Washington Gov. Inslee calls for stronger environmental leadership from state tech industry, as Silicon Valley goes green

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a 2017 event in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

SAN FRANCISCO — West Coast tech leaders made the case this week that artificial intelligence, blockchain, machine learning, and big data are essential tools for solving the global climate crisis. At this week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, they argued for big tech’s environmental role both as a source of solutions and as an industry that needs to clean up its act.

“The business of business is not just about making money,” said Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. “Every CEO has to step up.”

But while many tech firms expressed commitments both at the Summit and at a related event held by the World Economic Forum, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee gave his state’s tech industry a mixed review on climate action. “We can use more vocal leadership from our local tech leaders in support of policies,” Inslee told GeekWire.

During the week’s events, Salesforce announced a goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2022 and leaning on its suppliers to set emissions reduction targets by 2025. The company, San Francisco’s largest private employer, said it will work out of only net zero carbon buildings in all new offices after 2020 and insist on LEED Platinum buildings for the remainder of its real estate footprint. All of these goals will be wrapped by a so-called “science-based target,” whereby companies agree to outside emission-reduction targets set by climate scientists rather than internally-generated metrics.

Salesforce CEO Benioff speaking about climate action. (World Economic Forum Photo)

“Every tech CEO can commit right now to a clean, carbon-neutral cloud,” Benioff said.

These new commitments were Salesforce’s contribution to the Step Up Declaration, spearheaded by the cloud-computing giant, which was signed this week by 20 other tech companies across the world. The companies likewise agreed to specific commitments to reduce their carbon footprints as a corporate contribution to meeting global climate goals under the Paris Agreement.

The tech industry’s foray into this environmental cause stems from a conviction that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be essential to monitoring and ultimately reducing planetary greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are hindered by the fact that we don’t know that much about the natural systems on which we rely,” said Stanford environment fellow Jim Leape. Leape spoke at an event tied to the Summit at the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco’s Presidio district. “We need highly granular, near-real time information,” he said.

For its part, Microsoft aims to achieve that information goal with the AI for Earth initiative, which produced a 10.5-trillion pixel land cover map of the U.S. at a one-meter scale in just 10 minutes of processing time, costing a mere $42. Such a high-resolution, cheaply-produced map is a boon for conservation groups looking to precisely track where carbon-sucking forests and wetlands are most at risk.

“That’s the exponential-scale change [where] artificial intelligence has to play a role — not just for technology corporations of the world but all the way down to the local environmental organizations working to create positive environmental change,” said Microsoft chief environmental scientist Lucas Joppa.

World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (World Economic Forum Photo)

At the same time, machine learning is not keeping up with the scale of satellite data available about planetary land use.

“We’re now streaming petabytes of information every day back down to Earth about what things look like,” Joppa said. “The data that we really need are [for] humans to go in and label those datasets, so that then we can teach the computers to do the same things that we taught them to do in the more general Information Age about who is who in a photo.”

Another possible transformation driven by real-time monitoring could rattle dirty businesses if investors are able to track day-by-day which companies are not meeting sustainable business practices.

“The ability to explode information like environmental footprint means you can’t hide,” Dominic Waughray, the World Economic Forum’s environmental lead, told GeekWire. “You then have to change the game about disclosure approach — real-time information will make the decision process much quicker about what you invest in and what you don’t.”

On Friday, the World Economic Forum released a report on blockchain’s potential to enable such real-time disclosures, while cautioning against the energy-hogging needs of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

At present, however, Waughray is not optimistic that venture capital is in lockstep with the environmental commitments endorsed by Salesforce and the other tech leaders who signed on to aggressive climate action this week.

“The venture capital community here is not mainstreaming triple-bottom-line approaches and not at the forefront of thinking about the ‘business with a purpose’ model,” Waughray said. “This is an area where much work is required.”

Salesforce CEO Benioff speaking about climate action. (World Economic Forum Photo)

That lack of public commitment to the global climate cause echoes in Washington state. None of the 21 companies who signed the Step Up Declaration this week were Washington based. And only one of the 94 U.S. companies that have committed to set science-based emission reduction targets, T-Mobile, is headquartered in Washington state.

The shortage of very public industry commitment was reflected in Governor Inslee’s mixed review.

“The tech industry has been spectacularly successful developing innovative products that can increase energy efficiency and cross-fertilize technologies for clean energy,” he said.

Inslee lauded SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers in Moses Lake, the world’s largest manufacturer of carbon fiber for electric vehicles, and UniEnergy’s vanadium redox flow batteries, made in Mukilteo. He also singled out for praise Microsoft’s internalized cost of carbon and the public support from Expedia and REI for Initiative 1631, the carbon fee on this November’s ballot which Inslee supports.

But that initiative comes after Inslee did not convince lawmakers in Olympia this year to pass his signature carbon tax proposal. While he does not blame the tech sector for that legislative failure, he called them out for not putting their greenest foot forward.

In addition to more vocal Washington state tech leader support of policies, Inslee said, “We can use more vocal advocacy, sharing of success stories, and bringing to the public a vision statement for a high-tech, clean-tech future.”

“No matter how spectacular the private sector is, we cannot tame climate change without policy,” he said.