Davos08: Google’s environment

I’m at a surprise session with Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and the Google Foundation’s Larry Brilliant, moderated by Tom Friedman. Liveblogging:

The key difference between this and the Gore-Bono panel prior to this is that Gore concentrated on the things we must stop doing — as the movement does — while the Google team concentrates on what we can start doing, thanks to technology.

Brilliant says after the Bono and Gore session earlier: “It’s true that climate change takes the oxygen out of the room.” In other words, it takes attention and effort away from poverty and development. He says we have to get over our cultural ADD and handle more than one crisis at a time.

He outlines the Google Foundation’s priorities. They believe that people don’t know what services their governments offer and so they help inform them and help governments get that message out. Another priority is job creation. Less than 15 percent of jobs in the developing world are from small and medium enterprises and they are targeting growth there. In health, they are concentrating on diseases that jump from animal to human, such as AIDS, and become pandemics. They are funding early-warning systems. They concentrate on climate change: making ecological power cheaper than coal-fired power. And they believe electric cars plugged into a green grid will take care of much of our problems.

Larry Page talks about the renewable-power-cheaper-than-coal initiative. Buying a lot of electricity, Google knows that the cheapest came from coal. The cost of electricity as a percentage is going up, he says, and is approaching the cost of the computers themselves. So they want to get it cheaply and get it green. Startups can work selling green energy at 10 cents per kilowatt hour because there is a demand for renewable energy, he says, but that does not bring real change. “Our primary goal is not to fix the world,” he says, but they do have the power to drive things forward, to get to three cents.

Sergey Brin says the are concentrating on three energy sources: solar-thermal, deep geothermal, and high-altitude wind; if he had to add one, it would be photovoltaic. He says that windmills are on a par with coal but are intermittent and they think it can be even cheaper by using high-altitude wind, through kites, which are cheaper to make that metal windmills. They’ve invested in this and solar-thermal. Deep geothermal is a bit farther off because it requires more fundamental research to get to scale.

What’s the reaction of the energy companies? “They’re pretty good at pushing things into the future and you guys want to claim the future now,” Friedman says. Brin says some of these companies such as BP are invested but Google has an advantage because it does not have a legacy business to cannibalize. Indeed, Google can benefit its core business. “There’s a big bet at some point that you need to make that’s going to take capital.” And Google, he says, in a good position to take that risk.

Asked about the reaction of shareholders, Page says the investment is moderate and there is potential for payoff.

Friedman asks whether they can succeed in this space without taking more of a political position. Brilliant says very few of the people fighting against the climate change movement are bad people: “the have children, they have grandchildren.” He says that the movement has not done a good enough job to communicate. “You can’t separate the quest for dignity and fight poverty from climate change…. We have failed to get that degree of awareness in Congress.”

Friedman quotes Al Gore’s complaint that 3,000 questions asked in Sunday morning programs during the campaign included just three on global warming — equal to the three on UFOs. (Anyone have a citation for that?) “What are we doing, what is Google doing, to reframe the debate?” Friedman asks. Brilliant likens this to the second-hand smoking debate in achieving awareness.

Asked what the next president should do to help their cause, Page responds as an engineer and complains that there has been no research on transmission — which adds to costs — and so he wants a priority on that work from government — an interstate highway system for power, Friedman says. Brin’s answer: Renewable energy is not on a level playing field because of the costs of old energy: health and coal, politics and oil, tariffs on commodities for ethanol, regulation on electric-care development. Brin says they are generating 1.6 megawatts of solar power on their campus. “It’s been great. It produced shade. It reduced cost.” But he says that regulation, federal to local, adds cost. “There’s just all these barriers to clean energy that don’t exist for dirty energy.”

Dirty energy. That’s a nice phrase. As good as death tax.

Page says they are spreading the idea of holding business-plan contests: having events, giving out a little bit of money, helping winners get funding. “In Silicon Valley, they do that for breakfast.” To do that in Ghana, he says, would establish a community to keep this going.

Asked from the floor, by Time’s Michael Elliott, about the theme of the day — environment versus poverty, emphasis on versus — Page says that he gets irritated when people do not realize that the way out of these problems is technology.

I think he’s right: the discussion is too much about what we should not do rather than what we can do.

“You can’t succeed just out of conservation because then you won’t have economic development,” Brilliant explains. “Find a way to make electricity — not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of.”

I say from the floor that I see a cultural difference between the movement and Google on this. Google has the positive message of the potential for change through technology. I ask about how they are going to get this message out to encourage investment from government and the public. Are they using lobbying, PR, education? Friedman adds that Exxon Mobil has “done a number” on the debate with PR. Brilliant says that their role is to get information to people, as much information as they can. Page says that success is the best message — that is, if they had three-cent power, everyone would come.

Gore, from the audience, takes issue with Brilliant, saying that getting information out is no longer sufficient. “That’s the way the world used to work. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. The reason that the tobacco industry was able to continue killing people for 40 years ater the surger General’s report…. they understood the power of strategic persuasion. They went about it in a very careful, organized, and well-funded way.” He says we are “vulnerable to strategic persuasion campaigns if the other side assumes that we should just get the information out there.” He says Exxon Mobil has funded 40 front groups to “in their own words position global warming as theory rather than fact.” He concludes: “We need to take them on, Goddamnit.”

Brilliant responds, saying he agrees with Gore but adds: “Each of us needs to play the role we are uniquely positioned to play.”

The other unspoken divide is about economics: Gore and Friedman favor raising the cost of carbon. Page and Brin see a victory in reducing the price of the clean energy. Tax versus investment.

  • http://dotnetjunkies.com/WebLog/paul/ paul

    I agree, PR is the problem. Tom Friedman writes that we need to be in Iraq – we need to take him on!

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  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    It’s amazing, all it takes is earning a few billion dollars and everyone then listens to whatever these folks say as if they had some expertise on the subject.

    One could say that the establishment has done a poor job with development in the poorest countries, but there are enough disparate views on the subject that it isn’t because of a dominant philosophy drowning out dissent. So coming in with “fresh” ideas is not the problem. The harshest critics of past policies have come from former employees of the World Bank: Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Collier and William Easterly, for example.

    It’s unsurprising that technologists would promote technological solutions, but most people who have studied the issues find some combination of neo-colonialism, corruption and the resource trap (too much or too little) more important.

    When one has to bribe legislators to get even routine bills passed then one has more immediate problems.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    Apparently the Google seers aren’t the only ones offering advice.
    This article from the WSJ talks of a debate between Easterly and Bill Gates over the “expertise” of johnny-come-lately philanthropists:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120113473219511791.html

    Brushing off Mr. Gates’s comments, Mr. Easterly responds, “The vested interests in aid are so powerful they resist change and they ignore criticism. It is so good to try to help the poor but there is this feeling that [philanthropists] should be immune from criticism.”

    A core belief of Mr. Gates is that technology can erase problems that seem intractable. That belief was deepened, Mr. Gates says, by his study of Julian Simon, a now-deceased business professor who argued that increases in wealth and technology would offset shortages in energy, food and other global resources.

  • Guy Love

    The PR that is the problem is that the Green movement has went into overkill mode and has attempted to use fear and hysteria to move the ball closer to their goal line. This has not worked very well and as people have questioned their underlying motives they have been told to cease and desist because the conversation is over. This is also a very poor strategy for persuading people to do what is in their best interest.

    The Green movement needs to show more patience and promote the positive upside of moving energy technology out of the early 20th century. I keep hoping that we will see a Manhattan-like project to replace the combustion engine and oil as far as an energy supply. Most people would be excited by that and it would automatically solve most of the pollution / climate concerns. The guys at Davos certainly have the monetary means to set it up and should be able to stand up to the oil industry and get the auto industry to buy into abandoning the past for a bright new future.

  • Anna

    > “3,000 questions asked in Sunday morning programs during the campaign included just three on global warming — equal to the three on UFOs.”
    link (there’s a further link to a PDF at bottom of that page)

    > “Brilliant says very few of the people fighting against the climate change movement are bad people: “they have children, they have grandchildren.””

    Good luck convincing a man of something if his paycheck depends on his not understanding it. Plus if you’re just one guy in a 2000-person firing squad, I’m sure you can rationalize your actions, if it’s paying your kids’ tuition.

    > “Gore…saying that getting information out is no longer sufficient. “That’s the way the world used to work. The world doesn’t work that way anymore.”

    Oreskes concurs and explains – see account of her 2006 AGU talk on Deflecting Disinformation about Climate Change

    > “Find a way to make electricity — not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of.”

    google(!) “John Doerr” “TED talk”
    (“the best way to predict the future is to invent it; the 2nd best way is to finance it”)

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-sawyers SuSaw

    gotta love those WEF “surprise sessions.” Sort of like the WEF party circuit. I’d hope that in the future, given the “innovative collaboration” theme of this year’s World Economic Annual Meeting, bloggers and tech innovators would be more inclusive of opportunities to learn about “live blogging” and the like. One of this year’s WEF buzz words is “transparency.” Please don’t start behaving like the old school elite and excluding your own, badge wearing WEF participants. How can you possibly expect change or to truly make a difference when you exclude your own? Mildly sour grapefully yours, sss

  • http://www.businesssupport.de Kredit

    Good comment. One could say that the establishment has done a poor job with development in the poorest countries, but there are enough disparate views on the subject that it isn’t because of a dominant philosophy drowning out dissent. So coming in with “fresh” ideas is not the problem. The harshest critics of past policies have come from former employees of the World Bank: Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Collier and William Easterly, for example.

    It’s unsurprising that technologists would promote technological solutions, but most people who have studied the issues find some combination of neo-colonialism, corruption and the resource trap (too much or too little) more important.

    When one has to bribe legislators to get even routine bills passed then one has more immediate problems.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    Here’s a letter from the CEO of Shell Oil sent to all employees. When a firm like Shell starts to acknowledge peak oil and excessive CO2 emissions you know that problem has reached a critical point.

    From: Jeroen van der Veer, Chief Executive
    To: All Shell employees
    Date: 22 January 2008

    Subject: Shell Energy Scenarios

    Dear Colleagues

    In this letter, I’d like to share reflections about how we see the energy future, and our preferred route to meeting the world’s energy needs. Industry, governments and energy users – that is, all of us – will face the twin challenge of more energy and less CO2.

    This letter is based on a text I’ve written for publication in several newspapers in the coming weeks. You can use it in your communications externally. There will be more information about energy scenarios inthe months ahead.

    By the year 2100, the world’s energy system will be radically different from today’s. Renewable energy like solar, wind, hydroelectricity and biofuels will make up a large share of the energy mix, and nuclear energy too will have a place.

    Mankind will have found ways of dealing with air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. New technologies will have reduced the amount of energy needed to power buildings and vehicles.

    Indeed, the distant future looks bright, but getting there will be an adventure. At Shell, we think the world will take one of two possible routes. The first, a scenario we call Scramble, resembles a race through a mountainous desert. Like an off-road rally, it promises excitement and fierce competition. However, the unintended consequence of “more haste” will often be “less speed” and many will crash along the way.

    The alternative scenario, called Blueprints, has some false starts and develops like a cautious ride on a road that is still under construction. Whether we arrive safely at our destination depends on the discipline of the drivers and the ingenuity of all those involved in the construction effort. Technical innovation provides for excitement.

    Regardless of which route we choose, the world’s current predicament limits our maneuvering room. We are experiencing a step-change in the growth rate of energy demand due to population growth and economic development, and Shell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand.

    As a result, society has no choice but to add other sources of energy – renewables , yes, but also more nuclear power and unconventional fossil fuels such as oil sands. Using more energy inevitably means emitting more CO2 at a time when climate change has become a critical global issue.

    In the Scramble scenario, nations rush to secure energy resources for themselves, fearing that energy security is a zero-sum game, with clear winners and losers. The use of local coal and homegrown biofuels increases fast.

    Taking the path of least resistance, policymakers pay little attention to curbing energy consumption – until supplies run short. Likewise, despite much rhetoric, greenhouse gas emissions are not seriously addressed until major shocks trigger political reactions. Since these responses are overdue, they are severe and lead to energy price spikes and volatility.

    The other route to the future is less painful, even if the start is more disorderly. This Blueprints scenario sees numerous coalitions emerging to take on the challenges of economic development, energy security and environmental pollution through cross-border cooperation.

    Much innovation occurs at the local level, as major cities develop links with industry to reduce local emissions. National governments introduce efficiency standards, taxes and other policy instruments to improve the environmental performance of buildings, vehicles and transport fuels.

    As calls for harmonization increase, policies converge across the globe. Cap-and-trade mechanisms that put a cost on industrial CO 2 emissions gain international acceptance. Rising CO2 prices accelerate innovation, spawning breakthroughs. A growing number of cars are powered by electricity and hydrogen, while industrial facilities are fitted with technology to capture CO 2 and store it underground.

    Against the backdrop of these two equally plausible scenarios, we will only know in a few years whether December’s Bali declaration on climate change was just rhetoric or the beginning of a global effort to counter it. Much will depend on how attitudes evolve in Beijing, Brussels, New Delhi and Washington.

    Shell traditionally uses its scenarios to prepare for the future without expressing a preference for one over another. But, faced with the need to manage climate risk for our investors and our grandchildren, we believe the Blueprints outcomes provide the best balance between economy, energy and environment.

    For a second opinion, we appealed to climate change calculations made at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These calculations indicate that a Blueprints world with CO2 capture and storage results in the least amount of climate change, provided emissions of other major manmade greenhouse gases are similarly reduced.

    The sobering reality is that the Blueprints scenario will only come to pass if policymakers agree a global approach to emissions trading and actively promote energy efficiency and new technology in four sectors: heat and power generation, industry, mobility and buildings. It will be hard work and there is little time.

    For instance, Blueprints assumes CO2 is captured at 90% of all coal- and gas-fired power plants in developed countries in 2050, plus at least 50% of those in non-OECD countries. Today, there are none. Since CO2 capture and storage adds cost and brings no revenues , government support is needed to make it happen quickly on a scale large enough to affect global emissions. At the very least, companies should earn carbon credits for the CO2 they capture and store.

    Blueprints will not be easy. But it offers the world the best chance of reaching a sustainable energy future unscathed, so we should explore this route with the same ingenuity and persistence that put humans on the moon and created the digital age.

    The world faces a long voyage before it reaches a low-carbon energy system. Companies can suggest possible routes to get there, but governments are in the driving seat. And governments will determine whether we should prepare for a bitter competition or a true team effort.

    That is the article, and how I see our challenges and opportunities. I look forward to hearing how you see the situation (please be concise).

    Regards
    Jeroen van der Veer, Chief Executive

  • Per

    There is an open letter to Nokia, Google, the Open Handset Alliance and to
    other companies and organisations as well.
    It informs about the chances of open source for blind people from developing
    or newly industrializing countries, accessible satellite navigation on
    accessible handsets, The volunteer project Loadstone-GPS, corporate
    responsibility, mobile web access and the open
    Android platform.
    Unfortunately these topics are difficult to communicate.

    http://www.wikia.com/wiki/User:Per_B./Open_letter_initiative

    If you like the mentioned ideas you could help to spread them. Thank you.

  • http://www.kalambacal.blogspot.com kalman

    in the philippines, investing on non-renewable resources is non-VATable (free from value-added tax)

  • Anna

    Now (as of Jan 15, at least) we’re up to 4 questions on global warming.

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