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Ryan Panchadsaram: Follow these steps to 'save the world'

The core of the 'Speed and Scale' climate plan for business leaders: Be aggressive.

Ryan Panchadsaram

Ryan Panchadsaram

Ryan Panchadsaram’s career arc bends toward tackling systemic problems of increasing size, choreographing big sets of data for the public good. The industrial engineer in his 20s helped to mend a botched national system — the 2014 launch of the federal "Obamacare" signup website.

The former U.S. deputy chief technology officer has since pivoted to "save the world," pushing for collective climate action. Panchadsaram is technical adviser to John Doerr, chair of legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, famous for backing the likes of Google, Twitter and Amazon.

Together, they promote the 10-part action plan set forth in "Speed and Scale,"Doerr’s 11-month-old book, to which Panchadsaram contributed. The campaign’s website includes data-based progress trackers for the 10 points, six of which address emissions: electrifying transportation; decarbonizing the grid; fixing food; protecting nature; cleaning up industry; removing carbon. The remaining four are "accelerants" for action: winning politics and policy; turning movements into action; innovating; and investing.

Panchadsaram said he is buoyed by the "incredible win" of policies including the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and CHIPS law, both signed by President Joe Biden in August, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed last November. How can sustainability professionals seize the moment and work toward reaching net-zero emissions by 2050? What does it look like to move further, faster? Panchadsaram explains.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Elsa Wenzel: What inspiration do you take from other systemic, huge problems that needed speed and scale?

Ryan Panchadsaram: The biggest inspiration is drawing from Wright's Law… This is the observation that was made in producing airplanes. So, this Wright's Law is actually not named after the Wright Brothers for flight; this is a different Wright individual. [Theodore Wright] found out that for every doubling of manufacturing something through a rate of savings that you get, if you were to double your manufacturing even more, that rate continues. And so what it tells you is that if we can produce more of something, then we can drive down the costs of it. This promise of Wright's Law for clean energy has been preached from the mountaintops from a world of clean energy advocates, as well as environmentalists, people who've been fighting the climate fight for 20 years.

What we've seen now: 2018 was the milestone moment that the prices of solar and wind dropped so significantly, that it became cheaper to build a solar or wind facility than a gas or coal [facility]... If we continue to produce more clean energy, the costs continue to drop. We're seeing it for lithium-ion batteries.

Wenzel: Can you talk a bit about your experience in the White House and how you're drawing on that in your current work with Kleiner Perkins and "Speed and Scale"?

Panchadsaram: In coming up with "Speed and Scale" … the plan was trying to really get from 59 billion tons of emissions a year to net zero by 2050... The first part of the plan is, how we get to zero? We've got to electrify transportation, decarbonize the grid, fix food, protect nature, clean up industry and remove carbon.

But to get there quicker, we've got to pull on a set of levers. And so, my time in D.C., I look on so fondly because it really gave me an appreciation for what policy and government can do.

My time here at Kleiner has been incredible because it's been at the forefront of disruptive companies and technologies but also a world of learnings from the past as well on the work to get it. When John [Doerr] and I and our team came up with the accelerants, he put the four of them on an equal pedestal. We put policy and politics on the same pedestal as movements and activists on the same pedestal with innovators as well as investors. Because for this transition to happen well and to happen quickly, we need all four groups really pulling on the levers that they control.

Wenzel: What happens if it becomes impossible to pull any of those levers? Just speaking of policy, for example, what if the midterms or the even 2024 presidential election result in putting people in power who are hostile to decarbonization and just ESG in general?

Panchadsaram: Whenever one of the accelerants or levers fail us, it's really important that we lean on the other three… Let's say policy doesn't become in our favor anymore … we would have to lean on innovators to say: What can we do with technology to reduce the cost of clean energy … as well as new modes of transportation and other things? Because if innovators can find a way to make it cheaper and perform better, you're not going to need as much policy, right? The technology adoption will happen, because there's another reason to adopt it. 

If we can produce more of something, then we can drive down the costs of it.

Or another example being, if the policy isn't where you want … how do you get elected people in office that make this a priority?

Or how do you push companies to make aggressive climate commitments — the Fortune 500, the CEOs and decision-makers in just those companies, to really change the course of our emissions in the world? If they make decisions to electrify their fleets to decarbonize the energy that's coming into their factories and facilities and offices — and then looking at how they can produce their goods more sustainably — that is an incredible lever in itself.

Wenzel: That speaks to the GreenBiz audience of corporate sustainability professionals. Is there a message you have for them specifically? What should they know? What should they do?

Panchadsaram: The role for business is really to lead, right? When you think of the actions that need to be taken to decarbonize, every business has a chance to go and take these actions before their country, their state, or even any of their local governments can do anything.

The other way to lean on companies as well is to develop and create the solutions we need. For example, you're seeing the automotive industry get reoriented around electric vehicles. Tesla absolutely has a six- to eight-year head start, but you're looking at the investments that [General Motors], Ford — the commitments that each of these companies are making, and everybody else around them, the race is on.

And in this case here, companies are going to outpace and start to lead on this front. 

It’s incredibly important for companies to set very clear, ambitious goals around decarbonization. Every company should come out and say, by 2040, we are going to be net zero across all scopes of our emissions for all greenhouse gases. 

[What] I'm going to be able to share at VERGE in October is our look across the Fortune 500, where companies are at, and the shocking thing is, it's quite disappointing. A lot of companies say they are green, but not enough that said, "This is what I mean by cutting my emissions to zero by 2040." 

By putting this clarity out there, what it does for the employees that work at these companies is, it gives them a clarity about the decisions and procurements and investments they need to make this year, next year for this decade. And if the target is zero, they're gonna get really creative about how to get there.

Wenzel: Great, and then, as you know, not every net-zero goal is alike, so thoughts there for how corporate sustainability folks should go about having solid goals?

Panchadsaram: A steel manufacturer is so different [from] a software technology company. When you think of the intensity of carbon emissions, and the solutions that are available, I would say, if the solutions are available today, and if your company can afford to make the investment, it should, and it should do it aggressively. 

If the solutions don't exist today, those companies should start to make the investments to ensure those solutions are ready at scale by 2030, by 2035, and beyond.

There is a world of opportunities, job opportunities in this transition, and kind of the incredible thing is, it's going to touch every part of the way we work and live.
 

A few examples of this would be for [a] technology company, they can make a pretty aggressive 2030 goal because clean energy is readily accessible and the investments are made. 

Clean electric fleets, you can't get them overnight in 2022 but you can commit to, by 2030, all of your fleets and procurements to be electric. So push off, buy a new round of trucks or delivery vehicles, and actually make the commitment today to ensure all of your procurements and turn over your whole fleet of vehicles by 2030… The point here is to be aggressive.

Wenzel: You've spoken about how it doesn't take millions of people to make a big, systemic rapid change… What does that mean, for a small group of people or even an individual in their job?

Panchadsaram: The beautiful thing about our companies is all it can take is one leader, or a handful of very motivated individuals, to raise an issue and identify solutions for it… When you look at your company and the energy it uses, you can very quickly and easily find out what your clean energy alternatives are. What does it look like if you were to go to the utility and ask to switch to their clean energy, and how much more expensive is it?

Wenzel: Since one of the 10 points of "Speed and Scale" is to turn movements into action, can you talk a bit about this? What's the role of non-corporate actors and social movements, and where (do) equity and justice fit in there when you have a climate future that looks terribly unjust in ways we're just starting to see?

Panchadsaram: In turning movements into action, we have a set of three equity key results (KR), three measures that we need to be looking at as we make this transition… The first is reducing the rate of health mortality, as well as health issues across socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, from issues that stem from carbon pollution, as well as other greenhouse gas pollution. 

That's one incredibly important metric and measure. An example of why is if you end up reducing that delta in a community, and likely means you shut down that coal plant that's just around the corner.

The other KR is around jobs created. We know that this transition will not be successful if it doesn't produce more jobs than it displaces. Already you are seeing the clean energy job creation outpace the fossil fuel job replacement — that's out there in one of the KRs around getting the 60 million-plus new jobs by 2030. It's very exciting because these jobs are very local, they're within communities… This is almost like a reinvestment of our backyards, a reinvestment of our communities.

Every company should come out and say, by 2040, we are going to be net zero across all scopes of our emissions for all greenhouse gases.

The third KR, the equity one, is around universal education. The team at [Project] Drawdown have an incredibly clear solution to the climate crisis, and that's through girls' education. What that really means is empowering women all around the world with both not only elementary education, but that high school education, to more to be in control of their lives. 

When this transition happens, there's going to be a lot of change and investment that comes with it. And we really have to make sure that when those investments are there, done equitably, that the wealth can be distributed as fairly and evenly as possible, that when these investments are made, can we use them to erase some of the mistakes from the past?

How do we ensure that this transition and this investment makes us all richer in our lives, richer in that holistic sense?

Wenzel: What would you say to younger people right now who are maybe just even starting high school, college or starting their careers? You had a lot of success early, at a pretty early age. 

Panchadsaram: There is a world of opportunities, job opportunities in this transition, and kind of the incredible thing is, it's going to touch every part of the way we work and live, from the way we power our homes, to the way we move in our communities, to the way we grow our food to the way we produce our things. 

Everyone's really thinking about the future and how their work connects into it in a meaningful and healthy and clean kind of way.

What that means is like, when you're picking between an automotive company that you could work for, (choose) the one that's farther along on vehicle electrification. When you're thinking about working for maybe a local government — what if it's working on urban planning, or the environmental side of local government office? Or when looking at working at a company that produces goods, how do you ensure that you're looking at the materials used and how things are recycled? And so I like to say that almost every job of the future is going to have to have the speed and scale lens to it.

Wenzel: What keeps you up at night?

Panchadsaram: On speedandscale.com we have this tracker and you can click on the "Code Red" key results… The two that keep me up at night are the sheer amount of coal, oil and gas we still burn and the methane leaks that come from our dependence on natural gas.

My one takeaway for this energy security crisis that's happening is that it's because we're addicted to fossil fuel, that every country's destiny is tied to a bad actor around the world that can shut off the pipe or raise prices through a cartel. And as long as that holds true, no country is free, energy-independent or energy-secure, unless it can produce the energy that it needs and store it domestically and do it resiliently. 

And so when you think about energy security in the future, it's a very clean one. It's a very efficient one. And it's one where every country can stand proud and strong on their own.

Wenzel: Do you think you're pretty optimistic? There's so much room for pessimism, and a lot of the [climate change] effects we didn't think we'd see for decades have been happening this year. Is the Paris Agreement just a lost cause, and now we're just left picking up the pieces of the change that's already accelerating?

Panchadsaram: I am very hopeful, because the market forces are aligning… We've got so much work to do to continue to accelerate it. And I have a belief that the companies and people that are on the edge of the waves are also going to reap the biggest rewards, they're going to be seen as the leaders, and they're going to be the ones that are going to...effectively chart our future.

Wenzel: What do you hope to see happening out of Silicon Valley moving forward?

Panchadsaram: The neat thing about Silicon Valley is that it's solution-obsessed… It’s this ethos of looking at a problem, finding a new solution … throwing engineering might and technology at it, and seeing if that solution sticks.

How do we ensure that this transition and this investment makes us all richer in our lives, richer in that holistic sense?

The number of companies being funded by venture capital that are in the clean energy, clean tech space is really off the charts. And I say that because when we published "Speed and Scale," we'd always hope for at least $50 billion a year of venture capital going towards clean technologies. And when we published the book, only $13 billion went into it. And so we hoped by the end of this decade, maybe it would get to $50 (billion). And last year, it was $57 (billion).

Wenzel: What do you hope to see from government, from the Biden administration — or maybe the next one in a couple of years — or even from local governments?

Panchadsaram: The Biden administration with Congress did something incredible with the Inflation Reduction Act, an even more incredible layering on the CHIPS and the Bipartisan Infrastructure (Law).

When you have modelers looking at what the effect of those policies are going to be in 2030, we were only going to be able to cut our emissions by 25 percent. [The IRA] law pushes us to that 40 percent mark. But we know from looking at the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports and other modelers that we've got to get to 50 percent, if we want to keep the world warming to only 1.5 degrees [Celsius temperature rise]. 

What we need the Biden administration to do is now look at the executive actions that it can take to fill that delta to go from that 40-ish percent to 50. And it's things the [Environmental Protection Agency] can do, the Department of Energy can do. And it's also things Congress can do as well, too. 

So I don't want to always keep putting the pressure on Biden's team. You know, Congress can continue to keep the momentum that it has from these past two years and put more wins for the planet on the board.

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