Rapid Climate Change and Big Tech: can anything still be done?

Though not really an avid news consumer, this morning I caught wind of the backlash resulting from Shell’s now-infamous “Climate Poll Tweet.”

If you haven’t seen it, let me catch you up. Shell went out on a limb and asked the audience, “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?”

Allow that to digest for just a moment. Let the audacity sink in.

It wasn’t lost on US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who directly called Shell out for their hypocrisy.

In a similar vein, Greta Thunberg accused Shell of “endless greenwash”, while climate scientist Professor Katharine Hayhoe drew attention to the company’s contribution to atmospheric CO2 which is causing global warming.

While we might applaud big transnational corporations, including global oil giants like Shell, for finally acknowledging the question, I think the bigger question really has to be what are they prepared to do?

These companies must take ownership and accountability for their contribution to climate change and recognise that they are truly best placed to take action and lead from the front. Individual action is also required, but it is not our burden alone.

Because being able to stabilise global emissions depends on the rate of technological change, or the rate at which present technology will be replaced with a less greenhouse gas intensive capital stock (D.Owen & N. Hanley, The Economics of Climate Change, (2006)).

It doesn’t depend on how many bus journeys you take, or how many Meat Free Mondays you commit to. It is Big Tech and these multinationals that are ultimately in the best position to leverage technology to rein in the pace of climate change.

It is now 10 years since I studied the Economics of Climate Change, and I do fear what the situation will look like in another decade.

But fears aside, here I look at four ways that Big Tech can contribute to tackling climate change in 2020.

1. Investing in Carbon Capture

As many have been quick to point out, Shell’s recent investments in low-carbon energy pale in comparison to its investments in fossil fuels. These needs to be turned around.

Even though everything went quiet on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) projects a while back, some organisations like Net Zero Teeside have actively been researching and developing in the field of Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS).

Based in the north east of England, its aim is to deliver the UK’s first zero-carbon industrial cluster and capture up to 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent to the annual energy use of over 3 million UK homes.

2. Climate Repair

Another interesting proposal being investigated by Big Tech is carbon repair, which aims to repair the damage caused by anthropogenic climate change.

The Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge heads up a number of research themes which are investigating possibilities of refreezing the poles, and “greening” the oceans to sequester more carbon dioxide.

3. Space Monitoring

MethaneSAT is a satellite mission due to launch in 2021, designed to locate and measure methane from human sources worldwide. The aim is to identify and monitor both methane hotpots and reduction opportunities in a bid to reduce emissions and reduce climate change.

4. Remote Working

One of the positives to come out of the global Coronavirus pandemic and worldwide lockdowns has been the rapid take-up of remote working.

Big Tech companies and startups have long embraced and advocated the benefits of remote working, and finally the rest of us have been forced into it. It became clear that many office jobs can successfully be done from home, and technology companies like Zoom rapidly grew and expanded to meet the surge in demand.

As workers adapted to work from home, commutes and flights ceased almost overnight, office buildings stood empty and the world experienced a drop in carbon emissions as a direct result of confinement.

While this trend in reductions is not expected to continue over winter in the northern hemisphere, it is possible that long term changes in behaviour and patterns of work may indeed contribute to a reduction in emissions which is essential in the race to tackle climate change.

Is individual action pointless?

But just in case you do also want some ideas on how individuals and our small business community can take steps towards tackling climate change, make sure you check out this article on how to make climate goals relevant through considering the co-benefit opportunities associated with an active workforce.

Here sustainability coach Emma Knight-Strong recommends some straightforward and practical steps to engage pretty much anyone by simply encouraging more physical activity both in the outdoors and in the office.

Moving meetings, anyone?


Founder, feminist, entrepreneur, coffee + self care

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