Climate Change: Is It Too Late to Save the Planet?

Leaders and thousands of interested parties from around the world crammed into a giant conference center in Glasgow, Scotland for the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Convention, COP26, the 26th such session. Many experts believe we are at a time of crisis. Talks and treaties have been going on for many years but, meanwhile, carbon emissions have continued to climb. There is universal agreement storms, fires, floods, and heat waves have become more frequent and more extreme.

Many say this may be the last chance to avoid a global disaster. Axios reported climate change is spurring people to accelerate their lists of action items. Some are accelerating plans to see the millennia-old redwood trees before they burn, the glaciers before they melt, or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef before the remaining half of its corals die.

Is it too late? Will anything change this time? Two parallel tracks could lead to the needed solutions. One track is by government, the other by business. In this article, I will comment on both.

The 105 world leaders signed the Global Methane Pledge, a U.S. and EU joint initiative to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030. This is what I would call the low-hanging fruit. It should be relatively simple to plug the leaks. It is not rocket science and 30% by 2030 should be a slam dunk.

There are some positive signs by city governments. Some of them are hiring CHOs, “chief heat officers”. When I first read about this, I thought it was a typo. Not so. According to Axios, CHOs are devising cooling strategies to offset rising global temperatures. They are adding tree canopies, reflective roofs, and cooling sidewalks. Athens hired a CHO this summer, when temperatures hit 111°F, and the city of Freetown in Sierra Leone did the same. These initiatives not only address climate but may protect homeless people and outdoor workers. Small initiatives in just a few places but, if successful, will spread.

What about the big and critical initiatives? Scientific consensus is clear as a bell. The carbon problem is urgent. The carbon in our atmosphere, released by human activity, has created a blanket of gas trapping heat and changing the world’s climate. Science tells us if world leaders don’t make urgent and aggressive commitments, the results will be catastrophic. So, what commitments did the leaders make other than the methane slam dunk?

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, among the world’s other biggest carbon emitters did not attend the conference. The commitments made for “at or about mid 2050s” are well beyond the remaining lifespan of the leaders who make them. President Biden’s speech at COP26 was described as not especially lively, and his words were heavy on hope. He can’t even get the Senate to agree to incent power companies to make clean electricity. Steep cuts in carbon are nowhere to be found. The Paris Agreement goals could become even less attainable. Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swedish activist described the global leaders’ speeches as “blah, blah, blah”. I agree with her. Governments are stuck in the mud. In smaller conference rooms and in the halls were venture capitalists and entrepreneurs discussing opportunities. It is track two, business, which holds the promise of success.

I am betting on tech startups. Climate tech startups have raised a record $32 billion in 2021. Most will probably fail, but there will be breakthroughs by some which will change the world. More than 80% of the funding is going to energy and transportation startups. For example, Boom Technology and others are developing new kinds of fuel which can enable supersonic planes to be flown without adding to the enormous amounts of carbon commercial aviation is spewing into the air. Orca, the world’s biggest commercial direct air capture (DAC) device is pulling carbon dioxide out of the air in Iceland. The CO2 is being injected a thousand feet down into basalt bedrock where, over a period of a few years, the CO2 converts to rock.

Startup NovoMoto is providing clean electricity for off-grid communities in sub-Saharan Africa. NovoMoto’s rent-to-own solar-powered systems are less expensive, safer, and less polluting than the kerosene, diesel, and disposable batteries currently used in these communities. More than 6,500 people have now gained access to reliable and renewable electricity with NovoMoto’s solar kits and there has been a 200-ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. There are many other examples. Meanwhile, big tech is totally onboard, and instead of “blah, blah, blah”, they are putting their money where their mouth is, and they are making huge commitments.

I have been reporting on various accomplishments of what I have called the MAGFA stocks: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In the following paragraphs I will paraphrase what they are saying and what they are doing.

Microsoft says they will be carbon negative by 2030. The company says, “While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so.” The company has an ambitious goal and a plan to reduce and ultimately remove its carbon footprint. By 2050, Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.

Apple unveiled a plan to become carbon neutral across its entire business, manufacturing supply chain, and product life cycle by 2030. I would call this a major commitment. The company is already carbon neutral for its global corporate operations, and has committed by 2030, every Apple device sold will have net zero climate impact. Unlike the wimpy statements by our global government leaders, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO said, “Businesses have a profound opportunity to help build a more sustainable future, one born of our common concern for the planet we share. Instead of being on the defense, Apple sees its technology innovations as powering an environmental journey not only good for the planet but making its products more energy efficient. The company sees its climate approach as the foundation for a new era of innovative potential, job creation, and durable economic growth. Apple says, “With our commitment to carbon neutrality, we hope to be a ripple in the pond that creates a much larger change.”

Google wants to lead and encourage others to join it in improving the health of the planet. The company said, “We’re decarbonizing our energy consumption so that by 2030, we’ll operate on carbon-free energy, everywhere, 24/7”. Google is also putting its advertising muscle to work for climate. It no longer allows advertising to appear alongside “content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.” 

Facebook (now Meta, still ticker FB) believes sustainability is about more than operating responsibly. The company sees it as an opportunity to support the communities they are part of and have a positive impact on the world. Facebook has achieved net zero emissions in its global operations and plans to reach net zero emissions for its entire value chain in 2030. The company said, “The climate crisis demands urgent action from all of us.” Facebook is also connecting people with authoritative climate information. In an important and related area, Facebook announced a goal to be water positive by 2030. This means Facebook will return more water to the environment than it consumed in its global operations.

Amazon has a more complicated business with thousands of trucks, airplanes, packages, warehouses, etc. Nevertheless, it has committed to building a sustainable business for its customers and the planet. In 2019, Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge, a commitment to be net-zero carbon across the entire business by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement. Amazon is designing and manufacturing a complete energy and transportation ecosystem fully vertically integrated. The company said, “By doing so, we are creating affordable products that work together to amplify their impact, leading to the greatest environmental benefit possible”. The company plans to achieve this through research and software development efforts as well as a drive to develop advanced manufacturing capabilities.

Tesla has now joined the trillion-dollar club. I will rename MAGFA as GAMMAT: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon, and Tesla. Elon Musk has had a clear vision for many years about the need to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Climate change is reaching alarming levels, in large part due to emissions from burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation. Tesla is playing a significant role by making EVs and providing solar roofs and storage batteries to create a fully integrated solution. Tesla said its customers, in 2020, avoided 5.0 million metric tons of CO2e emissions. Equally impressive is the company’s announcement it has the capacity to recover approximately 92 percent of battery cell materials. With the current momentum of Tesla around the world, I believe their climate change numbers will become an eyeopener for others.

The GAMMAT companies are valued at more than ten trillion dollars. Their voices are loud, and their actions are taken seriously. Governments cannot solve the problem. If they work hand in hand with businesses and set some serious goals, the world’s big banks have said they are ready to provide the financing. I am optimistic about the future. Customers and investors are beginning to demand a focus on climate change. Big tech and small tech are showing leadership. It is not too late.

Epilog: If you want to get a taste of what it could be like if things do not go well, I recommend reading The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson.