Big Tech Has Some Wild Ideas to Save the Planet, but Will They Really Work?

Elon Musk Climate Change
John Raoux/AP/Shutterstock

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a plan to save our planet: Pack up all those polluting factories, and relocate them to the moon. “We need to move heavy industry off Earth,” Bezos said at an Amazon event this summer. “Earth will be zoned residential and light industry.” The world’s richest man has poured billions of dollars into his own rocket company Blue Origin to further those goals. His mantra: “The reason we go to space is to save the earth.”

Bezos isn’t the only dot-com magnate looking to save humanity with far-out ideas. From Elon Musk to Bill Gates, and from ride-hailing companies to carbon-capture startups, many in the tech industry are offering moonshot ideas of their own to combat climate change.

Even Robert Downey Jr., who has played ge­nius inventor Tony Stark on the big screen, has caught the bug in real life. His Footprint Coalition foundation plans to use cutting-edge technology for the greener good. Notes Downey Jr.: “Between robotics and nano­technology, we could clean up the planet significantly, if not totally, in 10 years.”

Can big tech save the world? Experts are skeptical, in part because previous industry efforts have often amounted to little more than greenwashing. Silicon Valley’s ride-hailing companies, for instance, have long pitched their services as a sustainable way to reduce personal car ownership. Recent studies have shown that all those Uber and Lyft drivers circling city centers actually have increased congestion. “It had a pretty negative effect, environmentally,” says GreenBiz analyst Katie Fehrenbacher.

Experiments that go awry are not uncommon in Silicon Valley’s move-fast-and-break-things culture. That’s why some observers are especially concerned about the tech industry’s latest green-tech fascination: Climate engineering — a broad field that ranges from capturing carbon out of thin air to shooting tiny particles into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and cool the planet.

“Climate is a complex system,” says climate scientist John Fleming of the Center for Biological Diversity. A quick techno-fix to dial down the temperature (even if possible) could overshoot its goal, he warns. Fleming is also skeptical of plans for facilities to remove massive amounts of carbon from the air, an effort in which Gates has been investing money. “Those techniques haven’t been proven to be viable at scale,” the scientist says.

Fleming takes issue with the entire notion that humans can innovate ourselves out of the climate crisis. “People don’t want their way of life to change,” he says. “They are expecting some technological fix. Someone will come along and solve this problem. That’s not the case.”

Actual solutions may not come from a genius invention, but rather by incorporating systemic changes. “There is a lot you can do to make urban mobility more environmentally friendly,” says Fehrenbacher. Housing that’s closer to public transit, better public transportation and cities banning vehicles with combustion engines from certain streets could go a long way to reduce carbon, she says.

“The solutions to the problem already exist,” agrees Fleming. He wishes big tech would invest more in moving away from fossil fuels as opposed to some of the moonshots that won’t have any effect for many decades, if ever.

Some companies have moved in the right direction. Apple, for instance, operates massive solar farms; the company and its suppliers generated enough clean energy in 2018 to power 600,000 U.S. homes. Sidewalk Labs, a unit of Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet, has plans to make cars obsolete in parts of Toronto, providing a testing ground for clean urban development.

These types of investments are more an exception than the rule these days. Many venture capital companies have stayed away from clean tech after losing lots of money on early green tech startups a few years ago, says Fehrenbacher. “I don’t think Silicon Valley is taking climate change seriously.”

Some tech billionaires are offering plans that have proved practical while playing Tony Stark in their spare time. Elon Musk’s car company, Tesla, has driven the transition to electric vehicles, forcing others in the auto industry to wake up and follow suit. “He has done more than any other person in the last two decades to electrify transportation,” says Fehrenbacher.

At the same time, Musk also has his own rocket company, SpaceX, and plans for the future of humankind that make Bezos and his moon fixation seem tame. If Earth becomes uninhabitable, Musk wants to use radical climate engineering to turn Mars from the barren wasteland depicted in “The Martian” into a home for humanity. His not-so-subtle way of heating up the red planet and creating an Earth-like atmosphere involves attacking its polar ice caps with nuclear weapons.

As Musk puts it: “Nuke Mars! Not saying it solves everything, mind you, but it’s a step in the right direction.”