Climate change and big business: Action time

As the U.S. leaves the Paris Climate Accord, big business is stepping up to fill the gap. Sir Richard Branson and other leaders explained their strategy at the DS Virgin Innovation Summit.

The bad news: On June 1, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. That agreement is the world’s handshake deal to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (the threshold for avoiding dangerous global warming, according to climate scientists), beginning in 2020.

The good news: The federal government’s abandonment of core environmental principles has given businesses and local governments an opportunity to shine. Thousands of cities, states, and private corporations have pledged to meet or exceed the goals of the Paris Accord. In addition, companies such as Starbucks, Walmart, and Johnson & Johnson have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their energy from renewable resources.

The great news: Big business is becoming better business. As the federal government retreats from the global effort to mitigate climate change, many big corporations are digging in to find solutions.

In mid-July, corporate and nonprofit leaders gathered in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is being transformed into an innovation hub by New Lab, to discuss how the private sector can help address climate change. Speakers and panelists included Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, Rocky Mountain Institute Managing Director Jon Creyts, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chief Sustainability Officer Lara Birkes.

These organizations are already working to address climate change issues, with plenty of accomplishments to demonstrate their commitment. Your business can take inspiration from their leadership.

The DS Virgin Innovation Summit was held in the New Lab space in Brooklyn, New York in mid-July. The former naval shipyard has been converted to a headquarters for “ambitious vertices of technology, robotics, and nanotech,” said New Lab co-founder David Belt. The one-year-old New Lab is the home to over 95 funded companies with a focus on advanced technologies including machine learning and artificial intelligence and is aligned with the Summit’s can-do spirit.

Think outside the factory

Businesses are used to thinking in terms of “how can we spend less” and “how can we earn more?” The same premise applies to energy usage and costs: use fewer resources and be efficient in energy consumption.

For example, the Empire State Building now saves 40 percent on its energy bill, thanks to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s 2010 retrofit. According to Creyts, the institute worked on site to re-manufacture 6,500 windows into super-windows that block heat but let through light.

Another example: HPE plans to acquire 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, with a long term goal of sourcing 100 percent renewable, according to Birkes. HPE has also committed to reduce manufacturing-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in its supply chain by 15 percent, aiming to avoid 100 million tons of emissions by enabling its suppliers to set robust GHG reduction commitments. These reductions are equivalent to taking 21 million cars off the road for an entire year.

Businesses are also looking to improve technology to reduce their energy footprint. Industrial motors use 30 percent of the world’s electricity, according to Creyts. Improved design and management can shave 20 to 40 percent off that usage, and so-called integrated design can make the motors even more efficient. In other words, instead of improving the design of pumps and motors, industry needs to improve the efficiency of how the hardware is connected.

This isn’t theory. By replacing long and thin and crooked pipes with short and fat and straight ones, Rocky Mountain Institute technologists have reduced energy consumption by 86 percent. “Applying similar approaches worldwide can displace half of coal-fired electricity globally,” Creyts claimed. 

Illinois-based energy company LanzaTech uses bacteria to ferment industrial gas emissions, such as carbon monoxide, into ethanol. During her NewLab presentation, LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren explained that the company converts emissions from steel mills, refineries, and ferro alloy plants before they become pollution. "Carbon emissions can become a feedstock of the future," Holmgren said.  

Virtuous competition

How about enlightened self-interest fueled by just a touch of greed? When it comes to green technology, competition can bring out the best in people.

For example, the Virgin Earth Challenge will pay you a $25 million prize if your technology can remove (or is capable of removing) greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, specifically 1 billion tons of carbon-equivalent per year for at least 10 years.

The competition came about 10 years ago, said Branson, after a conversation with Al Gore about climate change. “My wife said, ‘Why, there must be a way of taking the carbon out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Surely that will solve the problem?’ So we put up a $25 million prize.” The prize is still up for grabs, but several finalists are vying for the win.

Birkes pointed to HPE's Living Progress Challenge, which invited the global community to solve social problems, such as education and healthcare, with software and digital services. HPE awarded the winners not only by handing them $1,000 but also by developing their ideas into functioning digital applications. One of last year’s winners, the World Wildlife Fund, won with its app Detect IT: Fish, “which uses custom data flow to track illegal fisheries,” said Birkes. This app has the potential to reduce illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by 50 percent by 2020. “As a nice scalable example, we can replicate this for endangered species or ivory [with] data technology,” Birkes said.

Rethinking transportation

Businesses operate in a world that is demanding greener products and solutions. Nowhere is that more evident than in the technology of transportation.

Liveris noted that despite the name, Dow Chemical is a material sciences company. He described how Dow is creating “structural pieces that take out lots of weight from cars.” Lighter cars, of course, require less energy to move. Dow’s biggest automotive customer? Tesla.

According to Holmgren, the aviation industry has made a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality, that is, either by removing as much carbon in the air as it puts in or by offsetting its carbon output by planting trees. “By 2050, there’s an expectation that [the aviation industry, i.e., the producers and operators of airplanes] will reduce their carbon footprint by 50 percent relative to 2005,” Holmgren said. Working with Virgin and other airlines, LanzaTech is turning waste from aluminum and steel plants into ethanol, which ultimately will be converted into jet aviation fuel. 

The DS Virgin Racing Summit was a pit stop for Branson and his team before heading over to cheer on the DS Virgin Racing Formula E team, which was competing in a race in Brooklyn. Formula E is a racing circuit for electric vehicles, designed to popularize electric vehicles and serve as a springboard for ideas to improve their technology.

It’s working. After three Formula E seasons, Renault has already adapted technology developed for its Formula E cars in consumer vehicles. According to Virgin Racing CEO Alex Tai, “Some companies have already adapted parts into their road cars, such as parts of the powertrain that they used in season 1.”

Dollars and cents

Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, said that energy-saving and efficient technology has had a revolution in the past 15 years “because of a virtuous blend of science, and a little bit of policy, and a lot of great technology.” But in order to solve the puzzle that is global warming, the world also needs support from the financial industry.

“We’re trying to move philanthropy to put their money where their mouth is,” Tamminen said. His foundation is asking endowments and other investors to allocate capital for sustainable development, renewable resources, and conservation. To that end, the foundation launched a $1 billion Planet Pledge Fund. Its goal is to create an opportunity for investors “to make more money on a risk-adjusted basis while helping the planet.”

Branson concurred. “The money to be invested in this area is critical,” he said. Branson, Bono, and several others founded the Rise Fund to invest in critical sectors like energy and agriculture where there are opportunities to make a positive social and environmental impact. Although the Rise Fund has raised nearly $2 billion in the past few months, Branson said it needs $2 trillion to meet its goal of achieving measurable global impact by 2027.

“What we’ve somehow got to do is get the pension world to switch billions and billions of their moneys into this area to really get on top of [our goals]," Branson said.  "As the technologists are coming up with the breakthroughs, hopefully we can attract more and more money in this area.”

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