A growing number of major companies are following the lead of Amazon, Microsoft, and Google to set aggressive targets for achieving net zero carbon emissions in their businesses. To hit those commitments, companies need to make important decisions about where to focus the time, energy, and money they have to invest in sustainability.
Will freight move across the country fueled with hydrogen, or will battery improvements make electric feasible? Will we replace plastics altogether, or will we get better at recycling? How will we address the intermittency challenges of solar and wind, which only produce power during the day or when the wind blows? All of these questions require answers at an industrial scale to make the decisions that will put us on track to meet even our most modest goals.
We Have Big Questions to Answer as Early as Possible
The climate change technology that we need most requires making decisions that, once executed, will not be easy to change. In the United States, we need to replace thousands of gas stations with electric vehicle charging bays. Not everyone has a garage with easy access to power. Most utilities are not yet generating 100% renewable power for those charging stations. We need a new, electrified transportation system, and we needed it yesterday.
It will take trillions of dollars and years of time to build out the infrastructure we need in 2050. We don’t yet know how to invest that time and money so that it’s not wasted on projects that don’t deliver results. Any commuter has seen highway projects drag on with one delay after another—and we know how to build highways. The risk of delay is much higher on all the things we don’t know how to build.
But, it is possible to make good decisions that accelerate solutions, even when urgency and risk are sky-high. Just consider the COVID-19 crisis.
Early Commitments and Late Decisions Accelerated
To say that there was an urgent need to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine is a massive understatement. Every day that people go unvaccinated is a day with more infections, more death, and more opportunities for new variants to emerge. At first, experts thought it would take years to get a vaccine. Instead, scientists developed multiple effective vaccines in under a year.
Instead of betting heavily on one solution, the U.S. program Operation Warp Speed directed its $18 billion budget to multiple vaccine candidates that showed promise. The funds supported scaling up manufacturing even before Phase 3 clinical trials started on any of them. In months, three vaccines were approved for emergency use in the United States. That way, when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine showed troubling side effects, the entire COVID-19 vaccination program wasn’t forced to shut down. Early commitment and late decisions gave us better alternatives.
Early Commitment and Late Decisions to Accelerate Net-Zero
• Commit to net-zero targets—and hold the space open for the innovation you need to get there.
• Invest in basic research to build core knowledge in key technologies. This will help answer the big questions that will inform your decisions.
• Converge on the final decision for major investments as late as possible to preserve flexibility. You’ll know you’re ready to decide when you have high confidence in your decision that is based on real-world data.
We don’t yet know how Microsoft and Google will keep their server farms powered up and cooled down in the year 2050. We don’t know what Amazon delivery vehicles will look like, how they will be powered, or if they will have drivers. But we do know that transportation and power generation are only two parts of our economy that have to be decarbonized and that it will take a lot of time and money to do it.
We have a lot of questions to answer and important decisions to make on the path to net-zero carbon emissions. The way to get there faster is to commit early— and decide late.