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Is the climate crisis really a ‘data problem?’ Yes and no

Kentaro Kawamori, CEO of climate software firm Persefoni, wants to reframe how companies think about data.

Kentaro Kawamori speaking on stage during GreenBiz 23

Photo by Burgundy Visuals for GreenBiz

Many of us have heard this phrase: "The climate crisis is a data problem."

It’s alluring, the idea that if we could just harness company data the right way, we could know exactly how to zero out carbon emissions. It’s also a common thing to say in the halls of the GreenBiz 23 conference, where sustainability professionals and software vendors mingled in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week.

But Kentaro Kawamori — himself chief executive of a climate software firm — wants to reframe how companies think about climate data.

"When we say this generic statement, ‘The climate crisis is a data problem,’ it means a whole bunch of different things," Kawamori said Wednesday during his keynote at GreenBiz 23. "It’s an emissions problem first and foremost. Data is just an asset and a tool that helps us understand and ultimately solve these challenges."

That urgent need to leverage data in service of solutions has given rise to plenty of climate data vendors. The company that Kawamori co-founded, Persefoni, is one of them: It offers its clients a climate accounting software to help them manage and disclose their climate impacts.

Kawamori urged the GreenBiz 23 audience, however, to take caution before getting caught up in the buzz of these technologies. Sure, companies will likely need to hire a few vendors to handle their climate data, but they also might have more ability in-house to tackle this problem than they realize. Because at the end of the day, "climate data" is just enterprise data.

"It’s all the same data sets that sit within our companies, that are either under-utilized, wrongly utilized, unable to be utilized," he said. "The enterprise data challenge is so well-documented for so long now, there are so many people within a company that already work this problem. But we look at climate data, we look at emissions data as this wholesale different thing, and we talk about it as if it’s not the exact same data sets that come from our supply chain systems, our accounting systems, our operational systems."

So, start with your climate goals in mind and work backward, Kawamori advised. Make sure you have a solid system of record, and get help if you need it, but don’t "overbuy" solutions and vendors. It also helps if you start small.

"Look at a complex problem, if you solve it sort of piece by piece, and you look at solving the individual simple pieces, then the specter of this crazy complex data thing becomes much more achievable, and much less scary," he said.

But this path might get harder before it gets easier, according to Kawamori. It will take time before the climate software market consolidates into fewer players with better products. And there’s probably going to be some data fatigue along the way.

When the going gets tough, zoom out and remember that your company has solved this kind of problem before, Kawamori said. 

"Don’t look at the climate data problem as this unique snowflake problem," he said. "Look at it as the corporate data problem."

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