Greg Lindsay's Blog

May 25, 2021  |  permalink

Fast Company and the Future of Decarbonization

(In May, Fast Company invited me to host a panel on how companies can work together to aggressively decarbonize their operations and portfolios. Click here or on the image above to watch; the recap is below.)

World leaders breathed a sigh of relief in February when the United States officially rejoined the Paris Agreement, making good on President Biden’s Inauguration Day commitment to the 2015 global climate accord aimed at limiting global warming to less than 2°C. Relief transformed into astonishment only two months later, when he made an Earth Day pledge to halve America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, as Canada and other nations scrambled to follow suit.

But do these ambitious plans go far—and fast—enough? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned the world needs to decarbonize completely by 2030 to achieve the Paris targets, 20 years ahead of schedule. Although the Biden administration plans to back his intentions with the $2.25 trillion American Jobs Act—which includes $174 billion for a national electric vehicle charging network, rebates for purchasing American-made EVs, and electrifying the federal vehicle fleet, along with $100 billion for upgrading the power grid—not even the U.S. government can go it alone. Rewiring the global economy in a decade or less demands the same go-for-broke levels of corporate innovation and collaboration witnessed during the pandemic, when pharmaceutical rivals raced to bring novel vaccines to market at unprecedented speeds. It will also require businesses, their shareholders, investors, and regulators to internalize the risks—and realize the trillion-dollar opportunities—of halting climate change.

“Companies are doing this for themselves—not just because shareholders want them to, or because it’s the right thing to do—but because it’s good business,” says Anne T. Madden, senior vice president and general counsel of Honeywell. “The demand is there, the technologies are here, and companies like ours can not only deploy innovations internally, we can also supply them to our customers even faster.” She made this point during an online discussion of what it would take to stop global warming by 2035—15 years ahead of schedule—presented by Fast Company and sponsored by Honeywell.

So, where do we start? In 2017, Project Drawdown published its first comprehensive plan to halt emissions and bolster carbon sinks on land and at sea. At the top of its hit list wasn’t coal-fired power plants or frequent flyers, but refrigerants—the incredibly potent gases lurking inside every refrigerator and air conditioner that tend to escape at the end of their useful life. A failure to phase them out now rather than 2050 could cost an estimated $629.4 billion to sequester them. To that end, Honeywell has launched its Solstice line of low-greenhouse gas emission liquid refrigerants—saving its customers more than 200 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) since they came on the market. It’s just one example of what Evan van Hook, Honeywell’s chief sustainability officer, described as “a storehouse of proven technologies” that has enabled the company to reduce its own carbon intensity by 90% since 2004.

No company can go it alone, however, and compelling laggards to catch up requires more than draconian regulations. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) created the template for a member-driven, voluntary race to the top when it developed the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for construction and maintenance in 1993. Today, the average LEED building emits 34% fewer emissions and consumes a quarter less energy than comparable ones—delivering billions of dollars in savings as well. But driving its emissions to net zero underscores the need to think systemically across entire industries, said Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO of the USGBC. “Product manufacturers should focus on reinventing their supply chains upstream and increasing their disclosure downstream,” he said. “We also need disruptive technologies to modernize and decarbonize grids and cities, along with the widespread adoption of renewables. And we need big fiscal policies—bigger incentives and bigger guidelines—to make building green the norm.”

Normal is the operative word. To get to zero quickly, companies can’t see such measures solely as the province of ESG—environmental, social, and corporate governance—initiatives but, rather, as part and parcel of core business activities. Ideally, Madden pointed out, these should have clear metrics and objectives that can be “measured, tracked, and audited,” describing a near future in which GHG meets generally accepted accounting principles and practices. This will in turn drive changes in business models as the true costs of carbon become known. “If companies are going to commit to this, it can’t just be happy talk,” she said.

But how best to achieve this? Van Hook points to lessons from the postwar revolution in quality control led by W. Edwards Deming. “He started thinking in terms of tools, but ultimately realized it’s a cultural transformation, so that quality is built into the process,” van Hook explained. Honeywell is striving to do the same with its internal, eponymous operating system, through which it aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035—right on schedule.

“We’ve proven to ourselves we can do it,” Madden added. “Now we just need more companies to make that commitment and come on board.”

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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