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February 19, 2019

12 ways the tech sector can help address climate change: report

By Johan Falk, Senior Innovation Fellow at the Future Earth and Stockholm Resilience Centre; and Owen Gaffney, Co-founder, Future Earth Media Lab

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. (*Images below come from the report.)

  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 close to 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.

  1. 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

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.

The original version of the article first appeared on the World Economic Forum Agenda. Find the original here. Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.

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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

12 ways the tech sector can help address climate change: report

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