Al Gore Wants You
Opportunities and investment in the fight against climate change
Former US Vice President Al Gore is infamous for his work in informing the public about climate change, but now much of his focus has shifted to how commercial ventures can make a difference. Lucy Ingham hears his thoughts on the business opportunities surrounding sustainability.
Al Gore, former US Vice President and the man behind the now infamous climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, is one of the highest profile figures in the world when it comes to climate change. However, while much of his work in the noughties was centered around informing people of the threats that climate change poses, his approach now is to encourage a shift to climate action not based on abstinence, but opportunity.
As the co-founder and chairman of Generation Investment Management, a company dedicated to investment in sustainable yet commercially promising initiatives, he is keen to show that improving the environment is not just an important goal for the future, but a highly profitable opportunity.
“My purpose here is to recruit you to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis and the ecological crisis on this planet,” he said, in a talk at Web Summit. “We can solve it, we have to solve it, and with your help we will solve it.”
Climate action: is change needed?
While most of us are aware of the threats posed by climate change, Gore is keen to stress the damage that is already being done, and why this only underlines the urgency for action.
“I won't belabor this too much, but most of you know the facts. There is a collision underway right now between human civilisation as we have come to organise it and the ecological system of this planet,” he said. “And there are many manifestations of it: the destruction of the vitality of our oceans; the weight of the plastic in the oceans will soon exceed the weight of the fish in the oceans,” he said.
“We're seeing dead zones spreading; what's happening to a lot of the beautiful forest areas and the wetlands and the mangroves. We're seeing the conversion of land in destructive ways to uses that hurt the critical role land plays and the plants and animals play in sustaining the web of life.”
However, while these aspects are devastating, changes to our climate remain “the single most important part of this collision between civilisation and nature” due to the fragility of our atmosphere.
Of course we have to change: we cannot condemn the next generation to lives of degradation and despair.”
Every single day we're putting a hundred and ten million tonnes of manmade global warming pollution into that thin shell of atmosphere and it's trapping heat,” he explained.
“The accumulated amount is so large that it now traps every day as much extra heat energy as would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every 24 hours. And that is disrupting the natural cycles. Most of it goes into the ocean, and that disrupts the water cycle. That's why we've got all these big downpours now, that's why we've got the bigger floods and the mudslides. That's why we have what they call rain bombs in my country over the last two months.”
Reeling off a slew of devastating global climate events, including Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria, the floods in South Asia and the widespread droughts, he explained how the knock-on effects of each of these events was causing severe weather incidents in other parts of the world.
“It's a global phenomenon,” he said. “Of course we have to change: we cannot condemn the next generation to lives of degradation and despair.”
The role of technology in the fight against climate change
While the facts on climate change are extremely sobering, the business potential is not. For while sustainability has often seemed an alternative to successful business practices, for Gore it is an opportunity for significant profit.
“Our world is now in the early stages of a sustainability revolution that has the magnitude of the industrial revolution, but the speed of the digital revolution. And it's empowered by the digital tools, including the Internet of Things and machine learning and progressively better forms of artificial intelligence, and a lot of these new tools and technologies are being developed by men and women right here in this auditorium today,” he said, referring to the thousands-strong crowd of developers, technology professionals and business representatives in attendance.
“What we are seeing in this sustainability revolution is the emergence of a new ability given to CEOs and executive teams in enterprises all around the world to manipulate and deal with atoms and molecules with the same precision and dexterity that has been demonstrated by the internet and computer network companies in dealing with digits of information.
“We are seeing unnecessary waste eliminated. We're seeing new business models. We're seeing the use of data to figure out what needs to be done, focus on that, get rid of the unnecessary encumbrances and waste and just get the job done. This is beginning to reduce emissions.”
Our world is now in the early stages of a sustainability revolution that has the magnitude of the industrial revolution, but the speed of the digital revolution.”
When it comes to power generation, this reduction is particularly notable.
“Solar photovoltaic electricity has been coming down so fast in cost that in many areas of the world it is now significantly cheaper than any kind of electricity that can be produced from fossil fuels,” he said, giving the example of a recent project in the Middle East where 12 of the 13 bids beat the previous record for solar generation costs per kilowatt hour, and the winning bid of 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour was less than a third of the cost of coal-generated power.
“Technology is helping us to displace fossil fuels and generate electricity from clean renewable sources,” he said. “We can match that up with the new levels of efficiency in business, industry, homes, every part of our civilisation. And we can match it up with the transportation system by shifting over to electric vehicles as quickly as we possibly can.
“We have seen the same kinds of cost-reduction curves that astonished the world in previous decades with computer chips and flatscreen TVs and mobile phones. That's happening with solar energy, that's happening with wind energy. It's happening with battery storage of energy, it's happening with electric vehicles. It's happening with efficiency improvements that are too numerous to mention.”
Shifting to a new capitalism: the growing enterprise investment in climate action
While many have looked to politicians to solve the climate crisis, in the process placing considerable faith in initiatives such as the Paris Agreement, Gore sees investment-driven business being a more powerful driver of change.
“There is now this global movement that business is leading. Some politicians are doing ok, and I could pick out several that are, but in too much of the world the politicians are trying to slow things down,” he said.
“Many are worried that our economic system is not fit for purpose. I think there obviously have to be some serious reforms to capitalism so that we start integrating the environment and sustainability values into what we measure and what we invest in; what we decide to do.
“Now I want to put on my investor hat for a moment and tell you that there are an increasing number of investors who come to gatherings like this one, to meet with young entrepreneurs and business teams that are using their knowledge and skills and technology to advance this process forward.”
There is a growing interest on the part of investors who care not just about making a quick buck in a short period of time but investing in businesses that are helping to create a bright and prosperous and sustainable future.”
His own company, Generation Investment Management, has invested in a host of sustainable technologies including an electric bus capable of running for 1,100 miles on a single charge, a Taiwanese electric scooter company and an East African solar energy initiative. And his company is not the only one: renewable-focused initiatives are attracting serious investment and creating significant job opportunities.
“Solar jobs are now growing 17 times faster than all other jobs in the United States of America; it's the number one fastest-growing occupation. The number two fastest-growing occupation is wind turbine technician,” he added.
However, renewable power is only one aspect of the issue, and when it comes to innovating to solve climate change, Gore views this as an opportunity not only for businesses, but to negate many of the job losses being brought about by automation.
“We need reforms to capitalism, as I said, but we also need to address what the economists call a weakness in secular demand. We need a global project to put tens of millions of people to work. Well, you know what? We've got a global project: to solve the climate crisis, to address the emissions that are destroying our future at present and put people to work on solar and wind and batteries and electric cars and sustainable agriculture and sustainable forestry and fish and sea improvements,” he said.
“So I want you to know that there is a growing market for the kinds of initiatives that many of you have laboured long and hard to bring to fruition. There is a growing interest on the part of investors who care not just about making a quick buck in a short period of time but investing in businesses that are helping to create a bright and prosperous and sustainable future.”
Every one of these social revolutions, like the climate movement, like the sustainability movement, has been led ultimately by young people.”
In particular, he urged many of the younger attendees of the conference to focus their abilities on this area.
“Every one of these social revolutions, like the climate movement, like the sustainability movement, has been led ultimately by young people and I look out at this audience and I know who you are. Most of you are extremely young. Most of you are determined to be a part of building a bright future. Making good money? Yes, but in the process helping to make the world a better place. That's what we all should be about,” he said.
“Can we solve this climate crisis? Yes: we have the tools that we need, they are available. Now there's opposition in the political systems of this world. The fossil fuel companies have built up over the last century a lot of monetary wealth and political power and a network of connections, and they're pulling out all the stops to try to paralyse this historic movement of the sustainability revolution. But, you know, the people still ultimately have the most powerful voice and those of you who are building exciting new businesses can have much more influence than practically anybody else.
“Everything is at stake. Trust me, ten years from now, five years from now, 20 years from now you're going to look back at this year 2017 and you're going to say, 'Boy, it was a whole lot more serious than I realised it was, and the opportunities were much greater than I realised they were'. That's the moment we're in. We need your help. We need your passionate involvement.”