At SXSW, Tech Bros try to save the world from climate change


It’s opening night of SXSW and the city’s hottest happy hour is promoting sustainable soil in Patagonia. The badge line doesn’t budge – I suppose the dreaded one in, one out The policy is in full effect – so I’ll move on.

At the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, which is known for hosting a plethora of tech execs with LinkedIn blogs, one industry is counting on its carbon footprint the best way it’s known: feeding mushroom meat Thought leader in brand activation.

But here it’s not just the shadow of last week’s sudden collapse of Silicon Valley Bank that has the sector worried – at least one SX spokeswoman struggled on her phone mid-presentation after a wage-saving transfer – it’s the looming fear of that climate change. To borrow the title of a Disney+ series debuting this month from National Geographic and being promoted during SXSW, the conference could be aptly described as Restaurants at the end of the world.

Shell Oil has taken over blues club Antone’s to host panels on Web 3’s role in a zero-carbon future. Climate change activists protest against the energy sector and hold ice cream socials led by Ben and Jerry’s. Volkswagen presents its new electric cars. During the panel “What to Say When the World Is Ending”, business executives learn how to address their teams in crises. Kroger is committed to the future of nutrition. Clean energy infrastructure in the sea is a hot topic. The same applies to enzymes that can compost plastic. So is net zero housing. Smart cities are like that. So is hydrogen energy. He looks to African countries “for a clean energy future”.

In other words, there are very serious, and arguably cynical, solutions to climate change, a pervasive problem that affects all life on the planet and has something new for people to digest every week. So the maple syrup industry could collapse.

Big Tech wants to help. But everyone has to deal with it; and so in Austin there are oil companies that do not use their logo on the marquee of their event.

“Trust the Energy Boys”

Antone’s is really more of a brand than a popular hangout. Named after the late organizer, suspected drug dealer and beloved University of Texas professor who taught blues guitar lessons Clifford Antone, the previous version of the eponymous nightclub was a dingy dump on West 5th that now has a ping pong fancy.

But the new Antone’s is an elegant and stunning blues mausoleum. And Shell has moved in to talk about new technologies for the Monday presentation “How Digital and Web3 Tech Will Underpin a Net-Zero Future”.

Let’s translate.

Net zero is the idea that while we as a species emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will offset this through carbon neutralization and carbon removal initiatives. Web 3 is a leftover buzzword from SXSW 2022 and more of a philosophy: A decentralized internet that comes after the social media era, not committed to Google and Facebook.

In already existing niche Web3 communities running on blockchains, artificial intelligence tools developed by armchair fans using open-source coding could be integrated into high-level workflows from Shell and Microsoft. Everyone offered speakers to Shell House.

Basically, you, the citizen coder, can help Shell solve technical problems more efficiently. Panelists pointed to the use of infrared technology to identify methane leaks as a concrete way in which technological innovation is helping oil and gas solve problems.

OK but.

“Shell’s operating plans and budgets don’t reflect its net-zero spending,” climate activist and Scope3 CEO Brian O’Kelley argued at another SXSW panel. “These are companies designed to build massive industrial projects,” and so the clean energy transition they’re talking about “isn’t for them.”

O’Kelley says we’ve also far exceeded corporate pledges to reduce emissions.

“Goals don’t matter,” says O’Kelley. “I have had a weight loss goal for 5 years. … How do we get over all this bullshit?”

I asked Shell CIO and SXSW spokesman Jay Crotts. He believes that solutions to the “energy trilemma” will come from the oil and gas industry. (The three themes are energy access, affordability, and sustainability.) In his view, a giant company like Shell can thrive with its resources and elite human capital.

“I think these skills are now building wind farms. … Those capabilities are now building carbon capture servers underground,” Crotts says, saying Shell has a “multibillion-dollar investment in the non-hydrocarbon environment.”

It invests billions in low-carbon solutions. But as Bloomberg notes, simultaneously “selling oil and gas for record profits is a hard habit to break.”

“A lot of people said we had a supply problem. Get rid of the support people,” says Crotts. “Shell gets up to 2% of the world’s energy hydrocarbons on a good day.”

Shell reported emissions of 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020, about 1.6%, according to Client Earth. Zoomed out, as the EPA reports, “the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity in the United States is the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.”

“If you cut off Western oils,” Crotts says, “doesn’t the world have a climate problem?” Or, he argues, “Venezuelan oil, which may be a little more polluting, fills the gap?”

Crotts continues, “We do some of the most amazing things on the planet. We try to solve the problem. But the problem is the trilemma. … I predict these giant companies will be the solutions.” That’s because Crotts says they can scale up these projects — apparently a common argument in the oil industry: The guys who know energy might as well do that lead transition.

It was also made in the Shell house.

It’s also an argument in oil and gas advertising, another industry that’s getting introspective at SXSW.

As O’Kelley, the CEO and climate activist, argues, “They say the transition is too tough. Trust us to handle it.”

“Your values ​​probably don’t align that much with Exxon’s if you’re a young creative person in Austin, Texas,” Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creative, tells a panel on the high-carbon supply chain’s relationship with pop and up ads you see on the internet.

The advertising executive here encourages his profession not to partner with fossil fuel companies. So far, he has persuaded 500 agencies to quit.

“Don’t we want to have an ethical, moral superiority to stand on?” asks O’Kelley.

Characterized by a desire for commonality, SXSW 2023 tackles a big question, as he puts it: How to create and participate in systemic change?

eat the plastic

The SXSW menu of the technology sector to solve climate change has more choices than Cheesecake Factory. However, the most effective ideas eat the elephant bite by bite.

Four hundred million tons of plastic will be produced in 2023, according to Professor Hal Alper of the University of Texas. That number is increasing every year, he says. Perhaps an enzyme discovered in 2016 and remixed by his research team can break down some of it?

A time-lapse video of his team’s research shows the enzymes behind all sorts of grocery store plastic goods.

“Plastics are very easy to make,” says Alper. “They are cheap because they have very little impact on their manufacture. But they are expensive in terms of long-term use.”

Called Fast-PETase, his team’s enzyme, developed via a machine learning algorithm, breaks down plastic at the molecular level “within 24 hours,” Alper SXSW shows on screen. “It just starts chewing it away.”

It doesn’t work for all types of plastic, Alper says, but the enzymes came to mankind from nature in response to more than 100 years of plastic.

Jason Busch, executive director of the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust, is similarly focused on scalable impact and is attempting to build offshore wind turbines in the ocean to generate clean energy. It’s a 10-year process to get one in the water, he says, given the challenges of permitting and surveying and that “the US never had a coherent energy policy.”

His attitude seems both urgent and resigned to proceed step by step. He’s a celebrated climate activist who, unlike O’Kelley, believes that energy giants can help with clean energy. His co-panelist Olusola Dosunmu is Director of Global Projects at DEMS LLC, a consulting firm serving the oil and gas industry. He says it’s about repurposing the rigs in places like the Gulf of Mexico.

“You can reduce your environmental impact” by “using what’s available,” says Dosunmu. “We will not start from scratch. It will be a very smooth transition.”

That seems unlikely. Crystal Pruitt, director of external affairs for Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind, is tasked with building local relationships with those affected by the construction of offshore wind turbines.

“We go into the communities that we’re affecting,” she says, and “explain to them why we’re going to tear up their street.” She says it’s primarily communities of color that are affected. This touches on another hurdle of climate change: environmental protection is a passion project for the breed of professional problem solvers at SXSW; ie dudes in tech with big bucks.

“If a mother who lives in Newark has such bad air quality that her children develop asthma, … she doesn’t give a damn about polar bears,” says Pruitt.

At National Geographic Restaurants at the end of the world, Chef Kristen Kish highlights how remote cultures use land and sea for food. Dinner is what they can catch that day. Hopefully SXSW’s industrial climate targets will prove useful to these locals. At SXSW, Tech Bros try to save the world from climate change

Jaclyn Diaz

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