Countries of the world have converged once again to negotiate a new global deal to tackle climate change, one that will build on the Kyoto Protocol, whose emission reduction commitments expire at the end of 2012.  Inability to reach a legally binding deal last year in Copenhagen was a setback to the clean energy economy, making it that much more urgent that governments in Cancun show the world they are committed to reaching a meaningful deal that will drive clean energy investments.

COP16 has a lot more going on than negotiations between governments on what to do about climate change. Events and discussions fill the two immense cavities of the 
“Cancunmesse”, twin exhibition halls where NGO observers, delegates, and corporate attendees expound daily on a range of climate and energy topics.

Greenpeace held its own panel discussion Friday, a conversation with Michael Terrell, Google’s Energy Policy Counsel, and Ray Pinto, Microsoft’s Senior Government Affairs Manager for Europe, on the “IT Sector & Transformative Solutions: Evaluating the state of public and private sector leadership”.

IT has solutions, but who knows about them?

Information technology has the potential to dramatically cut carbon from other sectors of the economy and help the world meet global emissions reductions, thus the IT sector has an important role to play at the international climate conference. Policy makers need to better understand the potential of IT solutions, and IT companies need to advocate for policies that help those solutions thrive and transform our economy to run more efficiently using clean energy.

At the event Friday, Michael Terrell addressed the importance of empowering consumers. “The data shows that when people can see the spikes (in their energy use), how much the hair dryer pulls, for example, they use less energy.” Five to fifteen percent is saved, he said, just by giving people access to their home energy data, the equivalent of taking 20 million cars off the road. Google offers an energy management tool, Powermeter, which feeds real-time data about your home energy use.

Microsoft provided the example of digital music, showing that carbon emissions can be cut in half by buying music online. “[IT] is an enabler, and it’s disruptive,” said Pinto. Enabler because it is not the silver bullet solution, but rather that which enables other technologies and sectors to develop more efficiently and run on clean energy. Disruptive because IT has the power to change our lifestyle and behavior. (And hopefully to disrupt climate change as well.)

But how many policy makers are currently sitting in the negotiations thinking that if they were to approve a global target, digital music would help the world meet it? Companies need to provide clear, well quantified examples of how IT solutions can drive dramatic reductions in other sectors, such as building and transport. And then they need to go to government with a policy roadmap that tells decision makers exactly what is needed to bring those solutions to fruition at a scale that will make a noticeable dent in the world’s carbon problem. Corporations are nothing if not persuasive, but it’s time they apply that tenacity to getting the policy frameworks in place that will ensure the success of carbon-cutting solutions. More show and tell.

Are IT companies prioritizing political advocacy?

On Tuesday we will release the fourth Cool IT ranking of IT climate leadership here in Cancun. This is an appropriate setting, as one-third of the evaluation that determines a company’s rank is based on the degree to which it uses opportunities like COP16 to advocate for strong climate and energy policies. 

IT Companies showed up at COP15 in Copenhagen last year in big numbers for the first time, but a coherent message to governments was missing.  This year, there is also a good turn out of Leaderboard companies in Cancun, but it’s what they do while they’re here and when they return home, not just showing up, that really defines their advocacy leadership.

Strong climate and energy policies are needed to support the growth of IT climate solutions. “Having uncertainty about climate change policies hinders investments and business,” expressed Terrell. Google supported California’s global warming legislation during a recent attempt by oil companies to derail it, and the company has also publicly supported a 30% emissions reduction target for Europe. Terrell says that Google got behind these ambitions because clear, long-term goals help drive investment in the clean energy technologies.

Terrell also explained that Google’s advocacy strategy is to weigh in on issues that don’t otherwise have the attention of the sector. He says Google can have a greater impact when it steps out from what others are doing to support an important but overlooked priority. Perhaps he means like the company did when it defended California’s global warming law, which few companies took action on, and none as aggressively as the search giant.

Google’s advocacy track record proves that it has a role to play in clearing a path for other companies to follow, but we simultaneously need to see the entire sector working collaboratively together in the name of its shared interests to articulate policy goals on a very big scale.

Photo: COP16/CMP6 Media Gallery, Moon Palace