Google Sustainability Summit 2023: How can technology be a force for good?

Technology is a double-edged sword in the context of sustainability. While large amounts of energy are needed to power today’s digital economy, technology also presents solutions that can address climate change, said experts at a roundtable discussion in Singapore.

Panellists at Google Sustainability Summit – Net Zero Through Digitalisation in Singapore
The Google Sustainability Summit – Net Zero Through Digitalisation took place in Singapore on 6 June 2023. (From left) The panellists were Yulanda Chung, head of sustainability at DBS, David Chen, chief executive at AgriG8, and Sherie Ng, country director at Google Cloud Singapore. The event was moderated by Manisha Tank, correspondent at CNN International. Image: Google

According to a Google Cloud Sustainability Survey, sustainability dropped from being the top organisational priority last year to being the third priority this year. 

The study, which polled almost 1,500 C-suite executives around the world, also found that technological innovation is a key deciding factor that could impact an organisation’s ability to drive sustainable growth in the future. 

This key finding was discussed by delegates at the Google Sustainability Summit – Net Zero Through Digitalisation in Singapore on 6 June 2023, which convened policymakers, business leaders and academia to discuss the role that technology can play in guiding companies towards their net zero goals.

According to a poll of the audience posed by moderator Manisha Tank, a correspondent at CNN International, two-thirds said they believe that technology will help, not hurt, the environment.  

Ben King, managing director at Google Singapore, said the tech company has “no doubt” that technology can be an enabler for decarbonisation. “It comes down to three key pillars for Google: accelerate a carbon-free and circular economy, empower partners with technology, and enable everyone to make sustainable choices by having the right data,” he said.

The first pillar is to accelerate a carbon-free and circular economy. In 2021 – for the fifth consecutive year – Google matched 100 per cent of its annual electricity consumption with purchases of renewable energy, bringing more than seven gigawatts of new renewable energy online. 

Google is now taking this one step further by pledging to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030. This means that every search made on Google, and every email sent through Gmail, will soon run on clean energy, and have zero carbon emissions, King said.

The second pillar is to empower partners with technology, such as its Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE), which is a freely available data and insights tool designed to help cities and regions to measure emissions sources, run analyses, and reduce emissions through data and insights. Google’s EIE is one of its main sustainability initiatives within Asia-Pacific

The third pillar is to enable everyone to make sustainable choices. King noted that Google Search empowers people to search for ways to live more sustainably with searches for recycling in Singapore, for instance, reaching a five-year high in 2022. 

Sustainability, an opportunity for Southeast Asia’s booming digital economy

The Google Cloud Sustainability Survey also revealed that only executives in three countries continue to see sustainability as the top priority this year, two of which are in Southeast Asia – Singapore and Thailand.

Simon Tay, chairman at think tank the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), in his presentation on building a digital-green Asean, noted that the SIIA is looking at the nexus between the growth of the digital economy and climate. “We all want to be beneficiaries of the digital economy, but we don’t want to overtax the planet,” he said.

Tay emphasised that governments in Southeast Asia, the world’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing economy, must ensure that the digital economy’s growth does not harm the environment.

With a burgeoning economy requiring more energy to sustain growth, Tay highlighted the need for startups to dream big. “What we are seeing in parts of Southeast Asia, like Vietnam, is that companies have the potential to embark on big renewable energy projects in solar or hydropower, but they are often concerned with only supplying energy to meet their domestic needs,” he said. 

Tay also spoke about the benefits of exporting energy to other Southeast Asian countries. “When you are producing energy for your own village, you won’t get an optimal price. But when you get your energy grid going across the region, that’s when you’ll reap economies of scale,” said Tay. 

How data helps organisations to meet their sustainability goals

The event followed with a panel discussion, which saw Yulanda Chung, head of sustainability at DBS, David Chen, chief executive at AgriG8, and Sherie Ng, country director at Google Cloud Singapore, speak about how technology is empowering organisations to meet their sustainability objectives. 

The Google Cloud Sustainability Survey found that only 36 per cent of respondents have measurement tools for quantifying sustainability efforts, and just 17 per cent use metrics to optimise sustainability performance.

As CEO of AgriG8, an agricultural fintech company that connects smallholder farmers in developing countries to financial institutions, Chen commented that rice, one of the world’s most abundantly grown and consumed crops, is responsible for a portion of global methane emissions. 

Rice production is estimated to be responsible for 12 per cent of total methane global emissions, mainly due to anaerobic decomposition during the production process, which is when microorganisms break down organic material in the absence of oxygen. 

Methane is a greenhouse gas capable of trapping 25 times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide. Yet, farmers in developing countries do not typically keep track of their greenhouse gas emissions or lack the technological know-how to measure them.

Chung of DBS spoke about how technology can provide real-time data, which can assist with corporate disclosure. 

“If DBS is going to finance an upstream oil and gas exploration project, I would want to know how it is going to affect my carbon budget, and how comprehensive its life cycle assessment is,” she said. Chung also emphasised the need for transparent data in helping to prevent greenwashing. “The data must be credible, so we have a defence [against greenwashing allegations],” she said.

Without accurate measurement, it is difficult to report genuine progress – 58 per cent of respondents who took part in the Google Cloud Sustainability Survey agree that green hypocrisy exists and their organisation has overstated their sustainability efforts.

Ng of Google said that Google Cloud offers an open-source solution for companies looking to collect comprehensive real-time data. 

“We are working with [consumer goods company] Unilever to decarbonise their operations. To do so, they need to have the totality of the whole supply chain, as it is Scope 3 emissions that have the biggest impact,” she said, referring to indirect emissions that stem from a company’s full value chain, including how its products are used.

Ng drew parallels between digitisation and decarbonisation to address the high carbon cost of the digital world, noting that Google Cloud’s role is to help every organisation digitise. 

Google Cloud, Ng explained, has reduced carbon emissions by enabling the financing and shipping industries to cut down on paper-based transactions, for instance.

Google has also raised the temperature of its data centres to 26.7°C, uses outside air for cooling, and built custom servers.

Google’s data centres are designed to be efficient and environmentally friendly and rely on recycled water for their cooling system. This allows them to be twice as energy efficient as a typical enterprise data centre and deliver around five times more computing power with the same amount of electrical power compared to five years ago.

Levelling up

Technology is helping to level the playing field for disadvantaged stakeholders. Chen noted that smallholder farmers are struggling to secure funding from large financial institutions because they are considered unbankable and charged high interest rates.

However, technologies like crop modelling to evaluate farmers can lower onboarding costs. With digitisation, Chen said that technology can also enable banks to access the farmer’s repayment track record, helping to determine if the farmer will default on his loan.

For technology to further sustainability, Ng concluded the panel discussion by encouraging organisations to factor in the carbon footprint of the companies they partner with.

“As business leaders, we have a responsibility to make critical decisions. We hope companies can opt for carbon-neutral cloud services, and make sustainable choices that benefit the organisation and the planet.”

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