From autos to agriculture, top executives hail new ideas for sustainable tech

From the invention of the wheel to the advent of the steam train and development of smartphones, humans have been creating new technologies for thousands of years.

Our hunger for innovation has transformed society and turbocharged economies. Now, as concerns about the environment mount, new ideas and innovations could have a big role to play when it comes to creating a more sustainable planet.     

At a recent panel discussion moderated by CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick, ex-Unilever CEO Paul Polman touched upon the subject, referring to the Paris Agreement on climate change in the process.

“One of the reasons we’re moderately optimistic that we can achieve the one and a half (degrees Celsius) … warming target and be net zero by 2050 is obviously technology,” he said. “And this is where the private sector comes in.”

The automotive industry is one area where technology and concerns about the environment have driven change in recent years.

Today, major players such as Daimler, Nissan and Volkswagen are ramping up their electric vehicle offerings in a bid to compete with Elon Musk’s Tesla.

At the political level, a number of governments around the world have pledged to ban the sale of new diesel and gasoline vehicles by the end of the decade.

During the discussion Polman, who’s the co-founder and chair of the social venture Imagine, went on to highlight the pace of change taking place.

“We thought the tipping points for electric vehicles would also be 2050 — we now think that the tipping point is 2024,” he said.

“We’re very close to obsoleting the combustion engine,” he added. “Many countries (are) already making agreements to go out of the combustion engine by 2030, 2035, and most of the major car companies have done the same thing.”

Food production is another industry where digital innovations and technologies are helping businesses find value and conduct operations in smart, sustainable ways.

Last year Polman’s former company, Unilever, announced it would partner with Google Cloud to “use satellite photos to help monitor the ecosystems connected to our raw materials.” The collaboration would initially focus on palm oil, Unilever said.   

“Thanks to technology … like Google Earth, we’re now able to match, (to) … the square meter, concessions that are given to … palm oil plantations with deforestation or with fires,” Polman explained.

Armed with this kind of knowledge, firms are able remove such plantations from their value chain, he added. “That’s a verification or a compliance measure, that is enormous.”

Changing attitudes, hope for the future

It’s clear that technology has an important role to play when it comes to meeting ambitious goals connected to the environment.

But ideas about sustainability rely heavily on financial backing and on major companies — as well as their shareholders — having the will to take steps to alter how things are run. 

In recent years, ideas around ESG — which stands for environmental, social and corporate governance — have started to gain traction at some of the world’s biggest companies.

Earlier on in the panel Jan du Plessis, the chairman of British telecommunications company BT, articulated how much things have changed.

“I have been — either as an executive or as a chairman — dealing with public equity investors in the City of London for more than 30 years,” he said.

“Now, 30 years ago, the idea that they might ask you, when you do these investor visits, about climate change and ESG, it would have been unthinkable,” he added. 

“Twenty years ago, it would not have happened, 10 years ago, they started talking about it but frankly … you could you sense they feel, ‘well, it’s something I should ask about,’ but actually, they’re not interested in the answer.”

“Even five years ago, when they gave more airtime to asking about ESG and climate … you knew full well, they’re going through the motions. That has changed, big time, in the space of 12 to 18 months.”

Du Plessis went on to state he was “extremely optimistic” about what was now going on.

“The end investors, the end providers of wealth, young people, wealthy people, pension funds, are insisting that their fund managers invest in companies with credibility in the climate space,” he said.

“And so the fund managers — surprise, surprise — are hammering companies on their climate agenda.”

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