Owen Gaffney Co-founder, Exponential Roadmap Initiative
WHEN COMPANIES SET TARGETS THEY GO SO MUCH FASTER THAN EXPECTED
Exponential Roadmap Initiative co-founder Owen Gaffney discusses solutions to halve carbon emissions by 2030
How and why did this start?
We started the project because we need to ramp up and accelerate action on climate change, before we've gone past the point of no return. Incremental change is no longer enough, we need exponential change. We need to completely rethink our approach to decarbonising the global economy and think in terms of exponentials.
That means halving emissions every decade, then doubling those efforts across all sectors. We call this the carbon law, following on from Moore’s law. Silicon Valley has got fantastically powerful strategies and business tools for scaling businesses and ideas, so we wanted to apply that kind of thinking to the energy and climate challenge.
What we’ve done is try to identify the key solutions across every sector that are market ready and well along the S-curve that don't need more research and development.
Our most recent Roadmap highlights 36 solutions across the energy, manufacturing, transport, infrastructure and food system sectors that will actually cut emissions in half by 2030.
Does digital technology still represent a wild card when it comes to emissions?
When we talk about the tipping points that can push us forwards – civil society movements such as Fridays For Future, political momentum around a new green deal, an economic landscape where prices and market forces are now starting to work in our favour – technology is definitely one.
Energy technologies are now cheaper than or the same price as fossil fuels, but they're innovating much faster. Solar panels can now diffuse costs around the world more quickly than coal fired power stations, for example. Even though technology has the potential to significantly influence halving emissions by 2030, we still don’t know whether it will drive them up instead.
It's also unclear whether companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are going to get further behind the climate revolution. They say they're putting all their efforts into trialling rapid, large-scale changes, but it’s only within their own business operations.
These companies influence three to four billion people every day with their products.
There’s huge untapped potential with these players and the platform power they have to influence behaviour and support societal goals. The market has no clear values or ethics, but that could change if these technology companies start thinking about their own responsibility. For example, earlier this year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to donate Åí7.68bn of his own money to scientists, activists and NGOs working to fix the climate crisis.
Which countries are being particularly ambitious?
Norway has committed to reaching net zero by 2030. Sweden has committed to 2045 and Finland 2035, so it’s really the Nordic countries, although there are a few like Bhutan that are already climate carbon neutral.
Two years ago, no major economy was discussing net zero by 2050. Now we have the entire European union talking about it, the UK and France committed to it, and places like Costa Rica too. The US election will play a part, if Biden is elected, then we might expect much stronger leadership there. Politicians often receive flack from NGOs and lobby groups who state countries must go harder and faster. This is true but some pragmatism is needed. If a country sets a less ambitious target it is easier to ratchet this up than finding agreement for a very ambitious target in a hostile, polarised, political environment. I always remind people that last year, despite the UK government and the opposition party literally not agreeing on a single thing, they managed to find one thing – and that was net zero by 2050.
YOU CAN'T MANAGE WHAT YOU CAN'T MEASURE
How are companies reacting?
Some Swedish companies are making big inroads and some are leading the way by working closely with us on the Roadmap. Companies like IKEA, which use something close to 1% of the world’s forestry for their products, have committed to be climate positive by 2030, which is an incredible statement to make for a multinational of that size. Another example is Scania. Five years ago, I could not imagine a truck company talking about reaching zero emissions, but CEO Henrik Henriksson is now holding a whole series of dialogues with the trucking industry to talk about following our carbon law. The CEOs of these companies are finding that it is not only the right thing to do – it’s economically attractive to do so. This industry was one of the hardest to reach sectors, one of the ones that we just thought, ‘how are we actually going to do it’? Now solutions are there on the table. We’re also finding that when companies set these targets, they can actually go much faster than expected.
Why are targets like the SDGs important?
You can't manage what you can't measure. The issue with climate targets in the past was, a ‘two degree reduction’ needed several layers of translation before people could act. What does two degrees actually practically mean? Our carbon law framing is applicable at all scales, it works as a fractal, so whether it’s individual or family or business, we can halve emissions if we all work towards that. Secondly, targets previously tended to be off in the distant future, something our grandchildren need to be worried about – that's just not good enough. Decision making in business and government needs to be swift, so scientists need to translate these distant targets into something that is relevant to this generation and political cohort. The Sustainable Development Goals and the next 10-year sprint is crucial for these political and business timeframes.
What gives you hope?
We’re currently living through an unprecedented pandemic and one of the things it’s demonstrating is that governments can act very rapidly and co-ordinate at scale. If politicians can use economic stimulus packages as we’re seeing right now to target sustainability, and then don't return to business as usual, there is reason to be optimistic.
This is a whole new wildcard. Governments will have leverage they've never had before, where they can influence the business decisions of companies as active shareholders because of the amount of money they're injecting. That's a big leap and it could make sure we’re on the right trajectory. We're also seeing a lot of new leadership in the finance community, people like the former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney on the Financial Stability Board, or Larry Fink, the CEO at BlackRock expressing the need for action – there's been a profound change in understanding. It can be done.
We just need a critical mass of people moving in the right direction.