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Pitch

Seeking innovative ways to bring carbon pricing to the US? Think about how we all get our info today—so get Google to rate carbon polluters.


Description

Summary

Google is at the heart of how millions of Americans get their information today, powering the industry's dominant search engine, the Gmail email system and the Chrome web browser. The company is also famous for its zeal for fostering unusual innovations outside its lane, as well as its "don't be evil" corporate slogan that reflects its public-facing philosophy.

So let's ask Google to put these powers to use on behalf of all its future users by instituting a form of carbon pricing.

Its search engine? Whenever a user searches for something to which relative carbon pollution values can be attached, Google should provide that information. It can do so in at least two ways: 1) signal the particular item's impact on carbon pollution (or reducing potential) in an easily accessible form, and 2) the item's relative desirability reflected in the positional ranking or presentation.

The Chrome web browser? Google or other developers could create a plugin, installed by default, that detects certain language or visuals on a given webpage—such as different food commodities or different car models—and provides the associated carbon pollution values. (The plugin could go even further and provide a tool that would be especially useful to journalists, watchdogs, and climate advocates: if the name of a corporation, organization, or elected leader is detected, then the app could display various campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures data.)  If the plugin detects the name of a public company that has been breaking SEC requirements (not just for oil and gas companies) to disclose its climate risks, then the browser should display this information as well.

By taking these actions, Google would build on its own internal carbon pricing systems already underway, bring publicity to the need for serious action on climate change, and help ease the overall private sector's transition to a low-carbon economy under a policy-driven pricing system.


What actions do you propose?

Information is power—and in order to access it in the most common ways today, chances are you'll have to go through Google. That's because Google is behind the industry's dominant search engine, the ubiquitous Gmail email system, the popular Chrome web browser, and the Android smartphone operating system. The company is also famous for its zeal for fostering unusual innovations outside its lane, as well as its "don't be evil" corporate slogan that reflects its public-facing philosophy. Moreover, even Google can't avoid the hazards of climate change; that is why, for example, it has already begun to use internal carbon prices. (The shadow price it has set for internal purposes, such as evaluating investment choices and managing long-term financial risks, is $14/tCO2.)

Encouraged by these factors, this proposal calls for a concerted, coordinated effort by climate change activists, supportive business leaders, and policymakers to urge Google to institute a form of carbon pricing, which is at its most basic an effort to capture the external costs of carbon pollution. Specifically, Google should consider implementing the following:

Its search engine: Whenever a user searches for something to which relative carbon pollution values can be attached, Google should provide that information. It can do so in at least two ways: 1) signal the particular item's impact on carbon pollution (or reducing potential) in an easily accessible form, and 2) the item's relative desirability reflected in the positional ranking or presentation.

Obviously, considerable work, advocacy, and debate would be required within Google and with external stakeholders to get to this point of offering carbon pollution values that would be held out and interpreted as "the" definitive values. But even simpler signals could be helpful, such as showing on its Google Maps the carbon pollution-generating potential of taking the car for a short trip relative to walking it.

Chrome web browser: Google or other developers could create a plugin, installed by default, that detects certain language or visuals on a given webpage—such as different food commodities or different car models—and provides the associated carbon pollution values. If the plugin detects the name of a public company that has been breaking SEC requirements (not just for oil and gas companies) to disclose its climate risks, then the browser could display this information as well.

The browser could go even further, to provide a tool that would be especially useful to journalists, watchdogs, and climate advocates: if the name of a corporation, organization, or elected leader is detected, then the browser could display various campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures data. For an example of how a similar idea has been implemented, see Nick Rubin's "Greenhouse" web browser plugin, which detects the names of congressional lawmakers and displays campaign finance data when the mouse hovers over the text.

By taking these actions, Google would build on its own internal carbon pricing systems already underway and help ease the transition for both the overall private sector and the public at large—including consumers and voters—towards a policy-driven pricing system.

Actually, many companies have already begun to prepare for the global policy-driven transition to a low-carbon economy by implementing internal or "shadow" carbon prices. What is not yet in existence is a comprehensive system that enables the public to easily obtain and compare information about the potential for items and activities to create carbon pollution. Google is extremely well-positioned to fill this void.

Challenges:

Implementing the proposal would face serious challenges. Most obviously, many industry players—including the corporations that drive Google's advertising revenues—would be strongly opposed and mobilize against it. That is why outside developers may be more likely to create their own versions of the ideas outlined in this proposal, which would dramatically hurt user adoption and usage. But it would nonetheless be a start, even if the pickup is limited to journalists, advocates, watchdog groups, and regulators.


Who will take these actions?

Google is the entity that would be called upon to take the proposal and run with it. It would be the outside coalition of climate change advocacy groups and business leaders that would band together to urge Google to take those actions. Or these stakeholders may decide to encourage or contract with other developers to create similar tools. They may even sponsor a competition, similar to the X Prize contests, to find the best submission.


What challenges will be faced in implementing this proposal and how will they be overcome?

(Given that the webform restricts this section to 200 characters, it is addressed in the main proposal section.)


How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

The short answer is zero. The longer answer is that the direct impact on carbon pollution would not be quantifiable, although Google or the developer responsible may be able to collect data that would allow for some inferences. The benefits are social and political, with potentially far-reaching and lasting ramifications.


What are other key benefits?

The ultimate purpose of this proposal is political and social: to bring publicity to the issue of climate change and the need for carbon pricing in particular, raise expectations about a legislatively-driven system in the future, and influence users' behaviors in the activities they perform and things they buy.


What are the proposal’s costs?

The financial costs borne by the coalition would likely be minimal, especially if they are already outspoken climate change advocates. Without further details from Google itself and without knowing the scope of actions taken, it would be difficult to estimate the costs that it would bear in implementing the ideas.

That said, rather than being economic, the potential risks are likely to be more political in nature. This initiative could trigger a bigger counter-effort by corporate interests with clashing goals but deeper pockets. The companies that would see their products downgraded would be strongly opposed. 


Time line

5-15 years: Building coalition and developing plans; Google implementing the steps. The goal is for this initiative to enhance the broader effort to enact a policy-driven carbon pricing system. Ideally, by the end of this time period, the U.S. government (as well as state and local governments) and nations around the world will have also begun to institute the policy-driven carbon pricing models that many companies are now seeking.


Related proposals

(None.)


References

World Bank, "What Is Carbon Pricing?", accessed June 13, 2015,http://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/pricing-carbon

World Bank, "Testing carbon pricing in Brazil: 20 companies join an innovative simulation," Dec. 10, 2014,http://blogs.worldbank.org/climatechange/testing-carbon-pricing-brazil-20-companies-join-innovative-simulation

CDP, "Global corporate use of carbon pricing," accessed June 13, 2015,https://www.cdp.net/CDPResults/global-price-on-carbon-report-2014.pdf

"Big corporates leading the way on climate change with carbon pricing," The Guardian, Sept. 15, 2014,http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/sep/15/businesses-ahead-governments-climate-change-carbon-pricing

"CEOs of 43 Companies, Including Allianz, Call for Action on Climate Change," Insurance Journal, Apr. 17, 2015,http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2015/04/17/364818.htm

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, "Taking action on climate change is good business strategy,: Jan. 30, 2015,http://www.c2es.org/blog/yej/taking-action-climate-change-good-business-strategy

Ceres, "Investors push SEC to require stronger climate risk disclosure by fossil fuel companies," Apr. 17, 2015,http://www.ceres.org/press/press-releases/investors-push-sec-to-require-stronger-climate-risk-disclosure-by-fossil-fuel-companies

Ceres, "Major U.S. Companies Call for Climate Change Action," Sept. 19, 2013,http://www.ceres.org/press/press-releases/major-u.s.-companies-call-for-climate-change-action

"Most U.S. Companies Ignoring SEC Rule to Disclose Climate Risks," Inside Climate News, Sept. 19, 2013,http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20130919/most-us-companies-ignoring-sec-rule-disclose-climate-risks

PwC, "Why putting a price on carbon is becoming a business and economic reality." Sept. 26, 2014,http://pwc.blogs.com/sustainability/2014/09/why-putting-a-price-on-carbon-is-becoming-a-business-and-economic-reality.html

Greenbiz Groups, "State of Green Business: Shadow pricing steps into the limelight," Feb. 5, 2013,http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/02/05/state-green-business-shadow-pricing

"Not old enough to vote, 16-year-old builds money-in-politics plug-in," Wash. Post, July 3, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/in-the-loop/wp/2014/07/03/not-old-enough-to-vote-16-year-old-builds-money-in-politics-plug-in