Big tech thinks it can solve climate change without confronting capitalism

At the Collision conference in Toronto, humanity is at the mercy of venture capitalists and CEOs
Photo: Collision Conference
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After making her way down a fake set of stairs designed to look like a fire escape in a back alley, Deborah Brosnan, a marine scientist and climate-risk expert, took the stage at the Collision conference in Toronto.

“The assumption is the sea is too big to fail,” she said — it’s why, despite the massive plastic pollution and environmental degradation, green ocean tech isn't getting nearly enough of the investment that it needs.

Just outside the stage areas, attendees nabbed free pens at a massive Walmart booth, designed to look like a delivery box — promotion for online retailing technology.

From June 21 to 23, Collision held the first edition of the massive tech conference since the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. Spanning three days in a downtown Toronto convention hall, thousands of people milled through booths promoting tiny startups and international tech giants. It’s a place that is meant for movers and shakers — meeting the right person could mean getting an angel investment or a new opportunity.

It’s against this backdrop that the “planet:tech” stream of the conference took place. On Wednesday afternoon, a line-up of green economy visionaries took to the stage to describe amazing projects they were working on — and ask for money.

Climate scientists warn we are not shifting fast enough to a low-carbon economy. Global temperatures are rising, fast. It feels like this should be the technology most entrepreneurs are investing in. But at Collision, it didn’t feel like the most urgent issue of our times. Instead, it felt like a sideshow to the wheeling and dealing outside.

"Major corporations love to tell us how committed they are to addressing the climate crisis and building a sustainable future, but behind closed doors, they are funding the very industry trade groups that are fighting tooth and nail to stop the biggest climate change bill ever."

In 2017, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that among the reasons there wasn’t more investment in renewable energy were risky investment conditions and confusing policies. This was two years after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement — yet many nations hadn’t made it easier to research and invest in technology that could reduce global temperatures.

That said, investment in green technology is rising. PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that in 2020 and 2021, there was about USD $87.5 billion invested into climate technology — about 14 cents of every venture capital dollar. However, this pales in comparison to investment in the oil and gas industry, which, even during the pandemic, was over USD $300 billion — a figure one oil industry think tank wants to see increased.

However, many companies are fighting measures that would force them to use greener technology, despite public declarations that say otherwise.

According to The Guardian, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Disney were among the companies that have lobbied against Joe Biden’s USD $3.5 trillion climate bill.

“Major corporations love to tell us how committed they are to addressing the climate crisis and building a sustainable future, but behind closed doors, they are funding the very industry trade groups that are fighting tooth and nail to stop the biggest climate change bill ever,” said Kyle Herrig, president of watchdog group Accountable.US, told The Guardian.

Where that green tech money goes also matters. Brosnan said remarkably little investment or philanthropic funds goes to ocean sustainability, rather than other efforts. Much of that has to do with how investors gauge risk and return — ocean projects are challenging, and can have a lot of hazards involved with them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile.

On the floor of the conference, small companies each had what amounted to a desk to promote their business. Behnam M. Goortani had crammed his with the tech he hopes will one day be ubiquitous across Canada. His company, GREENBMG, researches water desalination as well as solar technology that can produce warm water and electrical energy.

“One of our challenges so far has been in getting grants from governments,” he says.

Not long after, Gavin McCormick took the stage. He’s a founding member of the Climate TRACE coalition that is working to more accurately trace and record greenhouse gas emissions — needed because corporations do not provide accurate data when asked. Often, their most polluting activities are contracted to subsidiaries. This means the parent company can claim to be keeping emissions low, while a smaller, lesser known business produces most of the greenhouse gases associated with the product.

Whistleblower Aid CEO Libby Liu calls out greenwashing at the start of the climate section of the conference.
H.G. Watson

At the end of his presentation, McCormick made a request to his audience: to look at the data Climate TRACE will make public in the next 13 months and start their next business around it.

Out on the conference floor — and likely in the audience — were many of the same companies that are probably hiding their greenhouse gas emissions.

It does not seem hopeful to rest the future of humanity on venture capitalists and CEOs. Their goal is to make money, and, likely sooner than later, they’ll have to pivot to greener investments and practices if they want to keep dividends up. But climate change profiteering, driven by greed, means we’re more likely to have poor short-term decisions made rather than ones that benefit the planet. It’s a stark reminder that while technology is crucial if we are to halt global temperatures from rising, capitalism isn’t.

Goortani’s company focuses on education as well. He brings solar panels into schools to educate young people about renewable energy. “When youth are trained how solar energy works, they accept those changes,” Goortani says — and they tell other people how renewables work. He hopes by starting young, it will pave the way for more people to learn, and put their dollars into a green future.

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