Sep 19, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Big Tech takes the climate change lead

Photo illustration of a woman and her child in a flooded town with a tear revealing binary code

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photo: Jit Chattopadhyay/Pacific Press/LightRocket

The tech industry is playing a growing role in fighting climate change, from zero-carbon commitments to investments in startups and pushing for the use of data to encourage energy efficiency.

Why it matters: Big Tech is already dominating our economy, politics and culture. Its leadership in helping to address climate change — and reckon with its role in contributing to it — could have similarly transformative impacts.

Driving the news: Amazon and Shopify revealed the first recipients of their investment funds this week, comprising $2 billion and $5 million, respectively. Microsoft has a similar fund of $1 billion.

  • CarbonCure Technologies, which makes climate-friendly concrete, announced investments this week from Amazon and Microsoft (among others). Shopify is backing the firm by buying offsets, credits of CO2 stored in the concrete made by its technology.
  • Other startups receiving tech money this week include Pachama, which uses artificial intelligence to preserve forests, and TurnTide Technologies, which makes more efficient motors for a range of purposes, including HVAC and refrigerators.
  • Amazon isn't disclosing the exact amounts of the investments, but they range "from hundreds of thousands in seed and early-stage investments to multi-million dollar investments," spokesperson Luis Davila said.

"Each one has something very different to offer," Kara Hurst, Amazon's global lead on sustainability, said at a virtual Axios event Thursday. "But, there is a unifying theme that they are driving decarbonization and they have the potential to lower our carbon footprint."

The big picture: Tech firms have been leading investors into energy startups since 2016, according to the International Energy Agency.

But, but, but: Tech giants are under pressure from their employees and the public about their own carbon footprints, and especially their deals with oil and gas companies helping them extract more fossil fuels.

  • In what is likely at least a partial acknowledgement of that pressure, Microsoft announced this week it was partnering with BP to help the oil giant cut its emissions. BP would also supply renewable energy for the tech giant as it evolves away from oil.
  • “What you’ll see is a lot of the partnerships that we announce moving forward will have significant components to a net zero transformation as part of them," Lucas Joppa, Microsoft's chief sustainability officer, said in a recent interview with Axios.
  • Google announced this week that it's aiming to run all of its data centers and corporate campuses around the world on 100% carbon-free power by 2030. It said earlier this year it was not inking new deals with oil and gas firms (though it didn't have much business to begin with).

Between the lines: The amount of money the firms are investing is tiny compared to their bottom lines. PR concerns about corporate social responsibility is likely a driving factor too.

  • But “I don’t care about their motivations if it does some good,” says Nick Johnstone, chief statistician at the IEA.

The intrigue: Separate but related from the tech industry's investment ramp-up, a new coalition is forming called the Digital Climate Alliance. Revealed here for the first time, it will lobby lawmakers on ensuring digital solutions are part of climate policy.

  • Led by Intel and Johnson Controls, the group has six members and aims to more than double by next year. The coalition will lobby Congress to get a digital title into pending climate policy.
  • The other members are Trane Technologies, Xpansiv, The Water Foundry and Nautilus Data Technologies. At least one oil producer is likely to join, organizers of the group say.

How it works: One idea proposed in a recent peer-reviewed study is for tech companies to shift digital requests like web searches to data centers in locations where excess electricity, such as from solar in the middle of the day, is otherwise wasted.

  • Another component will assess emissions on a granular level, like a specific building or different types of fossil fuels.

What they’re saying: Digitizing energy data has “huge potential benefits” to cutting emissions, says Johnstone of the IEA. But there’s more.

  • “To be totally frank and not surprisingly, from the standpoint of our industry, it’s important because it’s a market,” said Intel policy director Stephen Harper. Intel’s chips help power data centers around the world.

Go deeper: Amazon stakes on climate startups

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