It is nearly impossible to consider any more vital topic for this month’s column than the Sixth IPCC Assessment on Climate Change published in early August. The conclusion of this report has been described as a “Code Red for Humanity.” It warns that the combined effects of human activity are observably and clearly affecting the Earth’s climate systems across all regions of the world. The recent headlines around droughts, fires, floods, ice sheet reduction, droughts, and crop failures among other events are increasingly more the new normal rather than early indicators of an increasingly unstable and unpredictable climate.
Since the start of the industrial era in the mid-1800s the global average warming of the atmosphere has increased 1.1 °C. There are three major contributors to this. By far the largest is the use of fossil fuels, mostly coal, oil, and natural gas. Second is the changing pattern of land-use through urbanization and agriculture. Third is the production of cement.
The target to mitigate the worst effects is to limit warming between 1.5 to 2 °C by no later than 2050. Current trends are forecasting significantly higher levels, an outlook somewhat underlined by the fact that NOAA reported that this July was the Earth’s hottest month ever recorded.
The assessment outlines a very narrow path to mitigate the most extreme climate disruptions. In addition to challenging governments to align policies globally, on the energy front it calls for immediate implementation of measures to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions over the next 20 to 30 years. This narrow path will be the backdrop for corporate energy and climate action plans.
This message is increasingly being heard. Government policy is shifting toward investing in much lower carbon energy and transportation systems. They are also increasing the available incentives and support for larger scale local and private emissions reduction or avoidance projects.
The message is also being heard by vast swathes of industry across the globe. They are scaling up availability of the goods and services that will be essential parts of any large-scale plan to achieve net-zero emissions performance. This is resulting in a growing range of implementation options at steadily reducing prices.
A growing awareness to achieve net-zero emissions recognizes the need for simultaneously making decisions on multiple fronts at the necessary scale and speed. In a corporate context this calls for numerous aligned parallel initiatives.
For existing facilities, comprehensive efficiency, energy distribution, and supply measures will be needed to stepwise reduce their emissions as aggressively as possible. New facilities must be immediately planned to operate at or near zero emissions. The company’s transportation footprint must be reconfigured to zero emissions through a mix of efficiency, electrification, and travel elimination. All facilities must be adapted to reduce their vulnerability over their expected lifetime. This is increasingly difficult as weather patterns become more intense and unpredictable.
For many companies, the wider energy transformation will create new market opportunities for their existing or new offerings. Developing the new workforce skills needed will be a strategic challenge for human resources.
Once the company has both the management commitment and credible game plan to move on these parallel fronts, there should be a concerted approach to exploring external resources to accelerate implementation. Local or national government will increasingly have the resources to support well-thought-out energy transformation plans. There is a growing pool of private investment funds targeted on large-scale climate change initiatives. An increasing number of resources from Foundations with clear missions also support climate change mitigation and adaptation.
In the intervening 30 years since the first assessment in 1990, some companies have managed to get ahead of the curve in terms of their operations and offerings; others less so. The key difference now is that the 2050 milestone is less than 30 years away, and the emissions gap to close is greater.
Looking at the market experience of these last decades, there is growing evidence that companies that embrace the net-zero energy future have improved their competitive positions.
This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.
This article is part of our monthly Energy Expert column. Read more from Peter Garforth.