COP out: The world is burning. Will climate tech douse the flames?


Investment firm BlackRock has been taking flack for resolutely ploughing money into fossil fuels. Earlier this month company representatives told a UK parliamentary committee that it had no intention of halting its investments into coal, oil or gas. Following some serious public outcry, it took a rootle in the coffers last week, coming up with £3.97bn to put towards an investment fund that would finance climate tech infrastructure companies. That means the big carbon hitters – like energy, transport, utilities and digital.

This story typifies the debate emerging around climate tech and its meteoric rise in recent years. Innovations in things like carbon capture, renewables and vertical farming are thought to offer a real way to mitigate the climate crisis. But the BlackRock approach illustrates a dangerous precedent – that companies can carry on with emissions-pumping practices with one hand, as long as some climate tech investments are made with the other.

This is causing concern among environmentalists and scientists who worry that some narratives around climate tech are a bit far-fetched. Specifically, the idea that we can avoid environmental collapse and deliver value for shareholders. And what does this story mean for communities most susceptible to the perils of climate change?

Innovating from the brink

It’s not surprising that many are keen to believe that we can. In Europe, the business of climate-cooling is hotting up. Last year investors here put $10bn into start-ups that are trying to alleviate the climate crisis. That’s a significant upsurge compared with 2020, when the category accounted for $5.4bn.

In the US, Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) is Bill Gates’ latest world-saving effort. It’s a fund that has invested in more than 100 start-ups since 2017, most of the inventions it has financed have been about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But talking at the Breakthrough Energy Summit in Seattle last week, a member of its investing committee announced that the organisation was set to pivot. The present is still about halting or reversing the effects of climate change, but the future will be more about finding ways to live with them. John Holdren, a research professor at Harvard University who advised the Obama administration on all things climate and science, puts it well: “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering.”

Climate communities

This decidedly gloomy observation flies in the face of all those zealous climate tech founders who are pumped at their latest valuation. The numbers show that advances in climate tech alone won’t be enough to bring emissions to net zero by 2030. As Greta Thunberg said at COP26 last year: “We don’t have a technology solution that will get anywhere even close.” If we can stop believing that new inventions might come along and neatly avert disaster in the coming years, we might feel more compelled to act now. Moreover, local communities across the UK and elsewhere need more meaningful ways to take on the climate crisis.

An encouraging template for action can be observed in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. While the programme draws on all the scientific and engineering nous you’d expect from the university – like using data science to predict climate risks and emergencies – it also prioritises the building of equality and fairness into climate solutions. This means simple, accessible and low-tech ways to alleviate the impact of climate change. After all, the means of fighting the biggest threat to our civilisation shouldn’t be in the hands of investors and technologists, but in the communities who are most vulnerable to its effects.