Inside the Climate Conversation at Davos

The climate crisis and climate action were, finally, prominent themes at this week’s World Economic Forum. We hosted two Techonomy Climate sessions with leaders from Microsoft, Salesforce, Wipro, Carbon Capture, Heliogen, and Normative. Here’s what we learned.

Our Wednesday breakfast session in Davos. From left: Idealab/Heliogen’s Bill Gross, Normative’s Kristian Rönn, Wipro’s Subha Tatavarti, Salesforce’s Tim Christophersen, and Microsoft’s Lucas Joppa.

The world faces simultaneous overlapping emergencies, but climate is central, urgent, existential. So it was gratifying that it was one of the top themes of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. The climate crisis, climate tech, and climate action were all prominent in the week’s discussions. The violent assault on Ukraine and its implications were much-discussed as well, as was the worsening global economy. But they’re all connected and made worse by global warming.

Josh Kampel and I were, as usual, wandering the streets and going to meetings. But we were there to host two Techonomy Climate sessions with our partners Idealab and its portfolio companies Heliogen and CarbonCapture. The sessions were a closely-connected continuation of our March Techonomy Climate conference in Mountain View, California. (You can watch those sessions here.)

Myriad climate-related announcements and discussions emerged during WEF. Perhaps most important was the First Movers Coalition, catalyzed last year by the Forum and U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry. The group aims to decarbonize heavy industry and long-distance transportation. In Davos, Denmark, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom announced they had joined the U.S. in the effort. And more than 50 global companies are now involved.

But most concrete was a joint announcement by erstwhile competitors Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce that they would collectively invest $500 million in the urgent but nascent field of carbon dioxide removal. The Boston Consulting Group also announced a commitment to pay for technology to remove 100,000 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide by 2030. Separately, the WEF itself announced results showing how much digital tech can reduce emissions in the first place. AI, 5G, and other tools used together, it said, can reduce emissions by 20% in energy, industry, and transportation.

Idealab’s Bill Gross with Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick

On Tuesday at a Salesforce space, I moderated a rollicking room-wide Techonomy Climate dialogue with six speakers who didn’t all agree, except that we need action now. Bill Gross, founder of Idealab and CEO of Heliogen, gave a passionate and informed assessment of the power of tech for tackling the crisis. He says no resource is coming down in cost as much as Moore’s law-driven computational power, and so we must emphasize that key tool. Bill has seeded companies in three areas–clean energy, efficient energy storage, and carbon dioxide removal. Heliogen concentrates sunlight with computer-controlled mirrors to create temperatures of over 1,000 degrees for industrial processes like cement or steel-making. He’s partnering already with companies like ArcelorMittal. He spoke of the need to take “1,000 shots on goal” to attack emissions every way we can.

Tim Christophersen, who had joined Salesforce three weeks earlier from the United Nations Environment Program and now has the great title of VP, climate action, spoke out from the audience during the session. He echoed Gross, saying there will be no “silver bullet” for climate action. Instead we need “silver buckshot.”

Adrian Corless, a ten-year veteran of the carbon removal industry, is now CEO of another Idealab company, called, impressively CarbonCapture (how did it get that URL?). He explained how his company is moving quickly to be able to remove tons of CO2 with an innovative modular-systems approach and sequester it underground. Presumably he’ll be a beneficiary of the new commitment from Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce. But he cautioned that however successful CarbonCapture and other companies may be, it can only be one of numerous efforts to reduce emissions and remove what’s already in the atmosphere.

Wednesday we gathered again on Davos’ main street, this time hosted by Wipro. Its CTO Subha Tatavarti said the global software and consulting company’s customers are increasingly clamoring for help with both services and new products that remediate the emissions emergency.

Wednesday’s session formally included Salesforce’s Christophersen, along with Microsoft Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa. Microsoft has taken dramatic steps to reduce its climate footprint, including promising eventually to be carbon negative for its entire corporate history since 1975. Joppa explained that every division of the company pays his group a “carbon tax” based on emissions it is calculated to be responsible for. Microsoft uses that revenue for projects like carbon removal. Christophersen and Joppa headed straight from the session to their joint carbon removal announcement.

Another panelist at the Wipro session was Kristian Romm, CEO of Stockholm-based carbon accounting firm Normative. Romm works with big companies to help calculate and remediate emissions. But he is particularly down on today’s carbon credits, the vogue-ish method too many use to salve consciences when we fly around the world to conferences. Romm notes that CO2, once emitted, stays in the atmosphere for about 310 years. Today’s carbon credits typically pay for forest creation or preservation, but studies have shown that such sequestration only lasts an average of about 5-10 years. So when we use most carbon “credits” we are not addressing the problem.

The World Economic Forum in Davos is a place of power. That alone leads many to dismiss and disparage it. And yes, there were plenty of banks and giant global companies still polluting their way to success. Not to mention the outsize presence of Saudi Arabia, which had a huge storefront celebrating its economy and its despot-leader, the murderous Mohammed bin-Salman. But many journalists there were so disgusted at the hypocrisy rampant in Davos that they questioned its value. (The most cynical ones are generally the ones who focus on politics.)

At Techonomy, however, we believe dialogue is positive, even with those you disagree with. Davos is where the powerful come together–to scheme and conspire, but also to brainstorm and problem-solve.

In Davos I met a rights activist from Sydney who told me it has basically been raining there nonstop since November. Over 2000 houses where he lives are underwater. And only shortly before the conference, the worst heatwave in over 100 years hit the Indian subcontinent. Temperatures in many places hovered around 115 fahrenheit. If you’ve read the daunting The Ministry for the Future, you know the scary images that evokes. We are genuinely in the midst of a climate emergency. Techonomy has pivoted our work towards climate. I hope the WEF continues to do that, too.

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