Does big business have what it takes to tackle climate change?

Matthew Taylor's avatar
Matthew Taylor

Oceans, AI, and degrowth – these are just some of the environmental highlights from the 2023 event in Lisbon. Here’s what some of our speakers had to say about them. 

Web Summit 2023 brought together speakers from across the globe to discuss not just tech, but many of the things impacting society and the economy. 

There is perhaps no bigger topic than the environment, with the effects of climate change becoming more and more evident across the world every year.     

Here are some of the environment highlights at Web Summit 2023, from speakers including the filmmaker Craig Leeson, Melanie Nakagawa, Microsoft’s chief sustainability officer, and activist Sage Lenier.

Leaving the Earth cleaner than you found it

Earth is facing an incredible set of challenges. Leading innovators, startups, companies and activists came together at Web Summit to discuss solutions to humanity’s environmental crisis.

While advancing technologies are often detrimental to the environment, new tech might be the only way to clean our oceans and, in turn, save this dying planet.

“We need to invest in solutions that help us stop depleting the ocean’s resources. Every single technology that helps us catch [fewer oceanic creatures] will pollute less,” claimed climate VC Stephan Morais.

One potential solution is water cleanliness. Filmmaker Craig Leeson believes purifying the ocean is central to attacking environmental pollution and safeguarding our own health.

“We’re at the top of the food chain. So, ultimately, if we pollute the ocean, it’s not only affecting other species, but it’s affecting us. And we know that’s coming back to bite us in cancers, diabetes, hormone disruption, and endocrine disruption problems,” Craig said.

Will the machines save the planet?

AI could help us solve the climate crisis. That’s according to Melanie Nakagawa, Microsoft’s chief sustainability officer. One might reasonably ask how, given that the computational power required for expanded AI is already putting extreme pressure on emission-producing electrical grids.

Melanie was the first to acknowledge that this is a problem, stating that “next-gen AI comes with increased resource demands, and carbon-free electricity and efficiency will meaningfully impact demands on those emissions”.

But, according to Melanie, “AI has the power to unlock enormous possibilities in sustainability”.

The chief sustainability officer outlined several recent examples from a demo in London in recent months, including AI-powered audio tech that can massively reduce municipal water loss and wastage, and an AI solution for reducing loss in power across electrical grids, meaning that more can be produced with less.

‘Degrowth’ is an essential component of decarbonisation 

The tech sector is often viewed as a catalyst for high growth, and high growth is a hallmark of economic success in any economy. But at what cost?

Environmental activist Sage Lenier pointed out that the problem with high growth is what feeds it: “The way the economy works right now is just completely nonsensical. We’re taking resources from nature, turning them into things and landfilling them, only to extract more. And we’re running up against resource shortages.”

The Sustainable & Just Future founder made the case for what is known as ‘degrowth’ – the idea that people need to shrink the economy deliberately.

It sounds radical, particularly to a room full of investors. But, as Sage points out, climate action, when taken seriously, can’t always be business-friendly: “It has to go beyond solar panels and wind turbines, because we can look at the science and know that that’s actually not enough.”

Sacrifice is required, but is big business big enough to make the tough choices?

Web Summit Qatar takes place in Doha from February 26-29. Book your tickets now.

Main image: Web Summit


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