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What We are Reading: Speed & Scale

From the Library Of Diane Cherry Consulting - Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now by John Doerr

We all know that climate change is one of the biggest crises of our time. But it’s an all-encompassing problem with many facets and can be overwhelming to contemplate. Where do we even begin in the fight for a better future?


The breadth of this problem yields a preponderance of literature with a variety of potential solutions. Most recently, we read Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now. In his book, author, engineer, and venture capitalist John Doerr discusses the imperative for climate investment and the immediate need for new innovation. The clock is ticking on whether we’ll be able to meet warming targets. Doerr says that “only concerted, collective, global action can get us past the finish line on time,” but he is “hopeful – and impatient” – to tackle the issue.


Speed & Scale outlines a detailed plan to ensure warming is no greater than the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees celsius target. This cap best protects human and environmental health. We must target new politics, enact new policies, invest, and innovate to transform the largest-emitting sectors and bring emissions to net zero by 2050 (reaching halfway by 2030). Doerr urges rapid clean tech investments and says that, contrary to what many believe, there is a business case for climate action. He quotes climate policy expert Hal Harvey, saying “it is now cheaper to save the Earth than to ruin it.”


So how do we save the Earth? To begin, Doerr breaks down the components of current global emissions, totaling 59 gigatons (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year. Business as usual will send emissions skyrocketing anywhere between 65 and 90 GT every year. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees will require emissions reduction across the global economy and removal of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere. These break down as follows:

  1. Electrify the transportation sector to reduce emissions from 8 GT per year to 2 GT

  2. Decarbonize the energy grid to reduce emissions from 24 GT per year to 3 GT

  3. Clean up industry to reduce emissions from 12 GT per year to 4 GT

  4. Initiate carbon capture and sequestration to remove an additional 10 GT per year from the atmosphere

  5. Fix intensive food systems to reduce agricultural emissions from 9 GT per year to 2 GT

  6. Protect and restore natural ecosystems to eliminate all 6 GT emitted yearly from natural destruction and additionally use proactive practices to negate another GT of emissions

This blog addresses the first four of Doerr’s solutions; however, all are essential strategies and we encourage you to check out the book and investigate each one.*

Electrifying Transportation


Doerr presents a number of key results necessary to reduce transportation emissions. Emissions from standard internal combustion vehicles directly contribute to climate change and cause significant health issues including premature deaths. As of the book’s writing in 2021, nine out of ten vehicles in the United States were powered by fossil fuels and only 10 million electric vehicles (EVs) were on the road globally. EV numbers need to rise quickly, but low- and zero-emission transportation investments currently require paying a higher-cost “green premium.” Clean transportation must yield superior performance and reach pricing parity with new combustion vehicles to dominate the market.


And market domination is necessary. Doerr’s emission reduction goals require EVs to make up 50 percent of all personal vehicle purchases by 2030, and 95 percent by 2040. In the U.S. EVs hold just two percent of the new vehicle market. Policy action and financial incentives will put more EVs on the road – those for personal use, as well as medium- and heavy-duty transport like buses and trucks. Adopting stronger financial opportunities drives EV purchasing and generates long-term savings. Doerr recommends raising the bar on fuel efficiency for existing combustion and hybrid vehicles, and incentivizing owners to turn in old combustion cars rather than selling them. He also encourages expanding existing tax credits and rebates, while implementing new policies to bolster growth. Ultimately, Doerr says we must mandate EV-only vehicle sales.

EV success also depends on manufacturing cheaper, better batteries. Speed & Scale discusses Wright’s Law, which says that for every doubling of production, manufacturers will see a reliable cost decline. For example – a $60,000 battery in 2005 now costs $8,000 due to doubled production. Innovation drives production of more efficient, lighter, and longer-range EV batteries.


Lastly, decarbonizing transportation also relies on the next key objective – grid decarbonization.


Decarbonizing the Grid


Our electric grid is currently dominated by fossil fuels, producing 24 GT of emissions annually. Cutting the necessary 21 GT requires a rapid shift to renewable fuels, electric technologies, and a more resilient, efficient grid. Doerr notes that while many countries and industries have goals in place, they are too long-term. We must step up zero-emission energy sources to exceed 50 percent of global power by 2025, and 90 percent by 2035. Coal plants must phase out by 2025, and natural gas by 2035. Innovation should drive longer-duration energy storage options and reduce storage pricing, ensuring that power is always available to meet demand.


The book also emphasizes that we must electrify everything, down to heat pumps, stoves, and ranges. Electric technologies have proven to be just as, if not more, efficient and economical as gas-powered options.


Most importantly, widespread electrification necessitates an upgraded grid and greater energy efficiency. Doerr calls the American grid “antiquated.” The grid’s insuffient infrastructure fails to meet real-time demand and move necessary energy over long distances, and inefficient technologies mean that much of the power we produce is lost. As things stand, the U.S. grid certainly cannot support the energy loads of an electrified economy and the variability and storage needs from green energy. Utilities and regulatory bodies must step up to the plate and implement stronger markets and infrastructure.


Clean Up Dirty Industry


Even if we decarbonize our grid and electrify transportation, manufacturing materials for these sectors produces GHGs. Doerr offers a few key strategies to cut 12 GT of industrial emissions by 2050: use less, recycle and reuse more, pursue alternative heat sources, and invent new, green products.


Steel manufacturing and cement fabrication compose the two most polluting industries. Steel produces a massive seven percent of global annual carbon emissions, and it is a very difficult sector to decarbonize. Production furnaces would require clean fuel, and the iron for steel production would need to come from fossil-free sources or scrap steel. It would also necessitate a clean fuel that generates extremely high heat. Concrete also yields a ton of CO2 for every ton produced. Reducing emissions again would require replacing fuels for heating with clean options and mitigating harmful chemical reactions.

Currently we have the means to electrify at least half of industrial fuel needs, but the rest must come from new innovations. One potential option is hydrogen, though clean, “green hydrogen” itself is not yet economically or logistically viable on a large scale. Manufacturing hydrogen requires electricity – thus, green, emissions-free hydrogen must employ renewable power. The good news is that we have evidence for building materials produced with zero emissions. A recent trial proved that green hydrogen can power steel manufacturing with no negative impacts on quality.


Mitigating other industries’ emissions will require consuming less, reusing and recycling more, and thinking critically to design greener products. For example, the plastics sector alone produces nearly 1.5 GT of emissions annually. Our current recycling options fail us, and only nine percent of recyclable material is actually recycled. We need an improved reuse and recycling system and more degradable, scalable materials options.


Carbon Capture


So let’s say we decarbonize all of our big industries, our transportation, and our energy grid. We reduce emissions everywhere we can – does that get us to net zero? Not quite. We must figure out a way to annually remove 10 billion tons of existing GHGs from the atmosphere as well. Without active removal, we would need to double emissions reduction every year through 2040 to reach net zero by 2050, and that just isn’t realistic. Removing CO2 is essential, both by natural means and through engineering.


Natural removal includes strategies like forest management, which will improve absorption and sequestration in both new and regrown forests. By enhancing land management and cultivating ecosystems that actively uptake excess carbon, we should aim to remove one GT of CO2 by 2025, three GT by 2030, and five GT by 2040.

Engineered removal strategies will take care of the rest: at least one GT per year by 2030, three GT by 2040, and five GT by 2050. However, Doerr notes that these reductions may be “the steepest climb of all.” Carbon capture technologies are currently uneconomical at scale. Removing carbon from ambient air is difficult, as is finding enough space or materials for permanent storage. “To remove half of the 10 billion tons of leftover carbon emissions” with current options, “we’d need an expanse of solar panels as large as the state of Florida.” These processes would also require massive amounts of energy. To do what needs to be done, we must broaden our horizons.


Innovation


Carbon capture, as well as every other objective discussed, will not happen without ongoing and intensified innovation. This means active research and development of new strategies and technologies to mitigate and remove emissions. Doerr mentions a number of needs, for example:

  • Batteries: Transitioning all new vehicle sales to electric will require 10,000 gigawatt hours (gWh) of batteries per year, and electricity storage needs will require at least 10,000 more. We must scale production and lower the cost from $139 per kilowatt hour (kWh) to $80 per kWh by 2035.

  • Electricity: The cost of renewable, zero-emission energy is rapidly declining; solar is already cheaper than all other generation methods in most of the world. The next step is to continue to make those technologies more efficient, economical, and reliable, and implement methods to provide, store, and deploy power to meet increasing energy demand.

  • Green Hydrogen: The green transition will require immense amounts of efficient, clean energy, and hydrogen will be an important component. Meeting net-zero requires zero-emissions processes to generate green hydrogen, and ramping up methods to deploy and utilize this renewable energy source.

  • Energy Efficiency: Two-thirds of fossil-fueled energy in the U.S. is currently wasted due to poor generation and utilization practices. It is essential that we both reduce the amount of power required to power our world, and that we efficiently utilize the energy we produce.

  • Carbon Removal: We must develop technologies that capture carbon for under $100 per ton by 2030, and under $50 by 2040. Engineered removal is getting cheaper, but not quickly enough. It’s also necessary to creatively design new solutions for storing captured CO2.

  • Carbon-Neutral Fuels: Though we would like to, there are some sectors which we will not be able to rapidly electrify – think aviation and cargo shipping. We must develop or refine carbon neutral fuels that are cost-competitive with fossil energy.

Lots of Work Ahead


Needless to say, achieving carbon neutrality will require all hands on deck. There’s a lot to be done, but mitigating the climate crisis is not impossible. Speed & Scale outlines all of the aforementioned detail (and much more) and illustrates specific pathways, helpful anecdotes, and research to get us to where we need to be. We share Doerr’s hope for a clean and climate-friendly future. The time to act is now.


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*(Note: Diane Cherry Consulting is not in any way affiliated with John Doerr and does not have any stake in Speed & Scale – support for the book is solely to encourage more widespread climate education.)


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