Web Summit is combing its massive network to find sustainability startups that can meet U.N. net zero carbon emissions goals
  • Race to Zero is seeking sustainable startups to match with the entities committing to net zero carbon emissions
  • Though impact investors are among the Race to Zero signatories, the real leaders are city and regional governments that can use regulatory and purchasing power to incentivize investors to back them. 
  • For the first time, the world’s largest technology conference will be a virtual event — and connecting the most promising startups with leaders who can scale them. 

The shift to virtual events in response to the coronavirus pandemic may be creating new tech-savvy opportunities for cities and other entities to reach net zero carbon emissions.

The U.N. Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) launched its Race to Zero Campaign shortly after announcing that COP26 — the annual global climate leadership gathering — would be postponed until 2021. 

Race to Zero is a virtual commitment: entities who sign up commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Already the campaign is the largest-ever alliance of its kind; it boasts commitments from 449 cities as well as 21 regions, 995 businesses, 38 major investors, and 505 universities — collectively representing 2.6 billion people, more than half of the world’s GDP, and, crucially, nearly 25 percent of global carbon emissions. 

Once the commitment is made, however, the next steps toward net zero become less straightforward. That challenge piqued the interest of Web Summit, the world’s largest technology conference, which will be going fully virtual for its 2020 edition after attracting more than 70,000 participants online and offline in 2019. The massive network will be tapped to curate a group of sustainability-minded startups ready to scale, who will then be linked up with the Race to Zero signatories. It’s not a replacement for COP26, but it will be bringing the U.N. gathering’s ethos to a new audience.

“The firms we’re looking for are ones that are in a position to potentially move the needle towards the future — and that in itself is quite broad,” explained WebSummit’s chief impact officer, Peter Gilmer, in an interview with Karma. “We want to understand the startups, what they need, and then we start to bridge the gap with our almost infinite community of leaders, and put them together in a meaningful way.”

One example: a Swedish startup whose freeze-dried cattle feed supplement reduces methane gas emissions from cows, which could help farming regions reduce their carbon footprint significantly. In past years, closed-door meetings might have been the link between founders and potential investors or supporters. This year, the closed-door will be virtual, as one might expect from a gathering of thousands of tech geeks: private virtual video conferencing and small-group meetings will take place on the event’s web and mobile app. 

This is not the first time that climate change has been a hot topic at Web Summit; tech leaders have long evangelized its potential to address climate change in user-friendly and futuristic ways. What has changed is investor appetite and local government interest.

Make My Money Matter, Richard Curtis’ UK-based campaign to get the U.K.’s £3 trillion in pension investments, to commit to social and environmental impact targets, is also part of the Race to Zero and will be featured at Web Summit. 

COVID-19 has brought the urgency of both environmental and societal problems into sharp focus, though Gilmer noted that the mood was palpably shifting at the Davos Economic Forum in January, two months before the pandemic brought the global economy to a halt. Cities, he said, are also stepping into leadership roles that excite investors.

“Cities have this capacity and appetite to share,” he said. “Whereas corporations may be a little bit more resistant.”