Climate

What the tech industry wants at COP27

Big Tech has played an increasingly pivotal role at international climate talks.

A smokestack producing carbon dioxide.

This year’s hot topic will be loss and damage, or a framework for rich countries to pay emerging ones for climate damages.

Photo: Anne Nygård via Unsplash

It’s once again climate conference season. Negotiators are set to descend on Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for international climate talks known as COP27.

This is the 27th iteration of what’s known as the Conference of the Parties. And a lot has changed since the first meetings were held in Berlin in 1995. Chief among them is the role that the tech industry plays in both shaping the talks and the world’s path forward to address climate change.

When negotiators first met, Google didn’t even exist. Now, it and other tech companies bring in annual revenue on par with some European countries’ GDP, and they’re using the power that affords them to shape the official negotiations and craft side deals. That includes this year’s meeting kicking off on Sunday.

This year’s hot topic will be loss and damage, or a framework for rich countries to pay emerging ones for climate damages. It’s a highly complex and contentious topic, albeit one the tech industry doesn’t have much of a say in given it’s basically a fight over money between countries that caused the climate crisis while getting rich and those suffering the effects.

But tech has a role to play in the shape of the discussion. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s vice chairman and president, told Protocol that “we need to focus on the needs of the Global South.” That could mean deploying AI and other tools that can help mitigate crop losses when extreme weather hits, for example.

Suzanne DiBianca, EVP and chief impact officer at Salesforce, echoed Smith’s comments. She told Protocol that the company is “committed to advancing climate policy and climate justice.”

At last year’s climate talks in Glasgow, tech industry heavyweights and national governments announced the First Movers Coalition, a group that’s putting money and policy muscle into propping up industries like carbon removal and green steel. The former could become a powerful tool in its own right to serve international climate justice.

Removing the legacy carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will help create a more stable climate. And a growing number of carbon removal companies and trade groups are incorporating environmental justice principles into their work, including ensuring the economic benefits of managing carbon are distributed evenly around the world.

The industry also clearly sees itself as part of the international order. It’s impossible in many ways to disentangle business interests from nation-state interests at this point, but particularly when it comes to the climate because everyone has to live with the world’s choices.

“COP27 is taking place against a backdrop of intersecting crises in the global economy including economic uncertainty, an energy crisis in Europe, and climate change impacts globally, but we cannot slow our progress,” said Kate Brandt, chief sustainability officer at Google. “This is why collaboration, implementation, and innovation will be essential over the next decade, and the discussions and outcomes over the next two weeks will be key in driving progress.”

Progress, though, could take a number of different forms. So far, it’s taken the form of climate pledges that have yet to bend the emissions curve at the company and global levels. Microsoft saw its emissions increase last year due to growth in Xbox use and its data center business despite its pledge to cut emissions and reach carbon negativity by the end of this decade. (Most countries haven’t done much better.) The company has since laid out what policies it will advocate for that will, in theory, make it easier for the company and the world to start cutting emissions.

But there are deeper discussions to be had at COP27 and beyond about how the industry uses its power to shape the world.

“The tech sector exists to see around the bend,” Jamie Beck Alexander, the director of Drawdown Labs, told Protocol. “Given this foresight, industry leaders know that we will all one day soon wake up and realize that we have to make impossibly hard changes in our economy on impossible time horizons.”

Among the contradictions the industry will have to confront is whether it will continue to help prop up the fossil fuel industry by selling cloud computing services. While that makes operations more efficient from a carbon emissions perspective, it also makes operations to get fossil fuels out of the ground easier as well. And given that the majority of emissions tied to fossil fuels are when they’re burned in a car’s engine or a natural gas power plant, that efficiency is a death sentence for the climate.

Some countries are starting to take the need to end the fossil fuel era seriously. At last year’s climate talks, Denmark and Costa Rica founded an alliance of countries that are the first in the world to agree to end fossil fuel production. The tech industry taking a similar stand could drive a change in how we produce energy with much more force than any clean energy buying commitment or CDR investment could.

The industry has also preached unfettered growth, constantly rolling out new products like Apple’s annual iPhone update and innovations like Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping. While Apple has touted its recycling initiatives and push toward a circular economy and Amazon has invested in electric delivery vehicles, Beck Alexander said that “our ability to see around the bend shows us that growth for growth’s sake is unsustainable.” That points to the need for rethinking what brought about the climate crisis in the first place, including at COP27.

“I’d like to see tech leaders offer an invitation to the business community at large to have a serious conversation about growth,” she said.

Michelle Ma contributed reporting to this piece.

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