Tech billionaires answering the Cop28 call to save the planet

Negotiators are struggling but money is pouring in for climate solutions and the tech wizards are on the case

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at Cop28. Reuters
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Critics of the Cop process are savouring their moment. They always knew it was going to be impossible, the whole thing is preposterous and overblown, 70,000 delegates – you’re having a laugh, and so on, ad infinitum.

To an extent they’re right. There’s no doubt the Cop framework has evolved enormously since that first gathering in Berlin 28 years ago.

A conference of 4,500 people seems positively tiny when compared to the current gargantuan exercise. It also seems manageable.

That was then, this is now. In 1995, climate change was not really on the radar, scientists were discussing it, there was talk of glaciers and ice caps melting – one day in the future, and that was about all. Today, it’s firmly with us.

Hardly a week goes by without some terrible natural catastrophe unfolding somewhere, its cause attributed to a hotter planet. We can see what is coming and it is appalling.

That is, if we don’t combat it. So, since that original "Conference of the Parties" the mood has shifted. A relaxed air has been replaced by urgency. What concerned a few now bothers the many.

It’s all hands to the pump. But there are provisos. In some cases, national self-interest still prevails. Shaking that off may take time and by then, it may be too late.

Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire Microsoft co-founder, was in Dubai and stressed his belief that tech could be more important in the long run.

“I’m most optimistic about the incredible innovation. People’s willingness to pay for climate is limited. We need to really innovate. You have to create the new before you shut down the old.”

While the politicians argue and ponder, it does not mean, thankfully, that nothing is happening, that progress is not being made. As Cop28 highlights, the money like never before is pouring in and the tech wizards are on the case.

It's the countries and politicians that are most deadlocked as each continues to push their own agendas. We’ve not reached the stage of having a common goal and an agreed means of getting there.

Other changes have occurred in the near three decades. Banking almost brought the world to its economic knees; the present crop, while remaining super-wealthy, are more willing to engage, to flow with the zeitgeist and not stay entirely selfish. There wasn’t tech back then; we’ve got the means and speed of communication, thought and action undreamt of at Cop1.

As a result, we’ve got a new breed of business king: the tech multi-billionaire. They’re young, not hidebound by protocol and rules, able to apply their brilliant minds and technology to just about anything.

Which is why there are crucial positives to be taken from Cop28. There were substantial "wins" in these two areas in particular – finance and tech – that would not have occurred to those Berlin participants.

Partly, it was the lack of need. Partly as well, it was the fact that moves that were difficult, if not impossible, can these days be made with relative ease.

In Cop’s first week, more than $83 billion was mobilised, to go towards transition from dependence on fossil fuels to renewables, health care, disaster relief and technology investment.

The UAE alone pledged to commit $30 billion into a new fund to invest in climate friendly projects, to include $5 billion for the Global South. The World Bank said it would lift climate funding to 45 per cent of its total lending. Development banks promised more than $10 billion.

A "loss and damage" pool was established, to assist poorer countries deal with the impact of climate change. Initial support totalled $726 million and it is set to increase.

The announcements came thick and fast. Each of them, ordinarily, would be viewed as creditable, if not in some cases, spectacular. But in those first days they were so numerous that some were forgotten or did not get the attention they merited.

Cynics would say they would have occurred anyway, without Cop28. But there was no guarantee of that. The huge event undoubtedly acted to galvanise and motivate.

It can be claimed, too, that whatever was promised was not enough. But Cop28 landed against a backdrop of global inflation, higher interest rates, rising cost-of-living, energy and commodity supply issues, and two wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

It was only recently that the world emerged from the ravages of the pandemic. Yet, here were colossal amounts – however they’re viewed – being found and committed. It was as well, only the start.

It's possible to dismiss Cop as a glorified trade fair, that Dubai had a ‘new Davos’ vibe. But governments, business leaders, NGO chiefs, civic leaders – they were in the same place and they were talking to each other, in a manner you don’t see at the World Economic Forum.

In the Swiss Alps each January, Davos acts as a magnet for the world’s titans. But it often lacks a central focus. Unlike Davos, Cop has a single, tangible, critical objective – to save the world and there is no greater calling than that.

Hence, the presence of the best-known brands and multinationals, and the bevy of tech tycoons and their entourages. They were stressing that money was not the whole solution. If it’s a question of cash, they’ve got that. It’s what you do with the funding that counts, how you develop systems that work.

Andrew Steer, president and chief executive of the Bezos Earth Fund, set up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, put it well when he said: “One of the great things about this Cop is that for the first time we are starting to understand the importance of people.”

Assessing the impact of climate change and working out how to react and when is about interpreting huge volumes of data. That’s where tech comes in.

Fossil fuels and emissions are the focus and the most difficult area for world leaders to agree a unified approach. Tech can operate outside that, separate from the negotiations and the precise wording of a joint agreement.

Published: December 12, 2023, 1:20 PM
Updated: December 16, 2023, 7:39 PM