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Sustainability in 2023: Boosting biodiversity, a boom in greentech, and watch out for greenwashing

February 3, 2023
Justin Keeble

Managing Director for Global Sustainability

Sustainability is top of mind for most executives and policymakers these days, and for good reason. In ways that are increasingly impossible to ignore, the social, economic, and public health impacts of climate change now weigh on society alongside the environmental impacts. It is unsustainable in every sense.

For years now, world leaders have been coming to the World Economic Forum to discuss issues of sustainability. This year was both no exception to this tradition and quite exceptional, starting with the unseasonably temperate weather outside. Switzerland in January is typically a winter wonderland, but conference attendees who came to Davos last month were instead met with snowless vistas. At an event that helps sets the tone for the most challenging issues facing the world in the year ahead, the climate crisis received top billing

And, while a number of high-impact climate initiatives were announced, just as important are the signals from the conference of the sustainability priorities for 2023. Here are five that really stood out and could help guide us in the year ahead.

A version of this post was originally published on LinkedIn, where you can follow Justin and get regular insights on the intersection of sustainability and technology, as well as checking back here on Transform, where he is a regular contributor.

Increased attention to nature and biodiversity

In 2022, we saw plenty of attention afforded to the success of the United Nations 30x30 agreement, which saw 190 nations committing to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. Conference attendees likewise made specific points on protecting nature and biodiversity, including discussions on the Polar Crisis and on ensuring a sustainable ocean economy

In 2023, we'll see companies launching an increasing number of commitments around nature and conservation. At Google, our Wildlife Insights initiative is leveraging Google Cloud and AI models to help conservation experts and local communities reduce the time-consuming manual tasks of processing and analyzing images, while sharing knowledge with researchers around the world, and protecting species from extinction.

Continued scrutiny on greenwashing

Institutions, especially corporations, face demands for greater transparency and more robust standards and systems. As such, there is little patience for glib ESG goals, such as “greenwashing,” where companies give a false impression of their environmental impact or benefits.

There was broad agreement at Davos on the need for action, but disagreement on what pace can realistically be expected. Activist Greta Thunberg and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutierres called for tangible emission-cutting plans on accelerated timelines, while corporate spokespeople pointed to factors like the war in Ukraine and economic uncertainty as competing priorities. 

Protecting biodiversity is becoming a priority for many companies, as are investments in new forms of greentech, like this floating solar farm in Thailand.

Ultimately, these discussions highlighted the need for institutions to be able to answer calls for tougher standards for sustainability claims, and assurances around disclosure. In the year ahead, we can expect to see the proliferation of tools such as geospatial AI to both screen data quality and verify ESG claims. 

We'll also see more humility in the ESG goals institutions set, as organizations increasingly recognize that collective action is more impactful than any one institution’s ability to cut emissions. To that end, we will see increasing calls for institutions to go beyond claims and become catalysts for system-level change. At the conference, Google Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt joined The New York Times’ “Systems Change for a Sustainable World” Summit to discuss how Google is working to spur decarbonization beyond its own footprint.

Carbon pricing will no longer be a dormant issue

Carbon pricing took a backseat to other initiatives for much of 2022, though we did start to see some momentum on the topic: the European Union completed sweeping reforms. And while many of the key decisions on international emissions credit trading were ultimately deferred at COP27, progress was made at that conference for countries looking to implement bilateral agreements to transfer international emissions units. 

At the World Economic Forum, we also saw how we can expect continued momentum on carbon pricing in 2023. Major leaders, including World Trade Organization director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, called for shared global carbon-pricing frameworks. 

A boom in sustainability tech

Climate technology is well established, and the conference showed us that we are entering a new era in which we will see a global race to establish and scale planet-saving technologies

This year’s discussions at Davos centered around how the impact of the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act, and its subsequent investment in clean technology development, has created a need for other countries to follow suit, or risk falling behind economically in the future. 

The political momentum is encouraging as it builds on a raft of new technologies and companies addressing every part of the innovation map of sustainability. This could lead to even greater investments than what we’re already seeing in the the clean tech and green tech spaces.

Efficiency is also a priority, to make good on these commitments and ensure energy and resource reductions are actually happening. Technology can play an important role here, as well, as companies like Google Cloud have shown. All of Google has committed to the goal to run completely on carbon-free energy by 2030. For organization looking toward similar aims, Google Cloud has built a collection of tools to help accurately report the carbon emissions associated with their cloud usage and take action to reduce their carbon footprint.

Political momentum for sustainability is encouraging as it builds on a raft of new technologies and companies addressing every part of the innovation map for greentech.

“Seeing” the energy transition

A point of optimism among conference attendees was a paper published by Nicholas Stern and Mattia Romani of the Grantham Research Institute and Systemiq that showed that, in the next five years, we will meet more than half of the “tipping points” for key green technologies. 

For example, the authors claim that in 2023 the cost of US solar- and wind-generated energy will fall below that of new coal and gas, with other countries not far behind. Furthermore, electric vehicles are expected to achieve cost parity with internal combustion engine vehicles by 2025-26. In 2023, we can expect to see evidence of these advancements in our everyday lives as we move up the S-curve of exponential growth. 

With this progress, 2023 will be a turning point for many climate initiatives as people really start to notice a change in their everyday lives via the increased proliferation of these solutions. For example, time-of-use energy tariffs and variable pricing, roof-top solar options, and people making the move to electric vehicles.

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