of the most audacious goals we’ve ever had on this planet: to lower emissions dramatically, but also to sequester the over 100 gigatons of carbon that’s been emitted since the first Industrial Revolution, and the 600 billion gigatons of carbon that’s been emitted through the three trillion acres of deforestation that we’ve already experienced on the planet.”
Meeting audacious goals with meaningful change
Benioff’s goal is indeed a tall order, but as other panelists said, it’s one that’s addressed with incremental and concrete steps. As Google CEO Sundar Pichai explained, the company is aiming to run a 24/7 carbon-free operation worldwide by 2030; it’s been carbon-neutral since 2007. But real change, Pichai explained, happens when such actions spread outside the company.
“DeepMind, which is based in the UK, figured out how we can run our data centers more efficiently for cooling by 30 percent, using artificial intelligence,” Pichai said, referring to a company that was acquired by Google in 2014. “Now we’re providing that as a solution through Google Cloud.”
A company the size of Google, with tremendous product reach, should also influence people’s behavior in ways that fight climate change, Pichai added. “In Google Maps, we are now, where possible, trying to give the most eco-friendly route as the default driving directions,” he said. “Simple choices like this can unlock change tremendously.”
What’s also critical, added panelist Alok Sharma, president of COP26 and a British member of parliament, is serving the needs of future generations, who will have to live with what the current generation can (or cannot) accomplish.
“I gave a speech in Glasgow, and I asked my daughters, ‘What’s the one message you want me to convey to world leaders?’” Sharma said. “They said, ‘Just simply tell them: Pick the planet. And that actually is the message that’s coming from young people across the world. They want us to pick the planet. They want us to ensure the policies we are putting in place leave a cleaner, greener future for them.”