The International Energy Agency put out a press release not long ago with a disappointing headline about global carbon emission increases in December 2020. In 2020, COVID-19 certainly put a dent in economies around the world resulting in a substantial reduction in CO2 so some bounce-back was expected, but IEA’s announcement brought back home just how difficult reaching and sustaining decarbonization is going to be for the world. The statements in their release make the prospects of decarbonization, especially by 2050, appear impossible.

The Most Amazing Thing Humankind Could Do

Bill Gates doesn’t completely agree, but almost. In Harvard Business Review, he said decarbonization will simply “need to be the most amazing thing humankind has ever done.”

That’s a pretty tall order, but actually, Gates is onto something. He is an inventor, so naturally, he is all about the creation of a gadget or widget requiring some kind of scientific breakthrough. For example, he’s a big proponent of nuclear energy and even chairs the Board of TerraPower which bills itself as a nuclear innovations company. Gates isn’t wrong in his engineering approach, and certainly, it’s not difficult to fall into a technology-as-savior trap. It is happening right in front of us, after all, with the fight against COVID-19. Big pharma has pulled a vaccine rabbit out of its hat in a very short amount of time to fight that dreaded disease.

What if, however, in the context of decarbonization, the most amazing thing humankind could do isn’t to find inventions, but instead, to find something even more amazing?  Technological innovation is absolutely one thing we need, but the more amazing – and most needed discovery – is to find agreement.

Decarbonization Is Possible… If

When asked this question on the Path to Zero podcast over the past 12 months, “If you had a magic wand and could change anything about the current state of the decarbonization conversation right now, what would you change?” Several guests responded by wishing – almost pining – for open minds, constructive dialogue and the setting aside of blame-casting in favor of problem-solving. Their frustration tells us that essential agreements have to be in place if we’re going to turn the IEA’s release – and the headline of this post – from negative to positive. Here are three agreements to start the list:

  • Decarbonization is possible… if the path to zero is wide. Those who are completely dazzled by the simplicity of all-electrification advocate for the immediate and complete elimination of fossil fuels. Those arguments, however, fly in the face of an obvious fact: cleaner fuels can immediately be used to replace dirtier fuels today. Just as the IEA is calling for more to be done to decarbonize, all-electrification advocates are clamoring for less. Can we agree that parallel processing – getting clean today while we invent an even cleaner tomorrow – is a smart move?
  • Decarbonization is possible… if market forces are spurred, not suppressed by tunnel-vision policies. Axios recently posted a story that should have us excited. Energy companies are beginning to add “Cargo Emission Tags” to their shipments. Like the restaurant industry in the U.S. now does with its food menus and calorie counts, Cargo Emission Tags provide data about the emissions linked to the entire supply chain. This transparency is going to push producers into showing that their product is less polluting than others, catalyzing a new generation of innovation in cleaner fuels. And how about this news: The American Petroleum Institute is preparing to endorse setting a price on carbon emissions that would “lead to the most economic paths to achieve the ambitions of the Paris Agreement.” As with a wide path, can we agree that putting economic as well as environmental tools to work for the cause would accelerate decarbonization?
  • Decarbonization is possible… if we de-complexify data and information – to a point. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” However, his inch of guidance is often taken a mile. This article in School Bus Fleet magazine serves as an example.

The person interviewed is quoted saying, “Replacing one diesel bus with one electric bus is the equivalent of removing 5.2 cars from the road each year.” It appears to be a simple argument, but in reality, it’s too simple. That statement can only be true if the electricity used to charge the bus comes from a clean grid. It can also only be true if the vampire loads – the power drawn by buses when charging in standby or rest modes – are considered. And it absolutely cannot be true if the total carbon impact of extracting, processing and producing the batteries for electric buses – an array used by Thomas Built appears to use 11 of them– is taken into account along with the carbon intensity of the infrastructure that has to be created to charge that bus. The 5.2 comparison is not deliberately misleading but, like many other claims made by backers of all-electrification, it’s just too simple. We should agree that we owe it to the publics we serve to provide straightforward information about actual decarbonization. We ought to work to be simple, but not simpler.

Clean Fuels Role in Decarbonization

All of us, even The North Face, contribute to the release of about 51 billion tons of carbon every year. Cleaner fuels like propane can play a fantastic role in accelerating the decarbonization of our atmosphere, and we’re moving the industry quickly to be a part of the solution because there is one straightforward, simple declaration we absolutely agree with: Decarbonization is possible.