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Stepping Up To The Climate Crisis Of This Generation


Derek Mak, Harry Lee, Bipasha Ray

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word MOSAIC as a surface decoration made by inlaying small pieces of variously colored material to form pictures or patterns. No matter how unstructured the pieces of inlay seem, the final product forms a bigger image, the whole pattern, but never unstructured. What does Mosaic have to do with the climate crisis? Everything!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report in 2018 warning that temperatures will likely reach 1.5°C above preindustrial levels between 2030 and 2051 if warming is allowed to continue at the current rate. This would cause huge ecosystem damage and economic damage to the tune of $54 trillion. If we continue on the current trajectory, we will see increased extreme weather events, sea-level rise and therefore land loss, climate refugees, species extinction, food and water scarcity and even more severe pandemics.

These are no longer predictions. They are happening all around us:

  • Temperatures have risen by 2.05 degrees Fahrenheit (1.14 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century

  • Greenland lost around an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019 and Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice per year in the same period.

  • Globally there has been an 8-inch rise in sea level in the last 100 years and the rate has doubled in the past 20 years

  • Oceans have acidified by 30% due to carbon dioxide uptake in the past 200 years

  • Extreme Events such as the California and Australian fires have increased. Since 2015, there have been an average of 100 more large wildfires every year than the preceding year in the US

  • The economy has already been impacted. In 2019, damages caused by extreme weather events spurred by climate change caused a loss of $100 billion

In 2019, during a high-level meeting on the relationship between climate change and sustainable development, the UN General Assembly warned that we have just over a decade to prevent an irreversible damage from climate change. The United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has spurred the initiative to reduce greenhouse emissions by at least 40-70% by 2050 with the 2010 figure as the baseline.

2020 is a wake-up call for those who still have the slightest doubt about the coming climate crisis. We live in California and at the time of writing, it is the state with the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases. The wildfires in the summer of 2020 rendered our air unbreathable for months. The climate crisis is right at our doorstep, warning signs are everywhere. It is the single most pressing challenge for this generation. The world needs to come together to address this problem and slow down the impacts, to adapt better to the imminent changes, and to reduce the intensity of the changes. This is our time to step up!

The clock is ticking. It is not about doing one or two things differently. We must change how we live. Delivering real impact to slow the growth of carbon emission into the environment is a multi-dimensional chess game. It is not about just relying on governments to impost regulatory changes. There is no one single silver bullet. To make a real change for our future, governments, corporations, and people all have vital roles to play. That is why it is multi-dimensional. We are advocating a portfolio approach to bring an ecosystem of public and private entities, and people together in a unified, orchestrated way to deliver results – just like what a MOSAIC would do, small pieces forming to a unified whole. A portfolio of initiatives by governments, innovations by private enterprises, and everything in between that creates a network effect in an orchestrated way. We call this the MOSAIC approach. The keywords here are portfolio, network effect, and orchestrated. These are the elements for success.

Where do we focus? Energy, Transportation, and Waste, a few of the largest sectors contributing to the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions (see figure below). Why?

ENERGY. We need energy to power goods and services productions; humanity's progression depends on it; the economic engine cannot function without it. In a capitalistic society, we are under constant pressure to keep producing more.

From the moment we wake up to the time we go to bed, everything we do, everything we use, are contributing to carbon emissions. Even when we are sleeping, all the devices like Amazon Alexa, the smartphone chargers, the printers, the coffee machines, and everything else that is connected to the Internet are consuming electricity. The Internet of Things is not a hype but a reality. Today over 10 billion devices are already connected to the Internet. By 2025, IDC estimates over 41 billion devices will be connected.

The point is not to say that we need to reverse the trend of connecting smart things, thereby reducing the use of energy. That is just not realistic. It is like asking companies to reduce their annual production, and thus revenue targets. But we can certainly work on rewiring ourselves to power these connected devices with renewable energy sources. Rewiring America is doing exactly that:

“Fighting climate change starts at home. Nearly 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from what’s in our households and garages. If we electrify everything in our houses, we go a long way to confronting climate change. This transformation isn’t going to happen in Washington – and we need your help to do it.”

TRANSPORTATION. Production requires workers to go to work, and the production output needs ways to deliver goods from A to B. The global network of transportation from sea, to air, to ground are generating massive carbon footprint. Nearly all forms of transportation, excluding trains, rely on petroleum products. Passenger travel is responsible for 60% of CO2 emissions from transportation, with freight accounting for the other 40%. In 2018, a total of 24% of global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion came from transportation.

It would be a pipe dream to wish the world to use less of transportation or to slow the sales of vehicles. The key is again to rethink the sources that power the transportation network. Combustion engines will be more efficient, more and more people will convert to electric cars, and a new generation of socially conscious citizens will lead to ways to take more urban public transits such as subway and light rails. A more connected and efficient transportation network will certainly help us produce more.

Transition to electric vehicles is a major needle mover for carbon reduction in transportation. Electric vehicles are about 3 times more efficient in energy conversion than internal combustion driven vehicles. It also reduces air pollution and carbon footprints. By 2030, electric cars will reduce CO2 emissions four-fold in Europe thanks to an EU grid relying more and more on renewables. “If European governments are serious about decarbonizing during the crisis recovery, they must speed up the transition to electric vehicles”, according to Lucien Mathieu, transport and e-mobility analyst at Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group.

WASTE. Increase in production however leads to more waste in our current singular make-use-dispose consumption paradigm. Most of what we make goes to the landfill. In the U.S. alone, a warping 276.8 million tons of waste is produced every year. That is over 55,000 average passenger vehicles as waste per year. Over half of that goes to landfill. In 2018, the US landfills were the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States. This GHG emission is more than 20.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year or the CO2 emissions from more than 11.0 million homes’ energy use for one year.

Clearly, as we endeavor to produce more and more, this make-use-dispose paradigm is not sustainable. Thanks to pioneers such as Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The movement to a circular economy is beginning to gain momentum. There is no shortage of ideas and initiatives from businesses, to cities, and nations to move towards a more sustainable future. The important point to stress is that a more sustainable future is not about doing one or two things differently. It is about a whole new way of living and we can help connect the dots - energy, transportation, and waste - and stop thinking that it is someone else's problem. Climate change is the problem of this generation. We can make a difference.

For example, take plastic bags and single-use plastic bottles. Nearly 5 trillion plastic bags are generated every year globally. Similarly, we use 1 million plastic bottles per minute. A 500ml plastic bottle of water has a total carbon footprint equal to 82.8 grams of carbon dioxide. Marriott, the world largest hotel chain, indicated that eliminating 500 million small bottles a year will save 1.7 million pounds of plastic. Several governments like California, have already placed bans on single use product use at hotels. Plastic is one of the biggest concerns in waste today. Not only do we have to reduce our plastic usage, but we also must manage the plastic waste that has already been disposed of into the environment. The US was deemed the largest producer of plastic waste with 42 million metric tons of plastic generated in 2016. The extraction and transportation of natural gas to create feedstocks for plastics emit 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of CO2e per year.

Food waste, another huge issue, especially in the United States. 30% of trash comprises food scraps and yard trimmings. These could be used to rejuvenate our soils and draw out the greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere. Our soils have been ripped off of all the nutrients due to extensive industrial agriculture and therefore we need to renew our soils. Healthy soils are one of the largest carbon sinks. In addition to reducing emissions, we also need to sequester the GHG emissions that we have already released into the atmosphere. 95% of the food waste generated in the US is still going to landfills. We can divert this waste to our soils. Project Drawdown is spurring initiatives to sequester the GHG in our atmosphere that we have emitted. Several governments like the City of San Francisco mandates the correct separation of residential and commercial compost.

More governments and corporations are pledging meaningful goals and making concrete plans to be part of a more sustainable future. In our last blog, we pointed out the accelerating rate of Chief Sustainability Officer appointments in organizations. For the first time, the incoming US administration will have a special envoy for climate change in the cabinet. The momentum is building, and 2021 will be a tipping point for acceleration. We will see initiatives and product innovations coming from all corners of the world. But as we mentioned before, the key to success is: 1) take a portfolio approach, or what we called the MOSAIC approach. That means, making short-, mid-, and long-term bets just like managing an investment portfolio; 2) create a network effect with initiatives and solutions. That means thoughtfully channel the initiatives and solutions into complementary plays. What role can the government play to foster and incentivize innovative climate change solutions? 3) ensure the efforts are orchestrated so seemingly disparate programs, initiatives, solutions come together to form a bigger picture – the MOSAIC.

We use the framework below to think through the MOSAIC approach to enable cities and organizations powering up a circular economy:

This framework shapes our clients’ focus and choice of initiatives, programs, and supporting technology solutions in each phase of the cycle in ways which intentionally maximizes the network effect.

Why are we stressing the network effect? It has to do with the big picture, the final form of the MOSAIC. Each initiative, product or service on the “mosaic tile” should ideally complement one another to generate a multiplying factor. In other words, we are looking for a “1+1=3” outcome, metaphorically speaking. There is no shortage of sustainability initiatives, products, and efforts everywhere around us. Are they creating the expected impact? For example, in a move to be more eco-friendly, McDonald’s announced it would cut plastic straws from its locations in the UK and Ireland, replacing them with a paper alternative. The fast-food chain uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK, so they touted the initiative as a significant step in helping to reduce single-use plastic. But there is a problem; where the old plastic straws could be recycled, the new paper ones cannot. Customers are told to put them in the general waste. And on top of the straws not being a greener choice, they perform poorly, quickly going soggy. A petition to reinstate the plastic straws currently has nearly 57,000 signatures.

An Amazon customer who bought nine rolls of window film to make her home more energy efficient got a surprise when they arrived at her door in nine separate boxes. Despite being small enough to fit in just one box, staff at the Amazon fulfilment center opted to pack them individually. Maybe they thought the customer would enjoy a tower of packages being delivered? She did not. “It’s completely outrageous,” she said of this sustainability failed. “Surely Amazon can do better to reduce their wrapping wastage and be more environmentally friendly.” Other people also blasted the retailer online for its unnecessary packaging.

Switching to energy-efficient light bulbs makes sense but not when it means having to replace every light in your house. The Phillips EarthLight was shaped so that it was incompatible with almost every conventional lamp at the time. So, not only were customers expected to shell out $15 per bulb (when regular incandescent ones cost less than a dollar), they also had to invest in new lamps. Unsurprisingly, only the most committed green consumers were willing to do this and the EarthLight was quickly extinguished.

TECHNOLOGY and DATA. We pointed out in our last blog that technologies, especially IoT is the 4th Pillar of Sustainability. By adopting the right technologies, such as RFID, mobile, IoT, cloud, edge computing, artificial intelligence, we can breathe new possibilities to everyday routines such as recycling, shopping for groceries, taking a transit to work, etc. More importantly, we can leverage technologies not only to make doing something more efficient, but to engage the digital generation happens to care more about their future environment.

In addition, a critical factor to creating a network effort lies in the ability to connect data (securely) from the ecosystem of digital solutions that support the circular economy programs and initiatives, an observation we asserted in a previous blog. Data generated from the highly complementary solutions allow us to aggregate, sort, and collate much more efficiently to identify insights. Thus, TECHNOLOGY and DATA forms the backbone to the MOSAIC approach to gain the digital experience and fact-based intelligence needed to drive new innovations, to create values for monetization, and to adapt existing initiatives in real-time.

Does all these sounds too theoretical? We would love your thoughts and comments.

Delivering real impact to slow the growth of carbon emission into the environment is a multi-dimensional chess game. It is not about just doing one or two things differently. It is not about relying on governments alone to impost regulatory changes. There is no one single silver bullet. To make a real impact for our future, governments, corporations, and people all have vital roles to play. That is why it is multi-dimensional. A portfolio approach, a MOSAIC approach as we called it, to bring an ecosystem of public and private entities, and people together in a unified, orchestrated way that create a network effort is the recipe for success.

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