Can High-Tech Capitalism Address Climate Change?
Planet’s satellites plus AI, Marshall explained, can track a country’s trees, farmlands, coral reefs, coastal mangroves and smokestack emissions with incredible precision — down to three meters — and provide transparency to show which trees are being illegally logged by whom and whose factories are violating their carbon dioxide emissions promises.
That data can then be used — in theory — to trigger consumer boycotts, spread through social networks, against the government or the food or mining company doing the damage, or it can stimulate foreign aid or investment in the country or community protecting its natural resources.
For instance, Planet, with a group of scientific and philanthropic partners, has helped create a detailed map — the Allen Coral Atlas — of all the world’s remaining coral reefs. The Philippines is using the atlas’s data about sea grass to plan nine new marine-protected areas throughout the country. At the same time, in a partnership paid by Norway, Planet is tracking deforestation in 64 tropical rainforest countries, including Brazil. Using Planet’s pinpoint accuracy, the Brazilian government has vastly increased the number of cease-and-desist citations against illegal loggers, according to Planet’s Brazilian partner, MapBiomas.
Even more important, Marshall said, is how Planet’s commercial business also helps by, for example, enabling farmers to do precision agriculture by giving them fine-grain images of their crops so they know exactly where to add water and fertilizer or when to harvest. “This may have the biggest ecosystem impact of all,” he said. More efficient crop yields that use less water and fewer fertilizers end up “reducing the need to plow up more tropical forest and strengthens the environment generally.”
The other company I am watching is Helion Energy, based in Redmond, Wash., which is working on “the world’s first fusion power plant.” Fusion energy has long been the holy grail for clean power generation — and it always seems 20 years away. As the International Atomic Energy Agency notes on its website: “The sun, along with all other stars, is powered by a reaction called nuclear fusion. If nuclear fusion can be replicated on earth, it could provide virtually limitless clean, safe and affordable energy.”
Last June, as the website New Atlas reported, Helion published results confirming that its latest system had managed to heat a fusion plasma to a temperature over 100 million degrees Celsius, “which is significant, since it’s around the point at which there’s enough thermal energy to create large amounts of fusion.”
On Nov. 5, in the midst of Glasgow, Helion, across the Atlantic in Redmond, announced that it had raised $500 million in new financing in a round led by Sam Altman, C.E.O. of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator, along with a Who’s Who of tech entrepreneurs.