Clean up cli­mate change? It’s just good for busi­ness


If the world’s largest com­pa­nies live up to the prom­ises they’ve made to slow cli­mate change, to­gether they could re­duce emis­sions by an amount equal to those of Ger­many.

The cor­po­rate pledges gained re­newed at­ten­tion this week af­ter an omi­nous re­port by the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change, which said that gov­ern­ment poli­cies alone won’t en­sure the “un­prece­dented” so­ci­etal changes needed over the next decade to stem cli­mate change.

That puts the onus on the busi­ness sec­tor to clean up a mess it helped cre­ate.

To a greater ex­tent than ever be­fore, the best in­ter­ests of many busi­nesses and those of the planet are aligned.

“We’ve gone from say­ing ‘it would be nice to do, but it would cost us,’ to say­ing ‘if we don’t do it, we won’t be able to grow, we won’t be able to have to­mor­row’s econ­omy,’” said An­drew Steer, pres­i­dent of the World Re­sources In­sti­tute. “Busi­ness lead­ers, they re­al­ize that.”

As Feike Si­jbesma, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Royal DSM, put it: “We need to fu­ture proof our­selves.”

The re­port said that hold­ing the rise in global tem­per­a­tures to 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els – set forth by the Paris cli­mate agree­ment – will re­quire cre­at­ing en­tire new in­dus­tries to re­move car­bon from the air as well as the over­haul of the vast en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture that has been built over more than a cen­tury.

His­tor­i­cally, cor­po­ra­tions have been com­plicit in the world’s cli­mate prob­lem. One anal­y­sis shows that half of the globe’s emis­sions since 1988 are trace­able to just 25 pri­vate and state-owned fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions. And many have lob­bied against poli­cies that would limit green­house-gas emis­sions. They have done so both di­rectly and through sup­port of groups that have cast doubt about cli­mate change.

Re­cently, how­ever, there’s a pal­pa­ble change in the way busi­ness lead­ers talk about cli­mate change.

Si­jbesma said, “some of my in­vestors and banks asked me what do you want to do: Im­prove the world or make money? I said, ‘Well, both.’”

With tril­lions of dol­lars at stake, cor­po­ra­tions have forged ahead to cre­ate sus­tain­able busi­nesses. They are tak­ing steps to lower their car­bon foot­prints and over­haul their sup­ply chains in a race against ris­ing seas and tem­per­a­tures. Oth­ers are try­ing to come up with the ul­ti­mate goal: how to pull car­bon diox­ide out of the air and use or store it.

From Ap­ple to Wal­mart, from IKEA to Google, dozens of firms have em­braced re­new­able en­ergy. UPS is shift­ing to­ward elec­tric ve­hi­cles. Costco has in­stalled so­lar sys- tems on top of at least 100 of its ware­houses, and some lo­ca­tions use so­lar power in park­ing lots. Google in 2017 off­set all of its of­fice and data cen­ter elec­tric­ity use by adding re­new­able en­ergy to the grid.

Some of the big­gest changes are com­ing from what com­pa­nies don’t do. Europe’s largest bank, HSBC, this year stopped fund­ing new coal power plants, oil sands de­vel­op­ment and Arc­tic drilling, join­ing a grow­ing num­ber of in­vestors and lenders to shun am­bi­tious fos­sil fuel projects.

Mak­ing real strides will be ex­pen­sive. The U.N. re­port said that hit­ting the 1.5 de­gree Cel­sius tar­get would cost an av­er­age of $3.5 tril­lion a year through 2050 – al­most $1 tril­lion a year more than the cur­rent pledges made by gov­ern­ments in Paris in 2015.

The bulk of the money will have to come from the pri­vate sec­tor. An­a­lysts at Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance es­ti­mate that global in­vest­ment in what’s called “clean en­ergy” came to $138.2 bil­lion in the first six months of 2018, down one per­cent from the same pe­riod in 2017. The slip­page re­flected lower cap­i­tal costs for pho­to­voltaic projects, with fewer dol­lars spent per megawatt in­stalled; and a cool­ing-off in China’s so­lar boom, the firm said.

Con­sumer de­mand and em­ployee ex­pec­ta­tions are driv­ing some of the in­vest­ments. In many cases, com­pa­nies are find­ing that their own cus­tomers and em­ploy­ees pre­fer to buy and work at firms that are re­spon­sive to cli­mate is­sues. And thanks to the fall­ing prices of re­new­able en­ergy, it can be cheaper to be cli­mate-friendly than not.

Wal­mart, for ex­am­ple, has in­stalled more than 1.5 mil­lion en­ergy-ef­fi­cient LED light fix­tures across more than 6,000 stores, park­ing lots, dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters and cor­po­rate of­fices in 10 coun­tries, driv­ing down light­ing costs by hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars over the past decade, the com­pany said.

Wal­mart also ex­ceeded its goal to dou­ble the ef­fi­ciency of its truck­ing fleet by 2015. Work­ing with equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers and oth­ers, the re­tail­ing gi­ant saved nearly $1 bil­lion and avoided emis­sions of al­most 650,000 met­ric tons of car­bon diox­ide in 2015 com­pared to 2005.

Many of the na­tion’s big­gest util­i­ties have fig­ured out that they can make more by sell­ing less, es­pe­cially when pub­lic ser­vice com­mis­sions can guar­an­tee them healthy rates of re­turn.

New Jersey-based PSEG, one of the na­tion’s largest util­i­ties, last month un­veiled a sixyear $4.1 bil­lion cli­mate plan, with two-thirds of the money aimed at boost­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. An ad­di­tional $300 mil­lion will go to­ward 40,000 new charg­ing sta­tions for elec­tric ve­hi­cles. At the end of 2017, New Jersey had just 517 pub­lic charg­ing sta­tions.

“I re­ally do be­lieve that while we pay an ap­pro­pri­ate amount of at­ten­tion to so­lar and wind, where we should be fo­cus­ing far more of our at­ten­tion is en­ergy ef­fi­ciency,” said Ralph Izzo, chief ex­ec­u­tive of PSEG.

A physi­cist by train­ing, Izzo said the time for ac­tion is now, since the car­bon diox­ide al­ready in the at­mos­phere won’t dis­si­pate for cen­turies.

“We need to step up our game,” he said, “and that’s what we’re in­tend­ing to do.”

The world’s ma­jor oil com­pa­nies – in­clud­ing BP, Shell and To­tal – have ponied up $100 mil­lion each to es­tab­lish a fund called the Oil and Gas Cli­mate Ini­tia­tive, which in­vests in small com­pa­nies work­ing on tech­nolo­gies that could sharply cut emis­sions. ExxonMo­bil and Chevron re­cently joined the group.

That amount pales next to the big oil com­pa­nies’ com­mit­ment to oil and gas: $100 mil­lion is less than two days’ cap­i­tal spend­ing for Royal Dutch Shell, for ex­am­ple.

“We can­not con­tinue on this cap­i­tal­ist-driven car­bon binge and hope vol­un­tary ac­tions will solve the cli­mate cri­sis,” said Erich Pica, head of Friends of the Earth. “The fos­sil fuel in­dus­try can’t buy their way out of this self-cre­ated prob­lem by toss­ing pen­nies to­ward small projects to save their pub­lic im­age.”

None­the­less, Pra­tima Ran­gara­jan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Oil and Gas Cli­mate Ini­tia­tive, said the money is a start and a way for big com­pa­nies to find use­ful tech­nolo­gies.

The fund has in­vested in Clarke Valve, whose co-founder Kyle Daniels said that if his firm’s valves were in­stalled in nat­u­ral gas wells, they could cap­ture 50 per­cent of the leaked emis­sions of meth­ane, a po­tent green­house gas.

Larry Fromm, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Achates Power, said that his firm has fig­ured out how to make an in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine 30 to 50 per­cent more ef­fi­cient. He said Achates put one of its en­gines in a Ford 150 pickup truck, the na­tion’s best-sell­ing ve­hi­cle, and it had the same fuel ef­fi­ciency as a Honda Ac­cord. Fromm said Achates has li­censed its tech­nol­ogy to the U.S. Army and to ten au­to­mo­bile mak­ers.

Find­ing out what all of this adds up to isn’t easy. But re­searchers are hom­ing in on some an­swers.

Cur­rent pledges by com­pa­nies who both pro­duce elec­tric­ity and use it could lead to be­tween 570 and 935 mil­lion tons of re­duced car­bon diox­ide equiv­a­lent emis­sions in 2030, ac­cord­ing to An­gel Hsu, who di­rects Data-Driven Yale. For com­par­i­son, the emis­sions of Ger­many, the largest emit­ter in Europe, were 935 mil­lion tons in 2016.

Bloomberg photo by Luke Shar­rett

Emis­sions rise from the Amer­i­can Elec­tric Power Co. coal-fired John E. Amos Power Plant in Winfield, W.Va., on July 18, 2018.

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