This article was adapted from Energy Weekly, a free newsletter about the clean energy transition.
In a world full of misinformation, sound bites and politicians, I take solace in knowing a group of hundreds of scientists, scholars and experts is working together with a single focus: compiling our collective understanding of climate change.
This group of climate dweebs, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released its newest report this week, and it may be its most important work yet. It’s like the final book of a trilogy, as the IPCC released its most recent findings in three installments spread over months. The first two focused on the science and physical impacts of climate change. The most recent report looks at climate mitigation — what governments, corporations and individuals can do to avert climate chaos.
This is my sweet spot. While understanding the severity and urgency of the climate crisis is important context, I am drawn to what action must be taken to make a difference. And this report has plenty of actionable insights.
Phasing out fossil fuels is an existential imperative
Chief among the report’s findings: We must wind down our dependence on fossil fuels immediately. Fossil fuels comprise about two-thirds of human-caused emissions, and efficiency measures (while helpful) will never reduce greenhouse gases to the level needed.
The report finds that operating even the existing fossil fuel infrastructure will keep the goal of limiting global temperatures increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius out of reach, the generally accepted goal established by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
The good news: We have renewable energy. The report validates the findings of countless other studies showing that the cost of renewable energy technologies has fallen precipitously in the last decade, spurring the increased adoption. Still, the speed of the shift to renewables must triple.
What companies can do: Electrify everything
Let’s dive into a portion of one graphic. It documents how much decarbonizing is possible on the demand side — how far changing behaviors, infrastructure and technology will take us towards decarbonization:
The graphic splits emissions into three sectors: industry, transport and buildings. (Hey — those are the tracks of VERGE Electrify!) The yellow portion of each graph represents how much could be decarbonized by changing out appliances — such as moving from fossil fuel-powered machines to all-electric machines. For all three sectors, this swap represents the largest potential to decarbonize from a demand perspective.
Here’s what the IPCC says need to happen to delete that end-use portion of emissions:
This refers to all manufactured products, from smartphones to bridges. In order for this sector to decarbonize, companies and governments must use materials made efficiently and through carbon neutral processes. This means swapping from fossil fuels to low- or zero- emissions electricity, hydrogen and fuels.
The good news is for almost all basic materials, there are many low- to zero-carbon options at the pilot, near-commercial or commercial stage. The bad news: These products have yet to become industry practice. While decarbonizing industry is possible, the report recognizes it will entail coordinated action throughout the value chain. That means dedicated people making it happen at every step of the way.
What companies can do: Procure zero-carbon materials. Sign deals that help commercialize these technologies. Stop waiting for other companies to act first. No one is coming to save us, so do your part to create the market to move innovations from “pilot” to “commercial.”
If you are in the manufacturing industry, electrify. If that technology doesn’t exist yet, figure out how to get it to exist. If you can’t figure it out, try a clean fuel.
This portion refers specifically to land transportation, and the recommendations are straightforward: Use electric, efficient vehicles. Then power them with clean electricity. For shipping, aviation and heavy-duty land transport, sustainable biofuels and clean hydrogen will help.
The good news: Electric vehicles — from motorcycles to buses — are available, getting cheaper and are super-fun to drive (that last point is not in the report, but prove me wrong). The bad news: electrifying transport will require continued investment in supporting infrastructure to scale the speed of deployment.
What companies can do: turn fleets into electric fleets. Support charging infrastructure at the company, regional and national level. Be an early mover.
If you have shipping or aviation needs, assess if electrification is an option. The report highlights how electrification could play a niche role for aviation and shipping for short distances. If not, figure out what biofuel might get the job done.
Buildings here refer to all forms of “shelter,” from office skyscrapers to beach bungalows and shipping warehouses. The strategy to decarbonize the end use of buildings is similar to transport: Increase efficiency and use renewable energy — i.e., electrify. Failure to be ambitious now risks locking buildings into decades of carbon emissions, the report warns.
The good news: There are commercialized and elegant options to electrifying buildings. Heat pumps are becoming widespread and are highly efficient. In new construction, there are opportunities for integrated design to reduce the embodied emissions and make them comfortable and beautiful. The bad news: There is less appetite for retrofitting existing buildings, and renovation rates are low.
What companies can do: Electrify your buildings, and not just new ones. Look at what it would take to electrify your existing building stock. If you’re a tenant, talk to the building manager. Make this a priority. Help blaze a path others can follow. Tell me what you did, and I’ll write about it.
Also, support ambitious policies to ensure others are doing the same. The report finds there is no way to reach our 2050 targets without ambitious policies pushing all those building owners in the right direction.
What about all those other emissions?
The emissions addressed by electrification are just a fraction of the pie.
The IPCC highlights many other things critical to keeping the planet livable. It emphasizes the need for supply-side reductions, which necessitates carbon drawdown. (VERGE Net Zero, anyone?) It consistently references the need for integrative, circular design. (Hello, Circularity!) And it requires cross-sectoral collaboration. (Good thing VERGE is back in person in October.)
The takeaway is the climate crisis will require everyone to be sprinting towards solutions. Electrification alone won’t fix the climate, but we won’t fix the climate without electrification.
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April 7, 2022 at 07:37PM