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How technology leaders can act as force multipliers for climate action

COP28 will mark the conclusion of the first global stocktake on climate action. Likely no surprise, the world is not on track to meet 2030 commitments for carbon mitigation. At the same time, the need to adapt is only accelerating, as the world experiences the hottest temperatures on record and extreme weather affects people and businesses globally.

Unfortunately, organizations are also facing economic headwinds; the need to prioritize resources is even more critical. Many organizations are looking for practical solutions that can benefit the business while addressing the need for climate action. Sustainability leaders need their CTOs and technology leaders to lean in on climate action using their expertise in applying technology to challenging and pressing business needs.

At Google Cloud, we formed the Office of the CTO back in 2015. Our mission has remained virtually unchanged: to help customers apply technology to some of their most challenging problems while advancing our product strategy to address the ever-changing needs of the industry. We like to refer to our mission as “Collaborative Practical Magic.” Like most CTOs, the work that we do spans numerous technologies with a wide variety of applications, and focuses not only on technology, but also the business drivers that make the technology viable.

Several years ago, we identified an emerging trend around sustainability and technology. Several of our most strategic customers had bold and ambitious sustainability goals, and were looking for Google’s help in meeting them. Google has a long history of climate action and applying technology to sustainability-related use cases. For example, we’ve applied AI to optimize our cooling systems, which can lead to significant improvements in energy utilization. We’ve applied ML to satellite imagery to detect land use conversion (e.g., deforestation, peat land or grassland being converted for agricultural use), and have developed tools to track and model our carbon-free energy procurement. And most recently, we shared our work applying ML to build better weather models.

As we often do with emerging trends, we partner closely with a few of our most strategic customers, identify some of the most promising areas to apply our technology and expertise, and in collaboration with our partners, develop practical solutions for the market. For example, Etsy in collaboration with the Office of the CTO, built Cloud Jewels to enable its developers to better understand and reduce their energy consumption. The work inspired Google Cloud to develop and launch Carbon Footprint to help other Google Cloud customers measure and improve the carbon emissions associated with their Google Cloud platform usage.

Now, several years later, we’ve taken our early successes and are driving broader adoption and systemic action through collaboration with our product and go-to-market teams. We are advancing our sustainability partnerships bringing their expertise and science-based approaches through our Google Cloud Ready – Sustainability program.

There is more to do, but here are a few of our key learnings:

1. Sustainability, not unlike other complex systems, starts with observability, a crucial aspect of modern software development that’s familiar to technology leaders. Google has a long history of building observability platforms at scale, bringing expertise in managing time-series data to drive system and resource performance. What we’ve learned is that carbon emission data is important to track in an observability platform, so that developers and operations teams can gain deeper insights into how they can reduce the impact on the environment.

Google Cloud’s sustainability observability offering, the Carbon Sense suite, includes a region picker for identifying carbon-friendly regions, Carbon Footprint to help organizations better measure and improve their carbon emissions, and Active Assist to identify and remove abandoned projects.

2. AI and geospatial analytics are foundational technologies in the drive toward mitigation, adaptation and resilience. Whether an organization is trying to understand the impact their operations have on the environment or the impact that climate changes are having on their business, understanding what’s happening at the intersection of environmental models and location is critical.

We’ve worked closely with global organizations such as Unilever, who are leveraging Google Earth Engine and Vertex AI to build a more holistic view of the forests, water cycles, and biodiversity that intersect their supply chain raising sourcing standards for suppliers. We’ve also worked with financial institutions and operations leaders to understand the potential risk due to flood, fire and heat index to operations, so they can prioritize their resilience strategies. There’s no question that democratizing AI and geospatial analytics is the future of climate action.

3. Sustainability requires collaboration — both internally across cross-functional teams, as well as externally with suppliers, NGOs, governments, academics and researchers. For example, as organizations are preparing to comply with the EU’s deforestation regulation, there’s a need for tighter collaboration, data sharing and modeling of deforestation that has support in the scientific community. Google Earth Engine, Vertex AI and some recent experiments in Confidential Space are providing the foundation for sustainability collaboration.

4. Sustainability touches every aspect of an organization. And yet, most organizations have limited sustainability subject-matter expertise. Generative AI and large language models (LLMs) have the potential to democratize access to sustainability information and insights, removing barriers to action. We’re excited by our early work in this space with a number of organizations and continuing to invest in new ways to leverage our expertise in AI in climate action.

As the world convenes to take stock of our progress toward ambitious climate commitments, we encourage CTOs and technology leaders globally to lean in and help drive the sustainability initiatives that will be good for the business and help advance climate action.

We’ll be blogging throughout COP28; follow along here.

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