CEF Spotlight

Challenging Ourselves to Act on Climate and Energy

By James Newcomb (Managing Director) and Kieran Coleman (Manager), Rocky Mountain Institute

The choice is now clearer than ever: either we take immediate action to mitigate climate change, or bear the consequences of abrupt and irreversible changes to the earth system on which our civilization rests.

The time for action is now.

No matter our background or beliefs, honest logic and data lead to this conclusion. The scientific consensus is building: not only is climate change real, but it’s happening faster than even the most conservative models predicted. Experts now suggest we are likely to cross irreversible tipping points in the earth system in the next decade.

What awaits? More frequent floods, droughts, and heat waves with the potential to lead tens of millions of people to dislocation or death. New diseases spreading by insect and animal. Global GDP that’s 15-25% smaller by 2100. Avoiding this scenario requires that we reduce global emissions by nearly 50% in the next decade.

Yet, both marginal changes and redoubled efforts are both insufficient given the scale of this problem. At the same time, we cannot place hope in national governments alone. It’s our task to explore fundamentally new ways to work together, with urgency. Corporations can play a leading role in catalyzing voluntary actions that drive change through markets.

Faced with these realizations, our team at Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) – a global, market-oriented, non-partisan and non-profit think-tank – just released a report entitled Seven Challenges for Energy Transformation. These challenges chart a course for the pragmatic and creative collaboration required to re-think and re-build the foundations of global security and prosperity.

Our Seven Challenges outline areas where businesses, civil society, and public agencies at every level can work together – today – to address this imperative. In particular, corporate leaders can take note that:

  • Emerging data sources and platforms will soon translate carbon footprints into carbon risk for companies as investor and consumer pressure grows and market competitors react.
  • Significant opportunities exist to minimize that risk by making energy use more productive, and the clean electrification of buildings, mobility, and industry less capital-intensive. New business models and value propositions continue to improve.
  • Corporations can and must take a leadership role in procuring clean technologies, from wind and solar PV – now the cheapest forms of energy in most of the world – to emerging technologies like electricity storage, industrial green hydrogen, and new building materials.

Recognizing that support from other stakeholders can smooth corporate energy transitions, RMI and partners are launching a Global Energy Solutions Lab to help decision makers, experts, and influencers in the energy, industrial and financial sectors solve problems and take action, together.

How can you help? To start, here are Seven Challenges:

1. Making Emissions Visible

How can we improve the transparency, accountability, and actionability of climate and energy data to drive faster greenhouse gas emissions reductions?

Bringing state-of-the-art data collection and analysis systems could trigger a truly revolutionary “big bang” of innovations by putting powerful information in the hands of key actors. It is within our reach to create an integrated, open-source system capable of generating emissions maps of the world with continuously improved granularity, smaller uncertainty bands, and reduced time lags.

2. Tripling Energy Productivity Gains

How can we replicate what’s working at scale, improve design of new buildings and infrastructure, and increase turnover of inefficient assets?

Wringing more work from less energy is a bigger energy “source” than oil. To achieve well-below 2°C in the most cost-effective way, we need to globally triple the pace of improving energy productivity in the next decade relative to the last few years. Energy productivity advances health, development, and security, and can save trillions of dollars’ worth of supply-side and carbon-removal investments.

3. Electrifying with Renewables

How can we rapidly expand renewables and increase electricity’s share of global energy use?

Electrification with renewable power is one of the most important leverage points to rapidly transform the global energy system. We can limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C if we can electrify 40%–50% of energy end use by 2040 while increasing the share of electricity generation from renewables to 75%–85%. With known technologies deployed at conservative expected costs, this could be achieved while generating net benefits of $65 trillion to $160 trillion until 2050.

4. Reinventing Cities

How can leapfrog improvements in urban systems and infrastructure be harnessed to deliver secure, resilient, and clean energy services for all?

High urban growth rates represent an opportunity to “boomerang” new solutions worldwide, leveraging network effects to scale low-carbon technologies and practices within and across cities, from developing to developed countries. By 2050, the 1,000 fastest-growing cities can avoid 3 GtCO2 from transport and 4 GtCO2 from buildings per year while bringing next-generation solutions to scale.

5. Boosting Clean Technology

How can we speed the development and rapid adoption of high-impact clean energy technologies?

Coordinated actions by industry and government can pull forward the timetable for crossing critical technology thresholds, sometimes by a decade or more, through targeted research, development, and deployment in areas like hydrogen production, long-term energy storage, insulation materials, and industrial processes. We can create well-integrated ecosystems where academia, entrepreneurs, venture capital, corporations, and government coordinate seamlessly to shepherd high-impact technologies across multiple valleys of death.

6. Redesigning Industry

How can we shift the way we produce, transport, and use energy and materials in global products and infrastructure?

The co-evolution of new product and service designs, supply chains, and technology research, development, and demonstration will fundamentally reshape commodity, energy, and transport markets. The next industrial revolution will follow three pathways—dematerialization, energy productivity, and zero carbon material and energy substitution—to mitigate 42% of global carbon emissions equivalent by 2050.

7. Financing a Swift and Fair Transition

How can we manage financial, institutional, and human aspects of the energy transition to transform both developed and developing economies?

The transition to a clean energy economy can mitigate the worst consequences of climate change while simultaneously delivering large net benefits to our economies and communities. Adopting new tools and methods to speed investment and capital stock turnover, ensure access to energy, reduce transition costs, and mitigate negative impacts on declining industries and communities is essential to maximizing net value creation from global clean energy transformation.

These are immense undertakings. But RMI’s work has shown that thinkers and doers from businesses, NGOs, government agencies can innovate, together.

We welcome the insight, input, and participation of once-in-a-generation leaders to join in this call to collective action. We have just enough time if we start right now.

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