Mapping the Road to a Climate Catastrophe Solution

Nov 29, 2010 9:30 AM ET


by Cynthia Figge

What if the Chief Technology Officers of leading global technology companies turned their attention to solving climate change? That’s exactly what they did at the FiReGlobal conference in Seattle several weeks ago, which I attended to hear several of these technologists address “the most critical problem facing the planet – the climate catastrophe.” It was clear that these were scientists and not marketers sensitive to what consumers like to hear about climate change (no dire news please).

Several years ago Mark Anderson, CEO and founder of The Strategic News Service (SNS), challenged CTOs at the SNS Future in Review Conference (FiRe), described by The Economist as “The best technology conference in the world,” to join in tackling the country’s most challenging design problems. Within the CTO Challenge framework, a group took on the problem of “Avoiding Climate Catastrophe.”

Anderson was among the first to provide a platform for addressing the relationship of sustainability to technology and global trends, and as an Advisor to SNS FiRe, I’ve hosted the Sustainability conversation at FiRe for eight years.

Larry Smarr, Founding Director of the Calit2 Lab at UCSD/ UCSD/Irvine (the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology) moderated the CTO panel at FiReGlobal. Smarr is a mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist. He is not a “sustainability” advocate. So when Smarr speaks, I listen anew.

“We knew what we needed to know 30 years ago,” he said – the data and models are just more refined now. Smarr showed a chart of the atmospheric CO2 levels for the last 800,000 years, which did not exceed 300 ppm (carbon dioxide concentration). Today we are at 388 ppm. And the 2100 Post-Copenhagen Agreements-MIT Model predicts 700-800 ppm. See the full report here

. In order to limit CO2 to 450 ppm “we have to peak four years from now,” Smarr says. “We have to de-carbonize over the next 50 years.” To rapidly reduce annual CO2 emissions, we must peak in 2015, and lower our emissions 50% by 2050, 80% by 2100.

How can we achieve this scenario? More clean energy adoption. A lot more. The chart below illustrates the contrast between our current level of clean energy adoption and the level needed to limit CO2 to 450 ppm -- the 2100 Ramanathan and Xu and International Energy Association (IEA) Blue Scenario.


The IEA, an agency of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, does the most detailed analysis of energy demand in the world. Their projections show we will double energy use by 2050. The question is, what fraction of this energy will be non-carbon?

There is already some movement toward de-carbonization in the corporate world. Smarr mentioned that a group of CEOs has formed the American Energy Innovation Council to convert the U.S. to non-carbon energy. The group includes Norman Augustine, Former CEO, Lockheed Martin, Ursula Burns, Chair and CEO, Xerox, John Doerr, Partner, Kleiner Perkins, Bill Gates, Chair, Microsoft, Chad Holiday, Chair, Bank of America, Jeff Immelt, Chair and CEO, GE, and Tim Solso, Chair and CEO, Cummins Engine. 

The panel agreed that the incentive for consumers is information, an idea that has been a key impetus behind the founding of my new venture CSRHUB. Site visitors can see the Environmental performance of over 5,000 publicly traded companies worldwide, and CSRHUB subscribers can see these 5,000+ companies’ performance on Energy and Climate Change.

“Getting the world to low carbon is what really matters. Engagement is the most critical thing, not technology. I’m not a diplomat, I’m a scientist,” Smarr said. “In the 50s we used to litter and throw things out the window. We don’t do this anymore. Now we dump CO2 out the window. If the government sets the rules of the game, the private sector can respond.”

Our recent political stalemate makes it difficult to foresee a time when these "government rules" will prevail. So in the meantime, let's take matters into our own hands and encourage companies to de-carbonize through our individual purchasing power!


CSRHUB gives consumers access to more than 80 sources of CSR information. The largest contribution of data comes from aggregating five of the eight leading SRI research firms. The CSRHUB database also aggregates information from publishers, NGOs, and three government agencies. Using a proprietary system for mapping and normalizing this broad range of information, CSRHUB provides consistent ratings on over 5,000 companies in North America, Europe and Asia.