Today is Earth Day, the largest secular celebration on the planet. The theme this year is climate action and the organizers are asking citizens of the world to step up and be creative, innovative, ambitious and brave to seize a zero-carbon future. And today—on Earth Days 50th birthday—I’d like to add to their challenge one more word: be effective.
Al Gore works tirelessly to tell the world the “inconvenient truth” of global warming. But there’s another inconvenient truth as well: despite the urgency, we’re still nibbling around the edges of greenhouse gas reduction. Plant-based burgers, LED bulbs and more Zoom meetings are all fine; they help with awareness and every little bit counts. But their impact on greenhouse gas emissions disappears in the rounding. It’s past time to move beyond little incremental improvements and do something both practical and big.
As with most problems, the place to start is to ask the right question: “Where do I look for the biggest, fastest and easiest greenhouse gas reductions”? While every company should do what it can to reduce its own emissions, companies vary widely on how far they can go. Many reach the point of diminishing returns quickly. Airlines burn jet fuel, and there is no realistic alternative anytime soon. Companies that make concrete and steel need process heat, and there is no realistic alternative. And on and on.
Every company needs to take responsibility for its carbon footprint, but many, as a practical matter, will have to do it by investing and creating impact in places other than their own organizations. That makes sense: you don’t beat a dead horse when there are good healthy ones hanging around waiting to be ridden.
When you ask the right question, “Where is the low-hanging fruit?”, the answer is right in front of you: electric power generation.
Even after all the wind and solar we’ve built, after the conversions from coal to natural gas, it is still 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions in our country. In the years to come, with the increasing electrification of transportation, that’s going to grow. Unlike any other major sector of our economy, it is realistic to think of power generation being a zero-carbon activity in next two or three decades. With renewables, nuclear power and some technological advances in storage, America can eliminate the burning of fossil fuels for electrical power.
Laura Zapata, Bob Corney and I have started a company to help move this along: Clearloop. It offers a fresh approach to carbon offsets: building solar farms to replace electric power generated from fossil fuels with clean, renewable solar power. The best approach to mitigating carbon is not to try to drag it back out of the atmosphere and store it temporarily in trees, it’s to stop taking it out of the ground in the first place.
Our next step is to convince the NGOs who monitor and credit carbon to accept and welcome this new tool to combat climate change. That has frankly proven more difficult than I would ever have imagined. I don’t know how many times we’ve heard from them, “The science is sound, we agree it works, but it’s not in our rulebook, sorry.” Who would have thought that so many well-intentioned people, committed to fighting climate change, would suddenly start acting like entrenched government bureaucrats whose answer to anything new and different is “no”?
There’s good news though. Businesses we’ve talked to are intrigued and interested. They find the Clearloop approach more transparent and measurable than natural solutions. For many, the economics are better. And they love the fact that it invests their money right here in the United States, creating jobs, tax base, and improving our electrical infrastructure.
Many of America’s corporations, despite their profit motive and responsibility to shareholders, have placed themselves on the front lines fighting climate change. Clearloop’s mission in the years ahead is simple: help them.