At Web Summit, journalists, activists and innovators gathered to start a conversation about how they might hold the key to solving the climate crisis.
In 2013, the New York Times called Web Summit a “grand conclave of the tech industry’s high priests”. In just 4 years, the size and scope of the event has grown nearly 6 times over. Held in a massive complex perched along the picturesque shores of Lisbon, this year’s numbers boasted nearly 60,000 attendees from over 170 countries, firmly securing itself as the largest tech conference in Europe. One of the highest-attended sub-conferences was Planet Tech, an agglomeration of voices from every segment of society that had gathered to address the intersection of technology and climate change: the negative impact of tech companies on the social and physical realities of the planet, and the role they could play in tackling climate change.
Talks in the conference had an energetic buzz of modernisation, and included a wide range of topics such as the energy storage revolution, understanding the potential of a circular economy, and tech solutions to solve global problems such as the havoc wreaked by oceanic microplastics and world hunger.
In one panel, Nobel Prize Winner Joyoti Kirit Parikh sat side-by-side with representatives of startups like LanzaTech and ClimateWorks under the thought-provoking banner “Can technology save us from climate change?” Both tech companies work in customising technologies to capture and reuse carbon in the atmosphere. Amidst lofty assertions of carbon being “the new oil industry”, Parikh brought clarity to technology’s potential and called for efficiency and affordability. She asserted,
“If this technology is too inconvenient or expensive for people, they won’t use it… We are making great progress in energy efficiency, but we also need to think about consumption and our behaviour.”
A New Corporate Social Responsibility
Planet Tech was just one of many conferences held under the Web Summit banner, but almost all carried the undertones of a call for a new accountability for the tech industry. During a panel on the rising problem of ‘fake news’ manipulating public opinion and driven by social media, moderator and Managing Editor of the New York Times Joseph Khan emphasised the importance of impartiality in the tech industry as it interacts with the media. This talk comes as major tech companies like Facebook and Google met just one week earlier to testify as part of American congressional probes into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
Taking centre stage to speak about “Clearing the Path for Innovation”, European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager gave her perspectives on European competition policy and why safeguarding the equitable pulse of the market economy is key to a vibrant democracy in Europe. Co-founder and CEO of Web Summit Paddy Cosgrave said himself that the world needs new rules for powerful tech. He joins calls for tighter regulation of the tech industry to reel in economic externalities, including emissions that contribute to climate change.
Perhaps the most poignant call to account - as well as action - was the final speech given by Al Gore, former american Vice President and current chairman of The Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to solving the climate crisis. Before a unified Web Summit and an audience of nearly 20,000 in a the fully-packed Altice Arena, Mr. Gore made his call to action for all tech innovators and fellow inhabitants of the planet. His talk painted the drivers of the tech industry as having one of the biggest impacts on whether or not society can meet the efficiency and rationality requirements to meet the needs of a dying planet.
“The real answer to IF we can change--it will come from you. When the central question is boiled down to a binary choice between what’s right and what’s wrong then the outcome is preordained because of who we are. That is the tipping point of where we are right now in the climate movement. Everything is at stake. We need your help, we need your passionate involvement.”