Putting your best carbon footprint forward: Reductions before renewables

Putting your best carbon footprint forward: Reductions before renewables

The Climate Group
Manhattan's skyline, including the iconic World Trade Center complex, turned green to welcome the 10th annual Climate Week, which convened business and government leaders committed to taking action against global warming.

This article is drawn from the Energy Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Thursdays.

Executives, government officials, journalists and other climate action-inclined individuals attending the Climate Week opening ceremony this week were greeted by a small, spirited group of protestors (all women) lambasting the planned construction of a factory in West Virginia by one of the event’s sponsors, 80-year-old insulation company Rockwool. Their concern: the level of formaldehyde used in its industrial processes.

Naturally, that made me pay even more attention when Rockwool CEO Jens Birgersson addressed the gathering a couple of hours later, talking up the climate-related benefits of improving energy efficiency in buildings and his company’s approach to helping get there.

Here’s the thing: While Birgersson’s not-so-thinly veiled sales pitch made me squirm, I couldn’t disagree with his central premise that the case for retrofitting buildings to consume less energy (not just electricity) is underappreciated

As California Gov. Jerry Brown noted earlier during the session, while the rapid rate at which renewables are driving carbon dioxide emissions out of the electricity sector is cause for celebration, it’s just the tip of the iceberg (so to speak) when it comes to the actions needed to meet the Paris Agreement vision of limiting temperature increases to just 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.

"There’s a lot to do, and you can’t put it on a bumper sticker," Brown quipped, also taking a moment to scold both environmentalist activists for shunning corporate involvement in addressing climate change and the media for underreporting this "existential" threat.

So, I looked beyond the latest RE100 declarations timed to the event (as I write this, 152 organizations are committed to 100 percent renewable electricity as part of the Climate Group’s iconic initiative) to acquaint myself with businesses that have stepped up to the two-year-old EP100. In case you’re not familiar with the latter effort, this pledge is pegged to the concept of energy productivity — the aim is for companies to generate "twice as much economic output for every unit of energy consumed."

Suffice to say, this is a tougher declaration to make, which is probably why only roughly 30 companies are listed as members — ranging from real estate organization Kilroy Realty to industrial giant Mahindra to hospitality mogul Hilton to reinsurance powerhouse Swiss Re to cloud software pioneer Salesforce. Clothing company H&M is even extending its commitment to suppliers, with a goal to have 100 percent of its partners enrolled in an energy efficiency program by 2025.

During the Climate Week kickoff, the B word (buildings) came up frequently, with speaker after speaker pointing to the potential role that smart buildings software and artificial intelligence could play in automating energy consumption reductions. Remember, up to 70 percent of New York City's carbon footprint is related to its skyscrapers. You’ve never heard this before, right? Yes, rhetorical. Another refrain that is gathering steam: the need to electrify more processes. I chatted about this later in the day with the CEO of Enel Green Power, Antonio Cammisecra. "The electrification of industrial processes is hugely important," he said. The challenge? "This can only happen when the natural substitution is taking place."

Translation, this stuff takes a long time, it requires engaging individuals far beyond the sustainability team to care about pulling it off and it takes work to figure out if there are incentives that will help your company reduce the cost of taking action.

But it doesn’t really make sense to think about clean power without shrinking your footprint, without consciously decoupling your company’s ability to grow production from its energy consumption, noted Scott Tew, executive director of the center for energy efficiency and sustainability with Ingersoll Rand, who spoke with me ahead of Climate Week. "It’s about making sure you’re not wasting anything, even energy," Tew said.

Compared with the avalanche of corporate commitments unleashed during the Global Climate Action Summit earlier this month, this week seems comparatively subdued. But one initiative forming conversations at both events is the new Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, spearheaded by the World Green Building Council, along with the Climate Group and C40 Cities. Twelve companies are among the initial supporters, striving to reach net zero operation emissions in their real estate portfolios by 2030.