November 21, 2019

A call for moonshots, silver buckshots, and all of the above

modern wind turbines

TL:DR;

  • In the face of the climate crisis, an all-systems-go approach to tech innovation and investment will be critical.

Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time for both society and business. Military planners have referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Major news outlets are now referring to climate change as the “climate crisis.” Without rapid decarbonization, business-as-usual in many industries and geographies will become increasingly untenable.

Just two weeks ago on September 20, 2019, millions of people took to the streets demanding urgent action as part of the largest global climate protest in history. Meanwhile, world leaders in the public and private sector gathered in New York City for the UN Climate Action Summit demanding all players get on track in the race to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. Their collective rallying call: “A Race We Can Win. A Race We Must Win.” To win the race, halving global emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 requires (1) massive transformations in energy, transportation, and land use, and (2) aggressive political and market signaling. Clearly, these require substantial departures from the status quo agenda.

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Technological innovation is often cited as our fast-pass to winning the climate race. And while some believe we have yet to identify or deploy the moonshots that could stave off or reverse the most damaging impacts of climate change, others believe that the many needed silver buckshot technologies are out there, but need massive investment to be implemented at scale. Regardless, there is evidence to suggest the climate solutions arms race is well underway and the private sector is vitally poised for meaningful action.

“A changing climate provides (and necessitates) many opportunities for technological innovation…from those that reduce or even absorb greenhouse gases to technologies that will enable us to better adapt to a climate-changed world.”

As climate change visibly affects business, disrupting everything from supply chains to the power grid, companies are visibly stepping up to develop new products, services, and business models to confront this changing global landscape successfully. “The untold story is that climate change offers opportunities as well as risks, and business is already changing,” says Harvard Business School Professor Michael Toffel, faculty chair of the HBS Business & Environment Initiative. In fact, a changing climate provides (and necessitates) many opportunities for technological innovation…from those that reduce or even absorb greenhouse gases to technologies that will enable us to better adapt to a climate-changed world. When it comes to viable climate solutions, everything is on the table — from drought-resistant seeds and lab-grown meat to carbon sequestration and solar geoengineering.

The HBS Business & Environment Initiative has been learning from the alumni convenings it has organized around the country with alumni clubs on the role of business leaders in the age of climate change. The examples HBS alumni are sharing around how their businesses are tackling climate change using technology are diverse and inspiring. Companies are innovating to manage water in drought-stricken areas. Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are bringing new insights and problem-solving analytics to sustainable land use management and data center cooling needs. New infrastructure and finance models are being developed that will help cities become more resilient to sea level rise and severe storms. Venture capital is doubling down on breakthrough, game-changing technologies and seeking out new investments without the expectation of short-term rewards.

Yet, there is substantial work to be done. Achieving the decarbonization goals needed by mid-century calls for a total low-carbon overhaul of our transit and energy systems. Major innovations in aviation and shipping will be needed, as well as accelerated improvements in energy storage systems and grid modernization. Fast-tracking and scaling innovation in energy efficiency and other existing technologies such as renewables also has huge potential for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and achieving a fossil-fuel free future.

“Achieving the decarbonization goals needed by mid-century calls for a total low-carbon overhaul of our transit and energy systems.”

The good news is we have the capability and the talent to confront climate change, and we’re witnessing a growing revolution in the development of much-needed technologies. Private enterprise has the power to shift the paradigm from business-as-usual in order to lead business solutions to climate change. In the next decade, technology and policy solutions will play a critical role in tackling the climate crisis, driven largely by business innovation and managers who make a commitment to positive, long-term change. There are many technological solutions to be excited about today, as well as those just on the horizon, deserving of zealous investment and implementation to ensure the emissions race is won and our path changes from business as usual, to business as vital.

To learn more and get involved, visit the HBS exhibit Confronting Climate Change: From Business as Usual to Business as Vital in Spangler Lounge Oct 28 – Nov 8. This exhibit, open to the public at no charge, will explore how companies in key industries are affected by climate change, and business innovations that can mitigate these impacts or facilitate adaptation. Questions? Want more info? Email bei@hbs.edu.

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