Monday 31 May 2021 5:08 pm

Can you code? Now is your chance to rescue the planet

Syma Cullasy-Aldridge is Director of External Affairs at PUBLIC

It has never been so easy to build a technology product, raise capital, and bring it to thousands, even millions of people. 

And all in a matter of months. Consider Hopin; the London-based virtual events platform, founded in 2019, has grown from six employees to more than 400 and now boasts over 80,000 user organisations – a good product exactly when it was needed.

Over the same period, Cazoo has become one of the UK’s fastest growing companies, making buying a used car as simple and seamless as buying any other product online. It will make its stock market debut shortly after agreeing a deal that values the company at $5bn.  

The availability of venture funds, the ease of access to and price of cloud architecture, as well as a widening talent pool of engineers and product managers, make the creation of a digitally-native business easier than ever. This doesn’t mean anyone can do it, of course – Cazoo’s Alex Chesterman is a stand-out entrepreneur. But it is easier to do so today than at any time before.

But there is a problem – this technological revolution is not focused enough on the greatest threat to us all. Putting it provocatively, imagine a hurricane is heading towards your town but instead of evacuating or otherwise preparing for the storm, most of the inhabitants are focused on adding new extensions to their homes.

This is effectively what is happening in today’s technology economy. We recognise that the climate is changing because of human behaviour. We realise climate change is already having an impact – on farmers, on those living in low-lying countries or places prone to drought or flood. We believe it will make the planet uninhabitable.

And yet we are still focusing our activities, our energies and our available capital on getting a pizza to you faster, or helping you buy a car more easily. We must change this focus. Things are starting to change.

Venture funds are beginning to invest in climate-focused startups. More and more startups are emerging, whether focused on carbon capture like Blue Planet or carbon neutral concrete like CarbonCure. And they are stepping up to the plate: fifteen of the fastest-growing tech companies in the UK, led by energy startup Bulb, have created the Tech Zero Taskforce to accelerate the UK Government’s plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050. 

TechNation, the government’s digital innovation promotion agency, has begun focusing on net zero. Approximately 6 per cent of total global capital invested in 2019 went into climate-related technology startups.

And it is growing fast – at about three times the growth rate of VC investment into AI over the same period. Silicon Valley is waking up. Investors like startup accelerator Y CombinatorUnion Square Ventures, and Sequoia Capital are getting more serious about investing in climate solutions. But for all this, these investments remain a tiny part of the overall funding going into climate change. 

There is so much potential in the UK’s cleantech startups but the Government, industry and funders must do more to drive innovation. In the UK, whilst only 3.5 per cent of all VC deals done in 2020 went to net zero cleantech companies, I am confident that we can and will do better. The UK Government is now beginning to supercharge cleantech innovation; PUBLIC has now published our latest report, ‘Startup Zero’, on the UK Government’s new £ 1bn fund ‘Net Zero Innovation Portfolio’, which includes recommendations on how we can work together to reach net zero. 

We need to mobilise governments, investors and startups to address the climate emergency. That is why PUBLIC, in partnership with the UK Government, has just launched Tech For Our Planet, an effort to find practical, digitally-enabled solutions to climate change. The initiative will enable startups from around the world to pilot and showcase their innovative climate solutions at COP26, using digital technology to address some of the most pressing challenges we face.

Every year for the last twenty years an article calling people to arms has started with the line “now is the time.” But now genuinely is the time for technological innovation to help address climate change.

Ten years ago many climate-focused startups were in their infancy, their technologies still buried in research. Too much was spent on immature technologies that were not ready for market. But that is what is changing now. Technologies are maturing and are ready for scale. 

It is time for developers, entrepreneurs, designers and product managers to focus on what will really matter to them and generations to come. Now is the time technologically, but most importantly now is the time to act before we pass a point of no return. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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