Can technology help solve the climate crisis? A lot of smart money is betting that it can. Taylor Francis, co-founder of Watershed, has raised $70 million dollars in venture capital, putting the startup’s estimated value at $1 billion within a year of establishment.
Watershed aims to be a leading software platform that helps businesses cut down their carbon emissions by providing tools for companies to measure where their carbon emissions are coming from, as well as devising plans to reduce them and reporting on the progress. Francis said his clients want to consider all of the things they can change as a company to get to zero emissions. “That’s where companies can have an impact here,” he said at a recent conference. “I think there’s a real power for networks and aggregation and pointing dollars together at the low-carbon solution.”
Francis was one of dozens of speakers at the 2022 Techonomy Climate summit last month in Silicon Valley. Buzzing with entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and experts on climate and data science, the event showcased innovative companies and new concepts ranging from carbon accounting to climate justice. The players from Big Tech were there too, including IBM, Microsoft and Salesforce, as sustainability becomes a major imperative across corporate America. Among the highlights:
Saving Us: The Case for Climate Hope
Katherine Hayhoe, author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, kicked off the event by raising issues about how we tackle the political divide when addressing climate change. Hayhoe addressed two central themes that she has spent decades trying to unpack in her work as a researcher: Why so many people feel distanced from the issue and why they feel that we can’t fix the problem.
“Many people feel like the cure is worse than the disease–that the solutions they feel would leave us worse off than just coping with the impact,” she said. “A hurricane does not knock on your door and ask who you voted for in the last election before it floods your home and rips off your roof,” Hayhoe added. “Climate change affects all of us to the point where to care about it, we only have to do one thing. And that one thing is quite literally being a human being living on planet earth.”
Building Microsoft’s Foundations to be Carbon Negative by 2030
Microsoft sees climate change as an existential threat that needs to be measured, tracked and forecast, according to Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa. “Without the predictability of climate change, we can’t further build and develop enduring socioeconomic structures,” Joppa said. Seeing climate change as not just a danger but also a business opportunity, the company has launched Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability to help companies record, report and reduce their environmental impact.
Microsoft is making strides toward its goal of being carbon negative by 2030. To do that, the company plans to reduce its emissions by half or more by 2030 and then physically remove the remaining amounts in small portions from the atmosphere. Joppa said that the steps to this process start with defining what net zero means for every organization and individual, maturing the carbon-removal markets, and by doing a much better job of figuring out how to measure carbon.
Carbon Accounting: The Invisible Cost of Doing Business
Persefoni, a company founded in 2020, is a climate-management and accounting platform designed to help companies and financial institutions to meet stakeholder and regulatory climate-disclosure requirements and requests. In that role, Persefoni has been growing at a fast clip, with a global team of more than 240 employees. Said James Newsome, the company’s chief data officer: “There is one thing that is consistent: Without being able to measure something, then how do you even manage it? We cannot get to where we need to be if we do not have proper accounting for it.”
Accelerating Breakthrough Technology for a Lower-Carbon Future
General Electric, the 130-year old company founded by Thomas Edison, is still leading the way in energy innovation, according to Roger Martella, the company’s chief sustainability officer, who was interviewed by David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy’s founder and editor-in-chief. “The state of energy transition that we’re in is significant,” Martella said. “I think history will look back and say ‘This is the era of climate innovation.’”
According to GE, the company is responsible in one way or another for creating one third of the world’s electricity, in 175 countries. The giant company is collaborating with international governments including Germany and Canada as well as smaller energy companies to develop new technologies.
As the war in Ukraine is shedding a new light on the world’s energy resources, Martella said that GE is working to accelerate solutions that will solve multiple challenges at the same time. “It’s not only about climate change,” he said. “It’s about energy independence; it’s about access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable electricity beyond Ukraine.”
“Why I Think Tech Can Solve Climate Change”
Bill Gross, founder and CEO of Idealab, not only believes that the world can be saved from climate disaster with technology, he recently launched three companies–Heliogen, Energy Vault, and Carbon Capture–to address the crisis from several different angles. “Renewable energy is freedom energy,” Gross said. “It can give access to people all over the planet and it can end the geological lottery.” What the companies aim to do:
•Heliogen will concentrate solar energy to supply steel and mining companies with clean power and zero carbon emissions. Envisioned to be built on-site at steel and mining plants, the technology has two cameras that control 400 mirrors to accurately direct light from the sun.
•Energy Vault stores wind and solar energy. Designed to mimic hydro-electric systems that pump water up mountains and let it flow down to release energy, the two large-scale structures would store energy by lifting and stacking 35-ton boxes.
•CarbonCapture, which has support from Microsoft, aims to take carbon out of the atmosphere at a cost-effective price. To do this, CarbonCapture is constructing machines that will directly remove carbon from the atmosphere by using low-cost, renewable energy.
The Climate Justice Imperative
Three powerhouse organizations are leading the charge in fighting for climate justice and bringing marginalized voices to the table. Heather Tony, VP of community engagement at the Environmental Defense Fund, started this conversation by defining climate justice as “the social justice issue of our time.” She continued: “Recognizing the importance of climate justice and focusing on people is going to be a key to solving the biggest problems of climate change in the future.”
Justine Lucas, executive director of the Clara Lionel Foundation, asked: “Where are all the people in the room that are being impacted?” She followed up by emphasizing that philanthropy needs to recognize that there is a need for investment in climate resiliency now. “[Funding] needs to be spent in communities that are affected and that are not responsible for climate change in the first place,” Lucas said.
Suzanne DiBianca, chief impact officer and EVP of corporate relations at Salesforce, took the stage to explain her company’s sense of purpose about the issue. “We’ve been thinking about what kind of levers we have that can move the needle as a company,” DiBianca said. Salesforce took action by placing policy and regulation as as an important focus within the company. To carry out its mission, based on three principles, Salesforce fought for climate regulation by supporting mandated climate disclosure and putting a supplier program in place that would require 60% of the company’s suppliers to have science-based targets within three years.
“There’s just not enough money going into this space,” DiBianca said. “We have to think about who we’re investing in–whether it’s through venture, whether it’s philanthropy–that we’re really supporting leaders that have a diverse and robust point of view.”
Deborah Magid, director of software strategy in the venture-capital group at IBM, highlighted ways that the company engages with the VC community to spur innovation. When IBM started doing so more than 20 years ago, the goal was to simply build relationships and to learn from each other.
But today, the company is taking new steps to further conversation and work with VCs and their portfolio companies to enhance each other’s businesses. “Being in Silicon Valley is really important because most of venture capital’s high volume in deals and dollars is here, it’s just a fact.”
IBM’s search for novel solutions can lead to acquisitions as well. IBM recently bought Envizi, a company that helps corporations navigate their “sustainability journey” by getting a better look at climate risk and climate management.
How Policy Can Spur Climate Innovation
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, talked with Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former minister of Environment and Climate Change, about the impact of government policy in finding answers and scaling up ventures. “Policy innovation is going to be extraordinarily important,” said McKenna, now the founder and principal of Climate and Nature Solutions.
The most effective policy, Krupp said, is carbon pricing. “By taking something that’s an external cost and putting it inside the balance sheet, it drives decisions in places like California, right down to the entrepreneurial level and creates a hunt for the lowest-cost ways to solve these problems,” he said.
Krupp and McKenna also addressed the impacts that the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions on Russia will have on climate policy. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a horrendous humanitarian disaster with people dying and it demands a response,” Krupp said. “But at the same time, we have a second humanitarian crisis in that people are dying every year now from climate change, from weather disasters, from floods. These are twin imperatives. What are the solutions that answer for both?”
Myah Overstreet is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, with a primary focus on environmental justice and health care inequities. She is a native of Oakland, Calif., with a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University.