Climate technology is suddenly everywhere in the news. It has a big responsibility and a big opportunity. Why?
· Humans are having a large, negative impact on the environment.
· We need technology to fix the negative impacts, support the environment and adapt to the changes that are already happening.
· Helping technology companies solve these problems with time, expertise, and resources is critical to giving us any chance of doing so.
The big story
Climate technology is any innovation that helps us live more sustainably, reduce our negative impacts, adapt to the changes or improve the environment.
I’ve been trying to live more sustainably for 12 years and working in climate technology from about 6 years ago. I read, listen, watch and talk to anything or anyone who can help me understand this problem more. After all of that work I think I still have more questions than answers. But there is a lot I feel confident about.
Humans have seen dramatic increases in prosperity and quality of life over the past two hundred years. The distribution of these improvements have been massively unequal between the wealthy and the poor but overall, humanity has moved to a place of healthier, longer, happier lives.
The cost of that improvement has come at the expense of a number of other parts of humanity, but by far the biggest has been the environment. We have dug up the earth, polluted the sky and thrown away rubbish with the negligent view that it’s all free. That there is no ‘other’ cost. That there will be no consequences.
But it isn’t free. There is a cost. There are consequences.
I’m sad to say that by 2030 we will look back and say “I can’t believe it got this bad, this fast.” Weather, food, health, sea levels, fish stocks, coral reefs. We will see the costs of our prosperity every day.
Despite this I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful. I’ve seen time and time again that humans, when needed, can join together to solve big problems quickly. Covid-19 showed us that.
The responsibility is on all of us. Every person. Every part of your life. Every act you can do. Every waste you can avoid. Every person you can inspire.
My favourite saying to consider for yourself here is;
“If not you, who? If not now, when?”
It nicely says that if you believe this is a real issue, then you can leave it to someone else but they probably won’t do it. Only you can control you. And if not now, when can you do it? When it’s too hot to live in much of the world? When sea rise causes evacuations of major cities? When we start running out of water? You. Now.
Yes this is a guilt trip and. Honestly, I don’t care. I have three kids and I’d like them to live in a good world.
And this responsibility falls more heavily on some than others. The wealthy of the world in particular. What good will your money be in your bank account when the planet is not livable? Spend it now, both in dollars and in time to make the impact. The wealthy have benefited most from the growth in prosperity and they have the best opportunity to invest that wealth in solutions. It might feel safe to just let these impacts harm the world's poorest, but as with every time in human history, when a society as a whole fails to look after its most vulnerable, it affects everyone.
I guarantee you that in 2030 you will be asking yourself “Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we spend more?” But again, you can only control yourself, so I’m asking now, personally, to each of you - Do more. Please.
I know it doesn’t sound like I’m optimistic but I am. Because what has changed in the world from 2019 to 2021 is that a real groundswell of people understands the scale and urgency of the problem. This includes individuals, business leaders and governments. Not all, but enough to kickstart this critical time in humanity.
One important change of perspective is that climate change has turned from a negative which costs money to a potential opportunity for growth. A lot of people can see that action to address climate change will touch almost every aspect of life and along the way create new careers, new jobs, new companies, new growth and even whole new industries. This is important as it changes the mindset from ‘avoid it’ to ‘embrace it’.
New growth means that instead of spending money, the transition the world makes to help the environment can make money. This sounds like more capitalistic excuses, and that’s partly correct, but right here, right now, it helps a lot. It means that governments and businesses can invest money into it and the end outcome can be sustainable businesses that pay people for long term jobs. Prior to 2019, most of the world saw climate, environmental or ‘greeny’ issues as charity work that you donate to. This has thankfully changed.
All this is very scary and exciting for technology people like me. Scary is the risk of not succeeding. Exciting is the many, big, and important problems to solve, with capital to fund the way and financially rewarding businesses if you succeed.
Part of this challenge is known. Find a great team, build a great product, discover the right business model, work out how to scale it. Some of the businesses will look and feel like the light SaaS, app or ecommerce technology businesses that have established skillsets, tools and methodologies. SaaS companies get to build on payment platforms, development libraries, analytics tools, people who’ve done it before and an industry to support them.
A big part of the climate tech challenge is unknown, or at least undeveloped. Climate technology often needs chemists, biologists, physicists, deep tech engineers and specialist researchers. They need to conduct experiments, build custom tooling and conduct long term research. They’ll need new skills, new tools and new methodologies. The village isn’t finished yet, but it’s growing now.
This is also an opportunity for new companies to fill those roles, the issue is that it will take longer. The first batch of climate tech companies were the clean tech companies of the last decade. They did the hard yards (and big losses) to get solar to the cost point where it can be the case study for what is possible. The next batch still have work to do and will have to grind through the trough of sorrow without the support of the flowing stream of an established industry. The infrastructure and new companies that provide it will form around them and then we’ll start to go faster.
The great news is that there is a huge wave of people diving in to help climate tech play its role in solving this huge problem. There is a lot to learn and a lot to do. Broadly what we need is highly motivated people, with deep skills across science, technology, business and leadership, all around the world. They will need both patience to make it down the hard road and impatience to move fast. They will need money to build a smart team and to pay for expensive prototypes.