Media: Lufthansa Inflight Magazine 2019
Publication Date: October 2019
Finding Solutions to the Climate Crisis
Some countries are not living up to climate change commitments, and companies that are setting their own targets to reduce their carbon footprint are asking governments for policy coherence and stable long-term plans, says Maria Mendiluce of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
From severe heat waves to extreme rainfall—the results of climate change are becoming ever more real. How urgent is it to act on climate change?
It is essential that we take action on climate change, starting now. We are seeing the effects all around us – Europe has just gone through a record-setting heat wave, so too has the US, and cities like Chennai, in India, are running out of water. Average global temperatures have risen, too — the planet is roughly 1°C hotter today than it was before the industrial era. Things will only get worse. The risk of extreme heat, drought, floods and storms is increasing. If we go beyond a 2°C increase, the world is going to be a very different place – and that’s where we’re heading if we don’t act now.
All hope is not lost, though. Solutions are within reach, and there are technologies that can help reduce emissions. But the problem is, we are not implementing solutions at the speed that is needed to keep the global temperature rise well below the 2°C as countries signed up to in the Paris Climate Agreement.
The major problem is that people don’t feel the same sense of urgency about emissions as they do about – for example – the 8 million tons of plastic that go into the ocean every year. The plastic problem is obvious, and thankfully, we’re starting to see actions being taken to deal with the situation we have created. On the other hand, 36 million tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere every year, but people can’t see them as pollution in the same way we can see plastic. They’re much more intangible: we know they are there, but we can’t see them. But this issue is dramatic, and it is having a huge impact on our health, on the climate and on the delicate ecosystems of our world.
Political inaction also plays a major role in all this. In 2015, nearly 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. But in the years since then, the support for this collective action has waned considerably, and our societies and our way of life are seriously at risk.
Given the political challenges, how is the private sector reacting to these issues?
Climate change is the greatest threat to the private sector, yet global environmental regulations are nowhere where they need to be. While at the supra or even national level, policy-makers have slowed the pace of change, we are seeing that cities are taking much more of a lead, for example, by not allowing cars with high emissions into their cities.
However, there is widespread agreement that sooner or later, governments are going to impose regulations to meet the Paris Agreement. That’s why forward-looking companies are setting reduction targets themselves. They want to get ahead of the politicians. While the political cycle is only four years and political direction might change swiftly, the business cycle is 15 years. Businesses have a longer-term view and are already working on the next green innovations.
What can be done to address risks posed by CO2?
There are many things that can be done. For example, the energy sector is the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions, so decarbonising the sector at speed will critically influence our ability to limit the rise in global temperatures.
The first step is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. Most renewable energy offers opportunities for more decentralised energy production and consumption. This is different to the current fossil fuel-based energy system, which has very complex and centralised infrastructure. Renewable energy sources might be located all across a country, so the new energy system will require more robust grid infrastructure, as it will need to bring energy from multiple sources to the points of consumption.
The challenge posed by renewables is that the wind is not always blowing, and the sun is not always shining. Therefore, we need interconnected power and storage systems, so that places which have lots of solar or wind energy can share it with those who don’t. But this process is complicated, so it will take time to transform the whole sector.
Can new technologies provide some quick wins in the meantime to decrease these emissions?
There are also big developments happening in storage technologies, even from a consumer point of view. Think about the new digital solutions that allow people at home to manage and control electricity flows, something that we have never seen before. Think about electric vehicles and batteries, as well. You can already purchase large storage batteries that connect to your home and store renewable energy. In the future, you might also be able to link your car to the grid, and it would become a storage capacity itself. Let’s say I have my electric car plugged in at home during the night, and I have a contract with a very smart electric utility that can use my battery at that time when renewable energy levels are low – that’s an example of how connectivity can help solve the emissions crisis.
We are also beginning to see a strong push on hydrogen as a new energy source. It is still more expensive compared to fossil fuel, but I think that it is a very sustainable power source, and we are going to see more developments in this area.
Beyond the energy sector, which other industries have a significant impact in terms of carbon emissions?
The transport sector produces a large share of the world’s overall emissions. Road transport is by far the biggest emitter. It accounts for more than 70% of the sector’s emissions. The boom in e-commerce and online delivery have played a huge role in worsening urban congestion and pollution. Fortunately, we are already seeing signs that the importance of private car ownership is declining. Emerging trends in mobility technology, such as the rise of ride hailing and carsharing services, have made owning a car less important than before. Yet for many people, the car is still essential, so it’s time for the industry to finally step up and find solutions to reduce CO2 emissions.
What about the potential of electric vehicles?
The electrification of transport with low carbon fuels is part of the solution — and the automotive industry is already going through that transformation. Electric vehicles (EVs) offer vast opportunities for new business models, and the leading car manufacturers are developing new models as well as providing innovative services because they see it as an opportunity to grow. Volkswagen, for example, has recently launched WeShare, a new car-sharing service that features only all-electric vehicles. Daimler has said that they will phase out the manufacture of internal combustion engines. And new electric and hybrid cars are arriving onto the market every year.
EV battery life is getting better and better and the prices are falling. You used to be able to travel 200 kilometres on a single charge, but now it is close to 400 kilometres. But the question is, what happens to the batteries when they reach the end of their life? Just like the rechargeable batteries in your camera or mobile phone, they don’t last forever. They lose capacity with every full charge and discharge, so after a few thousand charging cycles, even though the battery may still be performing well, it might not be performing at the level that is needed to run a car effectively. It will need to be replaced. Maybe it can go into a battery-storage service that is connected to the grid – there are options available. But it’s not very efficient, neither from a commercial nor environmental viewpoint, and it takes a lot of energy to extract raw materials from the ground to build a new lithium-ion battery to go back into your car. Ultimately, finding circular solutions to these issues will be critical to the future development of EVs.
WBCSD is working with companies on longer-term solutions, such as developing Science-based Targets for buildings and trying to understand how different technologies can reduce emissions. For instance, double-glazing technology dates back to the 1980s, and it’s not the most energy-efficient solution, yet many people still go for it. But have you heard of quadruple glazing? This new system is by far the latest and most energy-efficient development, and it uses less energy and materials to produce.
What are your expectations for the future? Is a more sustainable economy within reach?
We have no other choice than to try. After all, there are no jobs, businesses or people on a dead planet. I have been working in this field for 20 years, and the sector has always evolved beyond my expectations. I am confident that in the coming years the pace of change will accelerate with many new innovations, technologies and products coming onto the market.
Sustainability used to be just one of many strategies for business, but now, and into the future, it is the ONLY strategy for survival.
The plastic problem is one of the greatest challenges of our time. How can we address it?
The plastic problem is very obvious, and it is heartening to see cities, countries and businesses taking action to reduce it. However, plastic itself is not the problem and getting rid of plastic entirely is unnecessary. Many people don’t realise that plastic is probably the best packaging for many products from an environmental perspective. If other materials were used instead of plastic, such as paper and glass, it would generate even more waste packaging mass, as well as energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
What we need to do is to design products for recyclability, which might mean using less or different packaging materials. That is what will make a significant difference. For example, IKEA has recently introduced packaging made from mushrooms that will decompose naturally in a garden instead of needing to be recycled.
This year, WBCSD played a critical role in the formation of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), a new initiative that has the potential to be a global game-changer in sustainability practice. The Alliance is the most comprehensive cross-value chain initiative of its kind to end plastic waste in the environment, and it is supported by more than 40 global organisations from all the sectors that represent the plastic value chain, ranging from chemical companies producing plastic to waste management companies and consumer companies — 20 of them are our members.
You mentioned earlier that cities are now sustainability frontrunners, particularly when it comes to mobility. What other strategies can they employ in order to become more sustainable?
There are many quick wins that a city can take. The first step is to shift to renewable energy sources. Another is covering city buildings in vegetation. It’s a relatively simple solution that helps to reduce the need for air conditioning, so it could substantially save energy. And there are other things cities can do to support sustainability of all kinds. We’ve very recently seen Utrecht in the Netherlands turn 316 bus stops into “bee stops”, by covering the roofs of bus shelters with bee-attracting vegetation – that’s helping to support bee populations, as well as pollination and biodiversity.
A combination of quick wins and longer-term solutions will help cities become more sustainable. And this is important because cities are getting bigger every year. By 2050, more than 70% of the global population will live in a city, so we need to make sure they are good for people and for the environment.