From Smart Cities to Carbon Capture – Rethinking Tech’s Role in Solving the Climate Crisis
September 14, 2022
The role of tech in fighting climate change has long been accepted as a fundamental part of the toolkit. Examples abound of tech as an enabler of climate solutions, from smart cities to agriculture to decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors such as cement and aviation. However, increasing evidence suggests that the world’s growing reliance on tech is in itself becoming a major climate and environmental problem, and that it may be time for a rethink. As we navigate our way ever-deeper into the Anthropocene, are we still driving tech, or is tech now driving us? With the emergence of AI, the Internet of Things, Blockchain and the metaverse, who now has any agency or decision-making ability over where we go next? Or is the future (and our collective ability to deliver the Paris Agreement and cap average temperature rise at 1.5 degrees) now subordinate to a potent combination of technological possibility and customer demand? What mechanisms does society have (or indeed still want) for determining which technological innovations we really need in the future, versus the tech we’d be better off without? Does the “Tech for Green” narrative still hold true?
What’s the problem?
Where we can presumably all agree is that the tech sector has innate capabilities to solve problems, to innovate and to identify new solutions. But (unsurprisingly) its current focus on sustainability is heavily sales-led, selling its capabilities, know-how and products to help the rest of us decarbonise our lives, our homes, our businesses. Where the sector has more of a blindspot however is in applying these same problem-solving capabilities to its own footprint (both current and future).
And it is relatively easy to find evidence of this footprint growing rapidly. A recent article in The Verge states that “Microsoft’s emissions, for example, rose from about 11.6 million metric tons of CO2 in the 2020 fiscal year to about 14 million metric tons in its 2021 fiscal year. As its business grew, so too did pollution from the use of Microsoft’s devices and cloud services. Salesforces’ planet-heating pollution has similarly grown along with its business in its 2022 fiscal year to the equivalent of over 1 million metric tons of CO2.” Meanwhile, according to Imperial College London, the energy costs of Artificial Intelligence are doubling globally every 3.5 months.
Moreover, the latest IPCC report (April 2022) noted that “digital technology supports decarbonisation only if appropriately governed.” At the moment, it is unclear who (if anyone) is doing the governing – the industry has no established roadmap to show how the sector will decarbonise in line with the Paris Agreement. A failure to address, collectively and transparently, the environmental footprint of the tech sector will only add to existing levels of mistrust, ultimately eroding the sector’s ability to leverage its known capabilities as a force for good.
So what do we need?
As the climate crisis intensifies, we need every tool in the box – and this absolutely includes the tech sector’s fullest, most brilliant game-changing potential. But at the moment, the evidence is pointing the wrong way, and the established narrative isn’t helping. We know that the emergence of new evidence alone is often insufficient to shift a deeply-entrenched narrative. So what’s the answer?
Simply put (and alongside better information on the size of the issue), we need two things: a new narrative, one that builds issue saliency among corporate customers (who now need to know for their own reporting), among policy makers and among consumers; and bold industry leadership (to take responsibility for the sector’s own emissions, and to use its own ingenuity to design its future footprint, before the sector itself becomes just one more problem to solve).
How do we do that?
The good news is we already know plenty about narrative change. According to the Frameworks Institute, changing narratives requires challenging dominant narratives that are in wide circulation and fostering alternative ways of talking, thinking and making sense of our experiences.
As a strategic approach therefore, we must identify and understand the narratives that we’d like to change (eg ‘Tech is the solution to the climate crisis’) and offer something better (‘Tech is a part of the solution, but only if it also designs out its own emissions’). At Purpose, we work extensively with storytellers to present stories that are aligned with the narrative change goal, and that can best engage with the audience. With this knowledge, we need to ensure that those with influence in the tech industry champion ambitious action to reduce emissions within the industry, while also leveraging what tech has, and continues to offer in the fight against climate change.
So what’s next?
If you agree that there is a growing risk of our future being determined by technology, and that the tech sector itself could become more of a climate problem than a climate solution, we need to act. We need a new relationship to tech where the interests of people and the planet have greater agency. But first and foremost, we need a compelling new narrative to galvanise new forms of industry leadership, governance and collaboration. Who’s up for the journey?
for Equity & Evidence