Technology can help solve the climate crisis – but it will need our help

Climate Change 2018 UN

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
l to r: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate; Secretary General António Guterres; and Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, Honorary Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, at the 2018 Global Commission Report Launch at United Nations Headquarters in New York, on 05 September 2018.

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Amy Luers, Executive Director, Future Earth

Tech giants are currently getting slammed over ethical issues. As their dominance in the global economy rises, so too do concerns about their influence, misuse of data and embedded biases in algorithms that control advertising and can influence elections, law enforcement and recruiting.

We are just beginning to get a handle on the vast societal implications of the digital revolution. Meanwhile, our data and the algorithms built on it are transforming our economy, our culture and our environment.

Major tech platforms for search, e-commerce and social media build algorithms to service billions of end users — consumers and producers of information — across the globe every day. These algorithms nudge people to read what they think you want to read, buy what they think you need to buy and even to think what they think you should be thinking.

These algorithms are not neutral. They will never be neutral. Algorithms will always reproduce the biases put into them by humans. The question, therefore, is not whether we are nudged in our choices, but how we are nudged, in what direction and who decides.

In 2015 in Paris, 195 nations agreed that for the peace and prosperity of the world, they would work together to keep the rise in global temperatures “well below 2°C”, aiming for 1.5°C. With this global agreement, the world decided what the direction in which it would nudge. We committed to nudge toward climate action.

So, the question we should be asking today is: how can companies embed climate action nudges in algorithms to make it easy for consumers and producers to make low-emission decisions by default?

Meeting the ambitious Paris climate goal of keeping temperature rise well below 2°C requires everyone to adopt a simple rule – halving emissions every decade. We call this the Carbon Law. Keeping to this law requires economic transformation at an unprecedented speed and beyond the energy sector into industry, transport, food and buildings.

At the Global Climate Action Summit this week, we published an analysis suggesting that solutions to halve global emissions are market ready, economically attractive and can scale exponentially. This is the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap. Getting on this path will require unprecedented economic transformation. We know the Fourth Industrial Revolution promises this.

The roadmap highlights the tech sector as playing a vital role in this exponential road to a net-zero carbon world. Tech companies must drive their own carbon footprints to zero and the good news is that many of the biggest tech companies are on course to carbon neutrality. Apple’s operations are now run on 100% renewables and it has committed to adopting 100% recycled materials throughout its supply chain. Meanwhile, Google is the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world. Tech will also be critical in building resource efficiency gains across all sectors from energy, to food, water and urban infrastructure.

But one of the most powerful effects that tech giants like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, and even start-ups, such as Element AI, can perhaps have is linked to their influence on the behaviour of people and businesses across the world. Research increasingly highlights the importance for consumption choices on climate. Earlier this year, C40 reported that two-thirds of the carbon emissions from 79 cities it had studied were tied to consumption choices and their supply chains.

Consider the food industry: the food system alone accounts for about 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This sector has been slow to digitize but is now about to undergo complete disruption. The signs are clear: Amazon recently bought Whole Foods, sending ripples through the markets; in China, Alibaba has already revolutionized the grocery shopping experience; and public-private partnerships such as Scale AI are working to transform supply chain management.

Nudges will be embedded in the increasing digitization of these evolving food and production sectors, many of which are likely to have large implications for the climate. For example, research shows reducing food waste and shifting towards healthy diets with lower meat consumption would significantly reduce carbon emissions. Who should decide the direction of the nudges in transforming food and production systems? Given our global commitment to tackle the climate crisis, should the tech platforms driving these industries nudge individuals and businesses toward lower-carbon options?

Technology alone will not solve the climate crisis. It will require greater climate leadership and much stronger policies. But tech is a necessary part of the solution – it is also a wildcard. As we say in our roadmap, the digital revolution can help determine whether we live on a 1.5-2°C planet or in a +3°C world. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution moves into hyperdrive in the next decade through artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing and the internet of things, to stay within the globally agreed 1.5-2°C climate limit this growth must be tied more closely to the climate challenge.

We cannot leave it to the tech sector alone to programme our future. When it comes to our children’s health, security and prosperity, no one should accept the role of simply an “end user”. Climate leaders, Earth system scientists and other societal partners must collaborate with the tech sector to ensure that the transformations of the digital revolution help drive us toward a climate-safe world.

Precisely how this will happen remains unclear but many tech leaders are already stepping up to the challenge. The Entrepreneurs Declaration now signed by more than 200 CEOs, is a commitment to follow the Carbon Law. The World Economic Forum is also supporting this discussion.

Together, we can innovate ways to make it easy for people and business to act on climate by default.

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