Is big tech turning the tide on climate change?

Is big tech turning the tide on climate change?

Tech has found solutions for some of the world’s most urgent problems. But could innovation alone really solve the biggest of them all: global heating? The industry has, after all, played its part in increasing carbon emissions over the years, with energy-intensive server farms and data centres running day and night around the world. 


Yet times are changing. The world’s biggest tech companies have already pledged to become carbon neutral in the near future, and many have begun making progress towards achieving that aim. 


At Google, for example, sister venture DeepMind has applied its AI-powered smart building principles to Google’s physical infrastructure, reducing the energy expended on cooling by around a third. A 30% decrease in power consumption, across all 21 of its vast data centres around the world, makes a significant difference. 


At the same time, a whole host of innovative startups and scaleups, funded by big tech’s capital, have found ways to fight climate change that come straight from the pages of science fiction. 


Here are a few of the most exciting,


Carbon removal 


Few climate change innovators are closer to achieving the lofty goal of carbon capture at scale than Carbon Engineering, founded more than a decade ago and backed by Bill Gates. 


The firm’s Direct Air Capture technology, housed in a Canadian pilot plant, has already been removing carbon dioxide directly from the air for several years. It works by first pulling air into the plant with a large fan, then over a liquid potassium hydroxide solution. Carbon, which binds with the liquid to form a carbonate salt, is then converted into gas to be reused as fuel, thus creating renewable energy.  


By 2022, the company aims to launch its first megaton-scale commercial carbon capture plant - removing up to a million tons of greenhouse gas each year - and by 2030, to roll out several more around the world. 


Another firm innovating in air capture plants, Climeworks, has taken a novel commercial approach: unlike most of the scaleups fighting climate change, which are privately funded by venture capital, Climeworks plants are paid for partially by crowdfunding on a subscription basis. 


The science is a little different to that of Carbon Engineering; Climeworks, based in Iceland, collects CO2 by increasing its concentration through heating, then storing the highly concentrated carbon underground, where it’s mineralized - or, in other words, turned into stone.


Climeworks, too, aims to rapidly scale up its operations over the coming years and is one of the companies in Microsoft’s carbon removal portfolio, which aims to offset all emissions ever created by the company before 2050. 


Sustainable cities 


Urban areas, in which 68% of the population are forecasted to live by 2050, are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. So reducing energy consumption in cities is vital to tackling climate change. 


5G networks around the world - particularly that of Huawei, which is building 130,000 transmitters a year in China alone - will play a key role. Using 5G connectivity, smart grids, whereby electricity flows alongside data, will vastly improve energy efficiency by managing energy supply with real-time demand in milliseconds. 


Then there are the materials from which our cities are built. A number of innovative companies are creating materials which aren’t carbon neutral, but carbon negative, meaning their manufacture results in fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than before. 


One such company, Montreal-based Carbicrete, has found a way to produce concrete with landfill-destined steel slag rather than cement, which accounts for a staggering 10% of the world’s entire CO2 emissions. Carbicrete’s model is to license its technology to concrete manufacturers, allowing major emitters around the world to produce concrete more sustainably.  


Another innovator, Newlight, is also producing carbon negative building materials, by mimicking the process by which microorganisms in the ocean consume methane and carbon dioxide as food and produce a material known as PHB - a natural replacement for plastic, fibre and leather. 


Newlight’s plant, powered by IBM’s blockchain technology, is the world’s first commercial scale production system for biomaterials derived from carbon in this way, reducing emissions and creating cost-efficient, sustainable biomaterials for use in manufacturing. 


Corporate sustainability 

The world’s top technology companies are also leading by example in investing heavily in sustainability. Cisco, which already powers its technology with 100% renewable energy in several markets, has pledged $100 million over the next decade to fund non-profit grants and impact investments which fight climate change. Dell has gone a step further in implementing an entirely circular economy - meaning waste is ‘designed out’, all products are designed for reuse, and all energy used in manufacture comes from renewable sources. 

And IBM, which has invested heavily in conserving energy, is on track to meet all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals; the company reduced its energy usage by almost 5% in 2019 and currently takes almost half - 47% - of all electricity from renewable sources.  


So what’s next? 

The shift towards carbon neutral and negative technology can’t come soon enough. Many governments around the world are yet to make substantive changes to reduce their countries’ net emissions, potentially leaving climate targets unmet by 2030. Tech firms may well need to fill the void.