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

Emissions rise from the American Electric Power Co. coal-fired John E. Amos Power Plant in Winfield, W.Va., on July 18, 2018. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg)
Emissions rise from the American Electric Power Co. coal-fired John E. Amos Power Plant in Winfield, W.Va., on July 18, 2018. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg)
Washington Post

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 earlier this month after an ominous report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said 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 holding the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial 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 systems 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 six-year $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.

But the potential is far greater. Hsu calculates that if major corporate initiatives to reduce emissions can keep enrolling major companies, there could be over a billion tons of additional gains by 2030.

Not every company walks a straight line forward. Mars, the chocolate giant, says it will reduce its emissions 27 percent by 2025 over 2015 levels, and by 67 percent by 2050. But last year the company’s greenhouse gas emissions increased slightly, a result of growth in some business areas.

Even among companies that recognize climate change, uncertainty underlies many of the big questions: How much? How bad? When?

These are the sort of questions the insurance industry is built on. And yet it suffered economic losses of $125 billion in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and economic losses of $213 billion during the three big hurricanes last year.

“Usually insurers look to historic data and assume that the near future is the same or similar to what has happened in the past,” said Ernst Rauch, chief climate scientist at the insurance giant Munich Re. “With climate change this is simply not the case.”

In some cases, insurance becomes more expensive for businesses and home owners near shorelines or in flood plains. But big insurers also have new opportunities to insure properties that are suddenly dealing with growing climate perils.

Robert Litterman, co-founder of a hedge fund called Kepos Capital, has made his career calculating odds and building sophisticated models for investors. In the fund world, he is known as a “quant.”

But lately Litterman has been forced out of his comfort zone. The problem? Investors keep asking about climate change.

“A lot of investors want to understand the implications of a low carbon economy,” he said. Quantifying that is difficult. And they’re worried, he added, that a major climate transition “could take place much faster than expected.”

“If you look at this problem from a risk-management point of view, you look at that worst-case scenario,” Litterman said. “And the worst-case scenario is really, really bad.”

WRI’s Steer said avoiding that outcome will require marshaling corporate and government resources.

“It’s wonderful what companies are doing,” he said. “But we also need governments. They are two blades of a pair of scissors, so to speak. There’s no sense in having just one.”

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