What Does the Inflation Reduction Act Mean for Climate Tech?

Here are questions to ask about the bill’s impact on climate tech. In any case, it’s a huge and welcome step forward.

After almost two years of uncertainty and the ever-looming threat of losing the congressional majority without passing any major climate legislation, Democratic senators are finally ready to support a bill that offers incentives for crucial climate technologies.

Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced July 27 their intention to introduce the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA22) to the Senate floor. The main objective of the bill is to cut inflation, meaning impacts will be felt at every startup and legacy company with a large overhead and limited amount of capital. And hopefully, by every American.

The intricacies of the bill itself can be read at a plethora of other outlets already eloquently covering the general proposal. Instead, this article begins the process of asking questions about its potential impact on behalf of every stakeholder within the climate tech sector — the scientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and all related employees within clean energy.

Before asking initiative-specific questions, some initial queries:

  • Will the bill’s proposed tax credits benefit emerging technology companies or bolster already established corporations with a track record of steady production and economic stability? If both, how will that money be allocated?
  • Will the ability to take advantage of the financial incentives include diversity and equity requirements? As explained in the most recent Climate Tech Weekly newsletter, the number of funding deals for women-led businesses is still abysmally low, and the current data doesn’t break down the number of businesses led by entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous or people of color.
  • Will the rollout include accessibility standards and education initiatives, ensuring all Americans can understand and benefit from the bill and thus the technology being created?

On Manchin’s official website, he published a lengthy statement declaring, “…[to ensure] our country invests in the energy security and climate change solutions we need to remain a global superpower through innovation rather than elimination … As the superpower of the world, it is vital we not undermine our superpower status by removing dependable and affordable fossil fuel energy before new technologies are ready to reliably carry the load.”

Manchin’s phrasing left little to interpretation. The West Virginia senator requires the preservation of coal plants and use of oil for an undetermined time, alongside solar, wind, hydro, hydrogen and nuclear power generation nationwide. There is no specific mention of natural gas, but it’s safe to assume it’s inclusion within the fossil fuel category. These fossil fuels (and potentially hydrogen) require pipelines for transportation, adding a new category of questions to be considered.

Follow-up questions:

  • How will pipeline infrastructure be addressed?
  • Is there a technologically innovative way to create pipeline infrastructure ensuring minimal environmental and cultural impact (such as the protests that erupted in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline plan), and can old infrastructure be effectively repurposed?
  • Who will oversee the permitting and pipeline development process? Federal agencies? Government contracting to private corporations? Or will it be on a state-to-state basis?
  • It was reported that Alaskan land and the Gulf of Mexico will be available for new oil and gas drilling leases. Will the influx of previously unavailable fossil fuels affect the market for renewable energy, slowing down development and integration of available renewable technologies in deference to the familiar oil and gas? If yes, is there a contingency plan in place to combat that particular effect on the market?

Next, the bill claims that it will cut America’s GHG emissions 40 percent by 2030. The Washington Post reports that one path towards that goal includes $30 billion in production tax credits to increase U.S. manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and critical minerals processing, alongside $10 billion in investment tax credits to ensure that climate technology is built in the United States.

Follow-up questions:

  • What does the word “manufacturing” mean in this context? Literal construction of solar panels and wind turbines? Or does it also include infrastructure development vital to the distribution of this clean energy (including retrofitting older systems and grids, upgrading, if not overhauling, current energy infrastructure, and ensuring clean energy is available across the U.S. regardless of geographical location)? And will some of these funds be dedicated to technological innovation of this infrastructure?
  • As GreenBiz previously reported, using the power of green hydrogen, for example, requires the ability to safely and efficiently transport the hydrogen. Do the incentives apply to companies focusing on those transportation needs or solely to businesses creating hydrogen-fixing engines and other “green” renewable energy alternatives?
  • Will the federal government require companies taking advantage of tax incentives to submit annual or biannual reports reaffirming their eligibility for the incentives, ensuring taxpayer money is efficiently and effectively used for renewable energy and climate technology production? If yes, what will that look like? How will an auditing body be chosen?
  • What will be required of companies choosing to engage in this process? Will it require additional resources to legally and regularly comply?

One of the more surprising aspects of IRA22 is the inclusion of a 15 percent corporate minimum tax for companies generating more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The likes of Amazon, Google, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and Alphabet will take a financial hit. Each of these major tech companies also invest heavily in climate tech creation, funding numerous innovative climate tech startups and funds to produce much of the renewable energy and mitigation technology supported by IRA22.

Jamie Beck Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs, further elaborated on the complicated dilemma the corporate tax introduces. Referring to conversations held between Alexander and the big tech companies, Alexander said, “The same big tech companies [stated] if you remove any language around corporate taxes we can maybe support [the bill] but we cannot, we will not support anything that has a corporate tax like that on it.”

Alexander further stated that employees working with and for these multibillion-dollar companies should remain vigilant, adding pressure from within to ensure each company’s publicly stated environmental and social values remain an equal priority with their economic bottom line.

Follow-up questions:

  • Will the proposed 15 percent corporate tax impact the willingness of multibillion-dollar companies to invest and continually support climate tech funds and startups?
  • Will Amazon, Google, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, Alphabet and other companies covertly lobby to kill the bill secretly? Or, will they benefit from it because of all of the work and money already invested in the climate tech startup sector?
  • Or, most realistically, will it be a little bit of all of the above? Lobbying against the tax while also taking advantage of the benefits for their climate tech work?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. As the bill is 725 pages long, it will take time for all of the details to come to light. If/when IRA22 passes the Senate, it still needs to go through the House of Representatives for President Joe Biden to ratify. Policies will change, numbers will be slashed or engorged, and industry lobbyists will apply external pressure.

Until the bill becomes a law, the climate tech sector can only follow developments and prepare accordingly.

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What Does the Inflation Reduction Act Mean for Climate Tech?

Here are questions to ask about the bill’s impact on climate tech. In any case, it's a huge and welcome step forward.

Collective Action is Key to a Sustainable Future

Here are questions to ask about the bill’s impact on climate tech. In any case, it's a huge and welcome step forward.

Mentor Spaces Makes DEI Personal: SAP.iO Foundries Sustainability Spotlight

Here are questions to ask about the bill’s impact on climate tech. In any case, it's a huge and welcome step forward.

Confessions Of A Climate Convert

Here are questions to ask about the bill’s impact on climate tech. In any case, it's a huge and welcome step forward.

Collective Action is Key to a Sustainable Future

No one company can solve the climate crisis. But with inclusive policymaking, societal pressure, innovation, and greater financial support, each entity has its role and strengths to bring to the table.

While many organizations have already made concrete sustainability commitments, it’s increasingly clear that more needs to be done to expand positive impact and contribute to meaningful change.

The events of the past two years have served to emphasize the effect we’re all having on the planet and our responsibility to it, resulting in a growing need for businesses, policymakers, and individuals to work together, with greater accountability and urgency, to drive a sustainable future for all.

Further, amid the so-called Great Reshuffle, more employees are looking to employers to take action to address the issues they care deeply about – including sustainability. According to Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, younger generations rank climate change as a top societal concern. And now, with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent proposal to introduce new climate-related disclosures, eyes will increasingly be on what organizations are doing when it comes to sustainability commitments. So, how can businesses ensure they’re keeping pace?

Now is the time for more collective action. We know that greater success can be achieved when companies, policymakers, employees, and customers work together towards collective goals. Below are just some of the ways organizations can build and supercharge a sustainability ecosystem to help scale solutions for long-term, actionable success.

Identify – and share – your own sustainability commitments 

As companies navigate today’s changing world, operating with purpose is no longer a ‘nice to have,’ particularly when it comes to climate impacts. It’s critical to the bottom line, especially as employees and partners want to be associated with companies that are doing right by both the environment and their communities. And more and more, customers are looking at their vendors and suppliers with an equally discerning eye to ensure sustainability efforts align.

To build trust among all stakeholders, it’s essential to clearly communicate company values, share your ambitious targets, and be transparent with all relevant metrics along the way. Whether it’s committing to achieve net-zero carbon emissions within a set timeframe, or joining the Science Based Targets initiative’s Business Ambition for 1.5°C, leading companies are establishing benchmarks that can be regularly evaluated by all stakeholders.

These commitments and transparency not only drive an inclusive culture and pave the way for strong talent retention and recruitment, they will also help organizations meet the requirements of future reporting mandates.

Partner with policymakers, nonprofits, and customers

The world’s climate challenges can’t be solved by one single organization or entity, but require advocacy, partnership, and most importantly, action. It’s important that organizations look outside of themselves and work together to create meaningful impact.

By working with policymakers, businesses can, for example, help advocate for and shape government policies that aid the transition to a low-carbon economy, support an equitable and just transition for workers in carbon-intensive industries, and support the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

But this is just one way to bolster your organizational impact. Companies – big and small – can also work with nonprofits, NGOs, or other like-minded organizations on joint advocacy efforts to increase their efficacy in this field. Organizations could partner with suppliers to invest in utility-scale clean energy, for example. By working together on projects and taking action as a collective unit, whether via monetary contributions, innovation capabilities, or other kinds of support, the scale they can reach together is far greater.

Some organizations are also uniquely positioned to develop or source products that help support their customers in achieving their own climate-related goals. Whether by supplying solutions to customers or collaborating with them to co-innovate climate solutions, these organizations can further strengthen their sustainability ecosystems and help entire industries achieve mutual climate objectives – really moving the needle on scaling positive impact.

Encourage and foster employee involvement

To further enhance your company’s sustainability success, leaders can also harness the shared power and enthusiasm of their employees. By understanding the changes they want to see and what matters most to them, leaders can make informed decisions and help shape the strategy in a way that means most to their people. Research from Workday Peakon Employee Voice tells us how important ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) topics are to employees, with analysis of 19 million comments from more than 1.8 million employees, revealing that ESG was one of the most prominent discussion topics in employee survey comments last year

With mechanisms for real-time employee feedback, companies can identify how their people are feeling, and then drive change accordingly, to nurture a great place to work for all. This has important implications for attracting and retaining talent, particularly when you consider that employees at purpose-driven organizations are three times more likely to stay. And when everyone at an organization feels heard and empowered to drive positive change, you’re more likely to sustain momentum on your sustainability journey too.

No one company can solve the world’s climate issues. But sustainability success can be supercharged through taking collective action now. Whether it’s increasing participation in the policymaking process, applying greater societal pressure, spurring technological innovation, or providing greater financial support, each entity has its role and strengths to bring to the table. And never has there been a more important time to deliver on that.

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No one company can solve the climate crisis. But with inclusive policymaking, societal pressure, innovation, and greater financial support, each entity has its role and strengths to bring to the table.

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No one company can solve the climate crisis. But with inclusive policymaking, societal pressure, innovation, and greater financial support, each entity has its role and strengths to bring to the table.

Mentor Spaces Makes DEI Personal: SAP.iO Foundries Sustainability Spotlight

Chris Motley made it to the top with help from his community. A virtual mentorship program he founded aims to attract under-represented talent—and help companies deliver on diversity promises on a larger scale.

Chris Motley wasn’t set up to succeed. Born to an eighth grader on Chicago’s south side, the African-American boy was bright but given few advantages by society. Until, that is, a family friend mentioned to his mother the nonprofit A Better Chance, which aims to help gifted children of color get great educations. That was the break that led to opportunity. Before long, the teenaged Motley—a star student—found himself telling his story to donors at a Manhattan dinner at Cipriani that was presided over by 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley.

“This guy approached me and said, ‘My boss and I are really interested in you working at our company,’” Motley recalls. “I said, ‘Well, what is your company?’” It was no less than Goldman Sachs. What followed was a series of big successes: a degree from Columbia, an MBA from Northwestern, and successful runs as a commodities trader and international businessman. But Motley’s latest venture may be his most challenging and rewarding: Giving other young people their own better chances.

In 2020 Motley launched a virtual mentorship platform, Mentor Spaces. Its aim: To give those traditionally shut out of top employment opportunities a way in, via meaningful conversations that build confidence and social capital. The startup also hopes thereby to help companies deliver on DEI promises. Corporations and universities are responding. UBS and T-Mobile as well as Howard University and Spelman College are among its founding members, and Motley estimates the average ROI for participating businesses is $1.5 million annually. The platform’s community includes young graduates as well as executives, HR professionals, and college administrators. Mentors and mentees are matched by interest, and interact via group sessions, one on one conversations, and threads where members are able to ask questions, advise each other and ultimately hire or get hired. A sample question company executives might receive: “What impresses you the most when you are hiring for your team?”

It’s not hard to see why Mentor Spaces appealed to SAP, whose sustainability mission includes achieving zero inequality in the workplace. It practices a “no boundaries” policy with its accelerator program SAP.iO. According to Kange Kaneene, vice president for SAP.iO Foundries in North and Latin America and the Caribbean, “that means we prioritize companies founded or led by people whose share of venture capital funding in the technology industry is proportionally less than their share of the population.” The accelerator offered Motley a spot in an SAP.iO cohort called “Future of Work,” in San Francisco.

For Motley, the program was valuable not only for the months-long, ahem, mentorship opportunity, but because it’s designed to create a longer-term partnership between SAP and Mentor Spaces. Kaneene explains: “We’re building an ecosystem of startups that extend the value of our solutions to drive sustainable impact.” How that looks in practice: Upon completion of the accelerator, each startup is integrated into an  SAP solution best suited to it, so SAP clients can gain seamless access to the startup’s products or services. The Foundry experience wasn’t always easy, Motley says. “We do what they call Dolphin Tank, which is the nice version of Shark Tank. You have three minutes to pitch to huge SAP clients like PepsiCo, and everyone gives you feedback on what could have been improved. Ours was, ‘It’s great to know what you do. But what would be better is if you gave us a case study. Your whole pitch should be in the form of showing us what you did for a customer.” Today, he says, “That was tremendous feedback. Because our ratio of show versus tell was inverted, and now it’s not.”

Mentor Spaces has been integrated with SAP’s human resources tech product SAP SuccessFactors, where customers go to tackle issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and which is listed in the SAP Store. Motley says starting Mentor Spaces has helped him see the value in his own story. “I’m an example of a person of color who has sort of matriculated through high-performing organizations. And I was hearing this problem of, ‘Hey, we want to do a better job of attracting and hiring and retaining underrepresented talent.’ I started realizing that there aren’t that many Black entrepreneurs doing HR tech, and certainly not with the unique perspective that I bring to the table. I thought, why not start my first tech company?”

 

For more on SAP’s sustainability solutions and software, visit their portfolio here.

Learn more about SAP.iO Foundries here and about Mentor Spaces here.

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Mentor Spaces Makes DEI Personal: SAP.iO Foundries Sustainability Spotlight

Chris Motley made it to the top with help from his community. A virtual mentorship program he founded aims to attract under-represented talent—and help companies deliver on diversity promises on a larger scale.

Confessions Of A Climate Convert

Chris Motley made it to the top with help from his community. A virtual mentorship program he founded aims to attract under-represented talent—and help companies deliver on diversity promises on a larger scale.

GE & NASA Successfully Test Hybrid Electric System For High-Altitude Planes

Chris Motley made it to the top with help from his community. A virtual mentorship program he founded aims to attract under-represented talent—and help companies deliver on diversity promises on a larger scale.

Confessions Of A Climate Convert

How Jim McCann, the founder and chairman of 1-800 Flowers and Clarim Media, changed his mind about the urgency of climate change.

As my family can attest, admitting when I am wrong has never been easy for me; but I feel it is important that I share a recent, if rather late, realization I had. Before attending the Techonomy Climate event in March, I didn’t fully understand the scope and importance of the climate crisis. I am sharing my experience and perspective in the hopes that I may inspire some of my like-minded peers to grasp not only the urgency of this issue but also the tremendous business opportunities it holds.

Like many of my friends and colleagues, my sense of purpose has always lain with the protection and prosperity of my family, friends and employees. I think this worldview is both natural and understandable. In the wake of WWII, with the emergence of today’s middle class, society’s priorities became capitalist and commerce centric. The American dream that we all know so well—rising to the top of the economic food chain through hard work and determination—allowed Americans to generate a level of prosperity that hadn’t been possible before. As a nation, we ran full speed ahead. For decades. And now, we are left to rectify our hastily made mistakes. The good news, however, is that we can fix this problem the same way we created it—through innovation and capitalism.

The Techonomy Climate event demonstrated just how much business potential there is in preventing global warming. Speakers like Bill GrossMaddie HallFred Krupp and Michael Dunne inspired the audience, myself included, to a new sense of urgency and animation. They showed how technology can help us repair the damage done to our climate and surprisingly, some of the solutions are both simple and profitable.

Bill Gross’s strides in the energy conservation industry lean on the application of basic physics—using potential energy to store clean energy harvested from natural resources like wind and solar. His kinetic innovation serves as a replacement for batteries, which require harmful chemicals such as lithium, to store energy. Emphasizing that the transition to green energy will be bigger than the industrial revolution, Gross showed how big players can generate and store the same amount of energy, just as efficiently as with batteries, in a cleaner, more reliable way.

Another of Gross’s companies, Heliogen, is working to “replace fossil fuels with concentrated sunlight.” They are doing this by using AI to continually reposition mirrors so that they reflect as much light as possible, effectively generating enough heat energy to create a viable alternative. Heavy industries, like cement making, steel making, and mining use massive amounts of heat energy to power their machines. Together, they generate 35 percent of all emissions. “Right now, they burn the dirtiest [stuff] to get that heat; we can give them that heat for zero carbon from the sun,” Gross said. While transitioning over to green energy would be a massive undertaking for these companies, what’s the harm in trying? The technology is there. And more than that, it has been scaled and proven to be more affordable and reliable. Why not shift to a more sustainable alternative that pumps no emissions into the air and is more efficient in the long run?

A common perception is that there is no point in switching to more sustainable methods because the rising temperature of the earth is a natural part of its cycle. I understand this sentiment, but we are in uncharted territory when it comes to the sheer volume of pollutants we are emitting. Gross pointed out that in his lifetime alone, CO2 emissions have gone from 315 parts per million to 415. That is a staggering increase and to go back in time, we need thousands of innovators working on projects like his (all of which need investors).

But it is not just our atmosphere that bears the marks of our mistreatment. Every single year, tens of millions of tons of plastic are dumped into our planet’s oceans. It was anticipated that this debris would float on the ocean’s surface, but it turns out that less than one percent of all the plastic ever dumped in the ocean actually does. The other 99.8 percent sinks to the bottom in the form of microplastics, tampering with the ancient cleansing cycle our planet has employed since the dawn of time. And the number one offender for this clogging? Our tires. Every few years, we need to replace our tires because they wear down. In March, a question on my mind was, “where does that erosion go?” And sure enough, a 2017 study revealed that tire erosion accounts for as much as 10 percent of all microplastics currently polluting our oceans. Krupp is highly aware of this issue and, as president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), is encouraging automakers to eliminate pollution from all light-duty vehicles by 2035. The environmental impact of our tires, more than anything, made me realize how ingrained our harmful habits are in our everyday lives. Which is why we need innovators.

Startups like Maddie Hall’s Living Carbon, are examples of the endless opportunities in finding solutions that make an impact. Amazingly, Living Carbon uses biotechnology and extensive research to harness the power of plants to draw out and store carbon. With the mission of rebalancing the carbon cycle, Living Carbon is effectively speeding up evolution to counteract the unnaturally fast damage we were able to inflict. Luckily, not only are humans capable of evolving beyond what our earth was able to support, we are also capable of speeding up the evolution of the balancing agents around us.

For investors, opportunities created by the transition to green energy and emerging biotech should not be the only things on their minds. As Michael Dunne pointed out, there is an international imbalance when it comes to the supply of non-renewable resources. China has a death grip on the global manufacturing and supply of batteries. With the U.S. comprising only about 5 percent of the world’s battery manufacturing, we are leagues behind. For the U.S. to truly become a global leader and protect our national security as this energy shift transforms the market, we must be cognizant of how we measure up to other countries. This is the time to reevaluate whether we want to continue to fight a losing battle over control of a limited resource or shift our attention to renewable resources that can be harvested right here at home for a fraction of the cost. We just need big players to commit to this energy shift and work with fellow business leaders like Bill Gross to make it happen.

Join Jim McCann for more climate conversations at The Health + Wealth of Our Planet event on September 20th in NYC. 

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How Jim McCann, the founder and chairman of 1-800 Flowers and Clarim Media, changed his mind about the urgency of climate change.

Mentor Spaces Makes DEI Personal: SAP.iO Foundries Sustainability Spotlight

How Jim McCann, the founder and chairman of 1-800 Flowers and Clarim Media, changed his mind about the urgency of climate change.

Confessions Of A Climate Convert

How Jim McCann, the founder and chairman of 1-800 Flowers and Clarim Media, changed his mind about the urgency of climate change.

GE & NASA Successfully Test Hybrid Electric System For High-Altitude Planes

How Jim McCann, the founder and chairman of 1-800 Flowers and Clarim Media, changed his mind about the urgency of climate change.

GE & NASA Successfully Test Hybrid Electric System For High-Altitude Planes

GE demonstrated breakthroughs in hybrid electric flight and hydrogen-powered aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow, after a four-year break. One highlight: GE and NASA announced the successful test of high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components at high-altitude conditions.

It’s been four years since aviation fans, industry executives, aerospace engineers and investors last descended on the local airport in Farnborough, a quiet town about an hour southwest of London. Normally, the Farnborough International Airshow takes place every two years, alternating with the Paris Air Show. Together, they are the focal point for the aerospace industry. The pandemic disrupted this rhythm, but this summer, the Farnborough show was back on track.

Farnborough allows aviation watchers to take stock of the latest developments in the industry. Airlines come here to purchase new planes and engines for their fleets. Aircraft builders unveil their new plans, and engine-makers, like GE, display the latest technologies, including exciting announcements involving the future of hybrid electric flight.

Electric cars have become common, but building a commercial electric plane is a different story. Just ask Mohamed Ali, vice president for engineering at GE Aerospace. “Electric motors behave very differently at altitudes above 10,000 feet,” he says. “They are susceptible to plasma arcing, for example, and much more difficult to manage.”

But Ali has some good news for the industry. Speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow in England last week, Ali, together with NASA, announced they have become the first to successfully test high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components at high-altitude conditions. The technology GE is advancing “will help make hybrid electric flight a reality for everyday commercial air travel, and it should have a real and necessary impact on the carbon emissions associated with flying,” Ali says.

Specifically, GE and NASA ran a megawatt-class, multi-kilovolt hybrid electric system in conditions simulating altitudes up to 45,000 feet. One megawatt could supply the equivalent of more than 600 U.S. houses. “This proves that we are altitude ready,” Ali says. “Next is to prove that we are flight ready.”

The test took place at NEAT — NASA’s Electric Aircraft Testbed facility — the only facility currently capable of simulating high-electric and high-altitude conditions that’s also large enough to fit an electric powertrain. “NEAT is the only testing location capable of simultaneously providing both high electric power and high-altitude conditions in an area large enough to fit an entire electric powertrain — it’s truly one of a kind in the world,” says NASA’s Tim McCartney, director of aeronautics at the Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland.

GE has spent years developing the power system, building on its expertise in electric motors and generators, power converters, power transmissions and power control systems.

Testing of GE’s hybrid electric propulsion system will continue as part of NASA’s Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) project.

Next, GE will partner with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences to test the system in the air on a Saab 340B plane using GE’s CT7 engines. Bryan Yutko, vice president and chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility at Boeing, called the completed test “an important, foundational achievement.”

Single-aisle planes could make up 70% of the world’s rapidly growing commercial aviation fleet in the near future. With aviation accounting for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, hybrid electric propulsion technologies could help bring the number down.

Hybrid electric technology is also compatible with sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen, and with new efficient engine designs like the open-fan concept.

In other exciting news from the air show, CFM International – a 50-50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines – and Airbus announced an agreement to flight-test the open fan propulsion system being developed under the Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engine (RISE) program on the A380. The RISE program was launched last year, and its work contributes to helping the aerospace industry achieve net-zero emissions and flight.

Around the mid-2020s, the team plans to mount the engine on a modified Airbus 380 for flight testing, with the goal of placing a hydrogen-powered passenger plane into service about 10 years later. Such a plane would produce zero CO2 emissions during flight.

Throughout the Farnborough Airshow, GE joined industry leaders to address other pressing topics, including sustainable aviation fuel, flight efficiency, and next-generation engines – all areas in which GE continues to lead.

GE has been coming to Farnborough since it first opened its gates in 1948, and we invite you to check out GE Reports for more from this year’s airshow.

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GE demonstrated breakthroughs in hybrid electric flight and hydrogen-powered aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow, after a four-year break. One highlight: GE and NASA announced the successful test of high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components...

Mentor Spaces Makes DEI Personal: SAP.iO Foundries Sustainability Spotlight

GE demonstrated breakthroughs in hybrid electric flight and hydrogen-powered aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow, after a four-year break. One highlight: GE and NASA announced the successful test of high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components...

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GE demonstrated breakthroughs in hybrid electric flight and hydrogen-powered aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow, after a four-year break. One highlight: GE and NASA announced the successful test of high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components...

GE & NASA Successfully Test Hybrid Electric System For High-Altitude Planes

GE demonstrated breakthroughs in hybrid electric flight and hydrogen-powered aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow, after a four-year break. One highlight: GE and NASA announced the successful test of high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components...

Business May Be Our Only Hope For Climate

Our crises grow. Governments are slow to act. Business has an opportunity and a responsibility to take the reins, and even to save the world.

These are not ordinary times for business. Nor are they ordinary for the world. This is a crisis time. We face challenges that, if not addressed, could doom us. Businesses must thus behave differently going forward.

As a 35-year business journalist, I doubt if I could or would ever have written such words in the past. But today I look around at how much our climate is degrading, how political life is cheapening and failing to address our challenges, and how even democracy feels frighteningly precarious, at home and around the world. We at Techonomy find things to be, decisively, different. 

So since our work here is convening leaders to better understand paths to progress, and how tech and business can help, we are underscoring the urgency of the changes needed for business. Since the government has almost completely failed to take sufficient action to halt global warming, it appears business is the only part of society that can move quickly enough to save us all from enormous global suffering. Too many are suffering already. (Here is the World Meteorological Organization’s Severe Weather Information Center.)

Fifty years ago the Club of Rome published its celebrated and highly-influential report The Limits to Growth. The report was based on early computer models that simulated the environmental and social consequences of continuing on the path the world was on. It concluded that continued headlong economic growth would essentially doom us all, unless the world made conscious efforts to take stock of effects on planetary resources, emphasizing global fairness and equality. Failing to consider all would doom all. Now, sadly, in a new book from the Club of Rome, Limits and Beyond, the group’s co-presidents write: “We have collectively wasted 50 years of valuable time.” 

Club of Rome co-president Sandrine Dixson-Declève will speak at our upcoming conference on business and sustainability in New York—The Health+Wealth of Our Planet. It’s September 20, hosted jointly by Techonomy and Worth, our sibling media company. Dixson-Dècleve will help us understand how bad it is and the scope of changes we must make now.

We have wasted too much time, but at least today more activists and those who study climate, business and society recognize that everything is connected. We cannot remediate climate change without addressing inequality. It is just untenable. This is a collective problem, for a world that has failed to think collectively, time and time again. The U.S. and Europe cannot solve the problem, for one thing, without engaging, encouraging, and helping the developing nations. Those less advantaged places, many of them in the tropics, have suffered disproportionate harm even as they emitted far fewer greenhouse gasses. Now they need their own often-still-impoverished societies to grow. It is impossible to deny them that. But if they grow and use resources like we have, everything is over. A new model for fair and inclusive global growth and development must emerge. But governments, increasingly buffeted by xenophobic nationalists, seem less and less likely to take the steps we need. So climate action means business must act. 

Our September conference will focus resolutely on the need for business to proceed, from now on, only if it can contribute, not detract from, environmental and social health.

This is a significant shift that most business leaders are not prepared for. Business is building the systems that run global society. They cannot destroy the planet and the environment, because we will suffer if they do. And customers, partners, and other stakeholders will simply eventually stop doing business with harmful companies.

So to help a global audience, in town for the United Nations Global Assembly and Climate Week, understand how we all can proceed from here, we are gathering leaders from across business on September 20. Along with Dixson-Dècleve you’ll hear chief sustainability officers from companies like Ericsson and U. S. Steel, visionary thinkers like Seth Godin, who just published The Carbon Almanac: It’s Not Too Late (“The definitive source for facts and the basis for a global movement to fight climate change.”), activists like Julia Jackson, who runs the NGO Grounded (“A community for action and viable solutions that can mitigate the worst impacts of our climate emergency.”), leaders of climate and sustainability startups, an inclusion software leader, and CEOs of companies taking serious action. All will be there for this day-long event.

It’s no ordinary time, so it will not be an ordinary conversation. We’re privileged to be able to host it at the beautiful and spacious City Winery in Chelsea. 

Join us for as much of the day as you can. Help us figure out where we should all go next.  Register here at an early discounted rate.

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Specright Helps Product Specs Go Green: SAP.iO Foundries Sustainability Spotlight

Product specifications are key to manufacturing, yet haven’t had a streamlined digitized platform up until now. A new tool changes the game, and allows companies to enhance the bottom line as well as reduce their carbon footprint.

Disruptive crackers. It might not sound like the next revolution in industry but, in fact, it could be. Aiming to be the world’s first carbon negative food company, Bright Future LLC is on a mission to reverse climate change through nutrients. Financed by Post—the business behind Raisin Bran and Chips Ahoy! cookies, among many other products—it’s been given the freedom to operate with the agility and ingenuity of a disrupter. Airly, as its new brand is called, produces a snack described as “oat clouds” in flavors ranging from cheddar cheese to salted caramel.

And yet: How can Bright Future Foods be certain its products are helping in the fight against climate change and, if they are, how much? Can they be guaranteed down to the last gram of carbon? Enter Specright, one of the startups that went through SAP’s SAP.iO Foundries, a no equity ask global accelerator program. Created by 25 year packaging industry veteran Matthew Wright, Specright provides digitized exact and reliable data on the thousands of specifications that go into even simple-seeming products. Think about all the elements that have to be considered. Everything from a red lipstick’s gold label to its teeny-tiny measurements to its printed foil packaging materials must be accounted for. The same would go for, say, a tractor, down to the last screw. Yet, prior to Specright, such details for products were generally handled with little common language, and circulated within companies using primitive methods like email and spreadsheets, if they were managed at all.

Wright calls this new category of software “Specification Management” and Specrright’s software solution is the first patented, cloud-based Specification Management Platform. Clients ranging from Jack in the Box to Johnson & Johnson to Colgate extol its clean look and ease of use. Wright cites Steve Jobs as his inspiration. “I remember the days when you bought a computer and it was a day project to try to get something operating. Even then you had to read a book to use it. All of a sudden these Apple computers came out, and you took it out of the box and were doing stuff in ten minutes…I’m trying to do the same thing with industrial software.”

SAP.iO, which operates 11 global “foundries” for startups (though the pandemic has led some to operate virtually), is highly selective. Out of a field of company candidates that typically can reach as many as 700, just six to eight startups are chosen per “cohort,” or individual group. SAP works with the companies for three months around a theme; Specright’s group was focused on consumer and retail sustainability solutions. Upon graduation, the companies are integrated into SAP’s cloud software offerings as vetted and safe tools.

SAP prioritizes the program because it gives its clients opportunities to contribute to a zero waste economy and a path towards priorities like decarbonization, through working with disruptive small companies that put sustainability first. “It’s the fastest way for startups to launch a relationship with SAP,” says Kange Kaneene, vice president for  SAP.iO Foundries in North and Latin America and the Caribbean. Startups receive high-level mentor support and access to SAP’s top-quality instruction, of course, but they’re also vetted to make sure they’re ready for the opportunity to work with SAP’s partners. “We want them to have at least three or more enterprise customers before joining,” says Kaneene, “which to us means a company that has $1 billion annual revenue or more. Otherwise, when SAP is introducing them to customers it’s hard. I can’t just say, ‘Okay, here’s an introduction to L’Oreal and P&G and Google.’ We have to make sure they have the capacity to consume that business.”

Specright doesn’t focus just on the carbon implications of products and environmental responsibility. It helps companies overcome numerous broad challenges wrought by the rise of big box retailers and consumers that demand ever-faster service and ever more diversified products. (Insiders call this  phenomenon “SKUzilla”.) But even in other scenarios, sustainability is highlighted by its software. When rampant SKU duplication is eradicated, companies can more strategically optimize packaging across their product portfolio or when a supplier is chosen by factoring in its eco credentials as well as its broader track record, the environment wins too.

Specright completed the Foundry program earlier this year, culminating in working with the SAP team on an integration that is now available as part of the Specright solution listed in the SAP store. “We just had a huge expansion with Caterpillar today,” Wright says, and cites Colgate as another company integrating it more globally because of SAP’s imprimatur. “Those types of companies care that SAP supports and integrates with our solution.”

Sounds like a sustainable business—and a sustainability win. And yes, one that was helped along by cracker “clouds.”

 

For more on SAP’s sustainability solutions and software, visit their portfolio here.

Learn more about SAP.iO Foundries here and about Specright here.

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‘Soil Isn’t Forever’: Biodiversity Needs Protection Below the Ground

We know more than ever about the abundance of life in the soil. Now we have to step up to save it.

Look down. You may not see the soil beneath your feet as teeming with life, but it is.

Better scientific tools are helping us understand that dirt isn’t just dirt. Life in the soil includes microbes like bacteria and fungi; invertebrates such as earthworms and nematodes; plant roots; and even mammals like gophers and badgers who spend part of their time below ground.

It’s commonly said that a quarter of all the planet’s biodiversity lives in the soil, but that’s likely a vast understatement. Many species that reside there, particularly microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and protists, aren’t yet known to science.

“Published literature has only just begun to unravel the complexity of soil biological systems,” a 2020 study by researchers from University of Reading found. “We barely know what is there, let alone their breadth of functional roles, niche partitioning and interaction between these organisms.”

But what scientists do know is that healthy and biodiverse soil communities support a wide variety of functions that sustain life on Earth. That includes nutrient cycling, food production, carbon storage and water filtration.

What happens belowground supports life aboveground. And not surprisingly, if that underground biodiversity is threatened, so are the important functions that soil performs.

“When soil organisms begin to disappear, ecosystems will soon start to underperform, potentially hindering their vital functions for humankind,” wrote researchers in a 2020 Science study.

Threats

Unfortunately there’s evidence that soil biodiversity is decreasing today — how badly is still a matter researchers are working to determine. By just one metric, studies found that 60–70% of soils in the European Union are now unhealthy.

The threats there — and across the world — are numerous.

The Reading University researchers narrowed them down to five main areas:

  • Human exploitation, including intensive agriculture, pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified organisms.
  • Land-use change like deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and soil sealing.
  • Soil degradation from compaction, erosion, and loss of nutrients.
  • Climate change, which influences temperature and moisture.
  • The growing threat from plastic pollution.

“Land changes [like intensive agriculture] are right up there with climate change,” says Diana H. Wall, a biology professor at Colorado State University and director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability. “Because what we’re doing is tearing up the soil. And that’s the habitat for all these species.”

When we lose biodiversity in the soil it leads to a decrease in the soil’s ability to withstand disturbances — that could cause a loss of important functions and even more biodiversity.

Knowledge Gaps

Much like new molecular tools have helped researchers understand the microbiome in people’s guts, scientists can now also learn much more about the tiny organisms living in the soil, says Wall. But while research about soil biodiversity is growing, there are still significant knowledge gaps.

2020 study on “blind spots” in global soil biodiversity and ecosystem function found that most research focused on a single sampling event and didn’t study how soil changed in the same area over time, which the authors say is “essential for assessing trends in key taxa and functions, and their vulnerability to global change.”

The research has also been geographically unbalanced, they found. Temperate areas, which include broadleaved mixed forests and the Mediterranean, have received more study than many tropical areas, tundra or flooded grasslands.

This is not a new problem: Another study revealed that we lack historical information on soil biodiversity that would make it possible to understand baselines on previous land cover and local drivers of biodiversity. Without understanding past conditions, it’s not clear how things are changing or why.

Knowledge gaps aren’t just limited to science, either. When it comes to policy, national and international bodies lack systematic ways to monitor and protect soil biodiversity.

“At the global scale, soil biodiversity is still a blind spot: most Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity neither protect soils nor their biodiversity explicitly,” found a study published in April in Biological Conservation.

Taking Action

Efforts to better study and protect soil biodiversity have begun to ramp up.

One is the Soil Biodiversity Observation Network (Soil BON), co-led by Wall, which is a coordinated global project to monitor soil biodiversity and ecosystem function to help inform policy.

Wall also leads the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, a volunteer scientific network of more than 4,000 researchers who are studying the vulnerability of belowground biodiversity. The group recently sent a letter to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity urging action to protect soil biodiversity.

“Knowledge of the importance of the vast diversity of fauna and flora that inhabit soil and sustain all life aboveground should be recognized and included in global policies for the protection, restoration, and promotion of biodiversity,” the group wrote.

Europe isn’t waiting for the U.N. to take action.

The Farm to Fork Strategy, part of the European Green New Deal, calls for better soil protection, including cutting pesticide use in half by 2030. The European Union also launched the Zero Pollution Action Plan for Air, Water and Soil that aims to improve soil quality. And the EU could push further action with a planned Soil Health Law in 2023.

And while soil health demands more big government efforts, there are a lot of changes at the local level and by industries that could help.

In urban areas, pavement that has sealed off soil can be removed and replaced by vegetation. The construction of green roofs and gardens rich in plant diversity can aid soil biodiversity, too.

Farmers, Wall says, have also expressed increasing interest in soil regeneration and carbon sequestration. “There are definitely things that you can do to return the organic matter to the soil,” she says. “What we want is good cover for soil so it doesn’t blow away or wash away. And we also want to make sure that we’re not just cutting vegetation down to bare ground.”

Society also needs to be mindful of the chemicals that we use in our homes, farms and cities, she says: “Pollution in soil is very bad for the organisms that live in the soil, and it’s bad for any that may have a pupating cycle in the soil.”

Soil biodiversity can recover after industrial or agricultural sites are taken out of production, but it may happen slowly and require specialized restoration efforts. In those cases, “microbial transplants together with seeding of target plant species might help speed up these processes,” suggests a 2019 study co-authored by Wall. “Even small changes, which often come at little monetary cost, may increase soil biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

And an even smaller change is also important — getting people to notice and appreciate the role healthy soil plays in our lives and why it’s so vital we protect it.

“Something that we really ought to realize is that soil isn’t forever,” Wall says. “Soils are vulnerable, and we know that worldwide. Pay attention to the life beneath your feet — it’s fragile.”

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Jeffrey Sachs is Upset

We don’t take the U. N. Sustainable Development Goals seriously enough. Tech is indispensable for achieving them. Economist Jeffrey Sachs is unimpressed with business’ commitment so far, especially the tech giants, he told Techonomy in this exclusive interview.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of the world’s top development economists and has been a global anti-poverty crusader for decades. He is special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and a major champion of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030—a comprehensive set of targets and methods for improving life on earth. The SDGs put special emphasis on helping the world’s least powerful people, ending poverty and hunger, and improving health, as well as reducing inequality, bolstering justice, and especially combating climate change and environmental degradation.

Photo: Wesley Mann

Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick sat down with Sachs in March 2018 in his New York apartment for a wide-ranging conversation about how tech could bolster progress towards the global goals for 2030, and the role of business. His thoughts remain as valid today as they were then, so we’re keeping this piece alive for 2022. The SDGs have still not seen much progress, with less than 8 years to go. The climate crisis has discernibly worsened. With Techonomy and Worth’s Health+Wealth of Our Planet conference coming up Sept. 20, 2022 during New York Climate Week, Sach’s cautionary thinking need to be on all our minds.

Sachs is a scathing critic of those who do not take these goals seriously and is willing to embrace radical new methods in order to tackle some of the world’s previously intractable problems. Sachs is University Professor at Columbia University and directs the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia’s Earth Institute. He is author of many influential books including 2005’s The End of Poverty and 2018’s The Age of Sustainable Development.
Techonomy: How would you assess progress towards the SDGs?
Sachs: Well, we’re not directed enough or focused enough to actually achieve these goals, and that’s quite frightening because these goals are not a luxury. They are a need for humanity. The SDGs are about reorienting the way a vast and increasingly dangerous world economy operates. It’s creating inequalities of wealth and poverty that are astounding and dangerous for our democracy in the United States, and dangerous for the world. And it is relentlessly destroying the environment through global warming and the loss of biodiversity.
The idea of the sustainable development goals is to say that with all of this wealth and technology and knowhow and skills, we could reorient the way we do things, locally to globally, so that we could have it all—economic prosperity, social fairness, and environmental sustainability. That’s the purpose of the SDGs. Many governments are trying to orient around them. Our own in the United States, in Washington, pays zero attention. I don’t really want to tell Trump about them, because he would try to destroy them.
But it’s shocking for me. I visit probably 50 countries every year. Most of the world is worried about global warming, worried about the instability of the food supply, water crises, extreme storms, heat waves; most of the world is worried about wealth increasingly concentrated in a few tech companies and a few billionaires and leaving a lot of the rest of humanity outside. But in the United States unfortunately, our political circles are not part of that.
Techonomy: When you speak and write about the many reasons for optimism, you often mention the information revolution, new materials, and genomics. But then you said recently, “But none of them are trained for these challenges.” What do you mean?
Sachs: We have a remarkable technological revolution, one of the greatest in human history. Everything around computation, AI, and connectivity I’d put on par with the greatest scientific revolutions we’ve had, with the steam era, or electrification itself. But we need to use this in a way to solve problems, to make the environment safe, to address renewable energy, to address the needs of the poorest people, to address social inclusion.
Our system, especially the U.S. system, is market-based. You look at how technologies are evolving, to stream movies, to capture eyeballs for advertising, to sell data profiles. It’s all for market purposes. You look at a lot of the innovations. In healthcare, they’re oriented towards the next drug with a 20-year patent and a markup of 1,000 times production cost. The system works very powerfully, by the way, to put a lot of money into innovation, but it directs the innovation towards monetizable outcomes, whereas what we need are two other kinds of innovations. One is innovations for poor people to help them have better education, better healthcare, and so forth. A second is education. This is the knowledge revolution, after all.
Techonomy: So how would you assess the role of business so far in embracing the SDGs?
Sachs: Parts of business are totally on the case, like the renewable energy business—the future for them is sustainable development. Or some in the food sector see that their supply chain is going to disappear if we don’t get climate change under control. Then there is the part of the business community for whom this agenda really is a harsh message. I would put the coal, oil, and gas industries in that list. The message for them is, “You’re going to have to close. We don’t need you. You’re dangerous.” Of course, they’re fighting back. They’ve got a lot of wealth. They’re trying to deny what is obvious to almost everybody, that the climate is changing dangerously and rapidly. They’re liars and they’re creeps.
Techonomy: [LAUGHS] I love how you mince your words…But we also have things happening like the statement by BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink, who said business leaders must make societal progress and responsibility central to their business plans. He’s the head of the world’s largest investment management firm. You must have been heartened by that.
Sachs: Absolutely heartened. Wonderful. And real, by the way. And the influence of that approach is already percolating through a lot of the pension funds and insurance industries. But then another part of industry is just relentlessly bottom-line oriented. It has blinders to any social issue. And that’s a lot of Wall Street. That’s the hedge fund industry. They want to make money, and don’t care if it’s from jacking up prices of drugs or a new pipeline or whatever. And unfortunately, to my shock, a lot of the tech industry has become that. I wouldn’t have thought that Larry Page and Sergey Brin would be just relentlessly bottom line, thinking only of who they can sell more ads to. Facebook—some kid in a dorm getting the Harvard class online, but now his highest aim in life in the end turns out to be, again, selling personal data? They’ve got the tools to change the world for the good, but right now they’re basically trying to figure out how to sell more ads. And that is a profound disappointment.
Techonomy: Mark Zuckerberg himself has talked about the company as the hub for global community in highly aspirational, idealistic ways. And you also talk a lot about the importance of human well-being, which he, too, raises.
Sachs: I haven’t seen it from them. What I’ve seen is, first, an opaque business model. We don’t really know what they’re doing. We don’t know how our identities, our online data are actually being used.
I went to Facebook at one point and said, “You’re connecting so many people, why don’t you get into the SDGs, SDG 4, for example, on education?” “Well, that’s not our priority.” I said: “I don’t care if it’s your priority. It’s the world’s priority and you have a contribution to make.” “Well, that’s not our priority.” Okay, I’m not impressed by that.
Techonomy: So you don’t really buy “doing well by doing good”?
Sachs: I think it’s nonsense for half the challenges we face. It is a convenient, ignorant, nonreflective, non-experienced vision. The mentality in this country has been formed by that lousy novelist and pseudo-philosopher Ayn Rand. People think there’s a business case for everything. But that’s leading us farther and farther from sustainable development.
We used to have a government that could regulate business. Now we have business that regulates government. Mitch McConnell is a weak person. He’s not an agent looking for the public good. He really is just a pawn in a corporate game. And then we’ve got 2,200 billionaires now worldwide, many in the tech sector. They’ve got $9.1 trillion of wealth. Come on. They alone could fund the solution to the world’s problems. A few are trying. Bill Gates, I give him credit. Most of the rest, no.
Techonomy: But companies exist to make money. And you’re saying you need to harness them and harness the technologies they create. How do we make the leap to real social engagement and human action?
Sachs: You know, one of the things you learn in economics—it’s actually the core of serious study—is what things can be left to the market and what things cannot be solved by the market because they are market failures. It could be climate change; it could be preserving biodiversity; it could be disease control. I know from my career-long work on poverty, if we just go with market forces, millions of people will die of extreme poverty. And businesses will be doing just the right thing, quote-unquote. From the business perspective, these people have no money so what are you going to do? And this is technically not a market failure. It’s markets working. It’s a human failure. It’s a moral failure. All those people could be saved, and they could be put on a path of a decent life, but not by businesses alone.

Techonomy: Should government play a bigger role in, whether you call it regulation or not, essentially forcing companies to take action?
Sachs: Of course. For example, will consumers go for electric vehicles? I find that a ridiculous question, because the answer is: We can’t go on with internal combustion engine vehicles. We need electric vehicles, or we need zero-emission vehicles. Government should say after 2025, or some other date, you can’t sell internal combustion engines. In the U.S., all this got completely twisted out of shape. We’ve lost recognition of the most basic fact—that markets can’t solve all problems.
Techonomy: In your book The Age of Sustainable Development, you talk about interconnectivity being central to the logic of the age of sustainable development. Why is that so?
Sachs: We are 7.6 billion people in the world now. That’s a very crowded world. It’s increased tenfold since the start of the Industrial Revolution. But a billion people don’t have reliable access to safe water, a billion people don’t have basic electrification that is at all reliable. To make 7.6 billion people live viably on this planet, we need systems— for transport, energy, health, water, food supply. And the great gift of the information revolution is we have the means to do that.
Techonomy: What priority do you give to getting everybody online?
Sachs: It’s absolutely central. It is double edged and controversial though. I’ll give you my favorite current conundrum—India’s Aadhaar system, the online biometric identification system. It’s a fundamental breakthrough. And yet it’s under attack, pretty heatedly right now, by civil society in India. Now, from my point of view, India doesn’t stand a chance without something like Aadhaar. Millions of people will not have access to services if government cannot be made to work through a mechanism like this. So these technologies are pivotal, brilliant. On the other hand, there really are challenges of privacy, surveillance, systems biases, built-in discrimination, and all the other areas of that are causing angst and controversy in the connectivity and AI community right now. But let’s solve those problems. These systems are vital to make the world work properly.
Techonomy: What about just the basic notion of internet connectivity for everyone, do you embrace that as a goal?
Sachs: I do, but with one big caveat. When I went to Facebook and was kind of rebuffed, they said, “Our interest is connectivity.” I said, “Yeah, but the content matters a lot.” Just being connected is not going to make your online curriculum; it’s not going to solve the problems of schools or healthcare. Nandan Nilekani [who spearheaded the creation of Aadhaar and previously was CEO of Infosys] has a concept called societal platforms. It’s the idea that you need a system that sits on the internet, sits on connectivity, in order to make health or education or digital payments, finance, or e-government work. Investments should be made so the connectivity actually means something. Without the content directed at the needs of poor people and the needs of the environment and other public goods, we’re not getting to where we need to go. You need a framework. You need systems and content, not just connectivity.
Techonomy: But the very gripe against Facebook on supposed net neutrality grounds in India, when they launched their Internet.org Free Basics program there, could be seen as contradictory to what you’re saying. Facebook would say, “We were giving them stuff that’s good for them.”
Sachs: I believe in politics to serve the public good. If Facebook wanted to do something good for India, then it should have dealt with the government and said, “We’re at your disposal to help support a national plan for online education or online curriculum or online healthcare. But you’re in charge, not us.” But arrogantly, they didn’t do it that way. They said, “We’re doing it. We’re Facebook.” That’s the mistake. The psychology in Silicon Valley is that all politics is retrograde—“We don’t have to pay taxes, we don’t have to listen to government.” And the result is this kind of libertarian naiveté that ends up not solving the problems of those in need.
Techonomy: How could we build what you have called “supranational” institutions that could, among other things, impose some restraints on these companies and help enforce the systemic thinking you advocate. Do we have the institutions we need?
Sachs: The one line I hate hearing in development is ‘We have to do it through existing organizations.’ Every breakthrough in the world is with startups, with new organizations. I helped get one going 17 years ago that I’m very proud of, called The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I said, ‘Don’t go to the World Bank; they can’t do this.’ Now we need new organizations for education, new organizations for the SDGs. But I face two kinds of challenges. One is that the incumbents, even the governments, the U.N. agencies, say “No, no, no, no, we’re handling it,” which they’re not. And then the other argument back to me is, “Well, why set up something new when it has no resources? No one wants to fund that kind of thing.” And that’s where I start looking at the 2,000 billionaires or how rich the world is, if we only cared to put the resources that we need into it.
We should have a global fund for education. Ghana recently said, “We want universal secondary education and we know online is critical for that. We want to develop a program. We need help.” There should be a fund that provides the help.
Techonomy: You talk about models in human capital for sanity and kindness. Zuckerberg, as we mentioned, thinks he’s helping. You don’t agree. Could technology help?
Sachs: A lot of psychologists are telling us that screen time is really adverse for mental well-being. Where I see tech playing a different role is giving us more leisure time. I’m persuaded in general that machines are good for us. People don’t like backbreaking labor. I’ve tried it. I don’t like it. Most people who are suffering it right now want to get out. I don’t think there should be miners in the future, because it’s dangerous, dirty work. Being on an assembly line is no great shakes, so that’s better for a robot than a person. It raises the question that everybody asks every day now, “Well, what about us? What will we do?” And the answer that was classically given by Keynes 90 years ago was, “We’ll have more leisure time.” And I find that still a persuasive answer.
Techonomy: Do you feel that in the end we’re facing a spiritual crisis?
Sachs: Well, we are facing definitely a moral crisis because we’re in an absolutely insane situation where we have everything going for us and we’re still at the edge of self-destruction. We’ve become so rich, so capable, so knowledgeable, so clever scientifically, yet we can’t handle the success. America could not be richer; we couldn’t hope for more, and yet the country is falling apart in many ways. And that’s a bizarre reality that we haven’t been able to come to grips with. We’re so frenzied and focused on short-term profits that we can’t even take a deep breath and get a grip on our own destructive activities. So that’s a moral crisis. Aristotle said that the highest human activity was contemplation, to have the time to be able to think, to reason about the human good. That’s what we’re missing right now.

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