A green recovery powered by digital and electric: the fastest way to save the planet
Philippe Delorme, Executive Vice President of Energy Management at Schneider Electric, prioritises the solutions to combat global warming.
We are at a critical juncture. It’s now clear to most people in the world that our planet is in decline as a direct result of human activity. If we don’t act now and act quickly, the planet and all life as we know it will be irreversibly damaged by rising temperatures.
Despite some progress, we are still far from being on track to avoid this scenario. Destruction of life and livelihoods is occurring with increasing frequency thanks to the growing prevalence of extreme weather events: floods, cold snaps, heatwaves, storms. Climate change is the biggest threat that humanity has ever seen. Without immediate action, the earth is expected to be 4.1°C – 4.8°C warmer by the end of the century.
The harsh reality is that we’re out of time. We needed to act last week, last year, last decade, to turn this around. So we’re faced with a rapidly diminishing window of opportunity to avoid a catastrophe and limit the damage, but we need to act fast. The glimmer of hope is that we are finally seeing a growing willingness to embrace and invest in change.
Delivering revolutionary outcomes in record time
With limited time to tackle global warming, we need to prioritise the actions and solutions that can have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time whilst still enabling economies to recover and thrive. Those actions are:
- Eliminating waste across the lifecycle
- Accelerating electricity as the right energy source to decarbonise
- Investing in digital technology and skills to drive efficiency
- Fostering public/private partnerships to deliver post-COVID recovery plans
Eliminating waste across the lifecycle should be our number one priority
Climate change is, first and foremost, an energy problem. Energy is responsible for over 80% of the world’s CO2 emissions. As we try to transition to a world powered by clean energy, eliminating waste is one of the fastest ways to apply the brakes to carbon emissions.
Just a third of the total energy produced is converted into useful energy consumed by transport, industry, buildings, devices. The rest is lost or wasted in the production and transmission process. Yet when it comes to waste, plastic, food, and fashion waste grab our attention. Energy waste is often overlooked and undervalued in climate change plans and investment. Emissions could be halved if energy loss and waste could be eradicated.
Technology already exists to solve much of this challenge and continues to advance rapidly.
To eliminate waste, we first need to know where, how and why it occurs. We can measure energy consumption more accurately with sensors, metering and monitoring. Software can be deployed to design, manage and automate energy use, ensuring we have light, heat and power where and when needed, saving it where it is not. Whatever the proportion of clean energy in the mix, electricity remains the best, most efficient vector for decarbonisation. At the same time, digital can help us keep tabs on how energy is being consumed to eliminate waste.
Taking a holistic approach presents us with numerous opportunities to tackle and remove a great deal of waste across the entire lifecycle of buildings, infrastructure and industries. Smarter design at the outset through simulation tools, adoption of efficient construction methods and more localised sourcing or re-use of materials, operating premises more efficiently and enforcing the principles of the circular economy are practical methods that are working today and need to be deployed at scale.
Efficiency enabled by decentralised green energy and software
A large proportion of our energy loss and waste emissions come from the production of electricity from fossil fuels and the distance energy travels around the grid before it is consumed. Renewables don’t just offer a clean source of energy. Electricity generation through renewables is more efficient and can be located closer to the point of use, reducing potential energy loss through proximity.
A decentralised and decarbonised smart energy grid will be at the heart of net zero transformation. Enabled and stabilised by software, it will deliver more localised affordable energy generation and consumption. This is especially important for buildings, which are the single largest source of emissions. It will become critical as we see the increased implementation of micro grids driven by solar and wind, adoption of EVs in the drive towards net-zero homes and offices. Data centers – the backbone of our digital economies – have already showcased how to achieve decarbonisation at pace. We need to invest in the solutions already at our disposal to deliver this as we continue to pursue tech progress.
Why is electricity the best energy source for a clean future?
In a race against time, electricity offers the fastest, safest, most cost-effective way to decarbonise our societies. From a purely practical perspective, the means to distribute electricity already exists in the developed world. To deploy alternative fuels at scale to our homes, offices, and public spaces will take decades. Years in which we will see no reduction in emissions from the fossil fuels we would still have to rely on heat and feed our populations.
Whilst electricity may not be the answer to every challenge (heavy industry, long distance travel), it is a proven energy source which can be generated cleanly and cheaply with continued investment in renewables such as solar, wind and hydro.
- Solar and wind powered renewable energy is already 50% cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels.
- Electricity generation from renewables is 100% efficient with just 5-10% lost in transmission vs 60% loss/waste in energy produced from fossil fuels. At the same time, there is a enormous 70% round trip inefficiency in the production of new potential energy sources such as green hydrogen.
Digital and electric sustainability tech ticks the all-important boxes of efficiency, safety, measurable outcomes and the speed at which such solutions can be scaled and deployed. Most importantly, it allows us to bring consumers, small and large businesses along on the journey giving them more choice and control when it comes to the sustainability of their homes, offices and entire cities.
Today, there is still much talk of the need to find a “silver bullet” to solve the challenge of climate change and reverse the damage we’ve already inflicted. Whilst people pin their hopes on a time machine, I believe the silver bullet is actually waste and the elimination of it. Electricity, powered by clean energy, can satisfy the vast majority of use cases. That is what should be prioritised now.
Public-private partnerships must lead the way
Governments around the world must ensure they do all they can to help businesses and consumers shift to green alternatives. As they act to reboot post-pandemic economies, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to tackle climate change at the same time, enabling a green recovery. However, we must act quickly and responsibly, investing in environmental solutions that will improve the way we live, enable access to energy for all and level the playing field when it comes to opportunity.
Considerations need to be made for those companies with less capital to invest in renewable sources. For example, building owners could be held accountable for the efficiency potential of their tenants. This will drive action and efficiency both in new build and retrofits, a kind of carbon competition that building occupiers will increasingly look for to make a home or workplace more appealing.
Enabled through digital, businesses can start addressing one of the most challenging ESG matters: tracking and reducing their Scope 3 indirect emissions, such as transportation and distribution. Organisations such as Walmart are already making renewable energy more accessible to their suppliers, helping to accelerate the decarbonisation of their wider ecosystem. This move is part of the retailer’s Project Gigaton effort to reduce its supply chain emissions by one billion metric tons by 2030.
Skills must not be a barrier to a green recovery
There is much talk of green recovery and job creation. Of a total of $14.9 trillion in stimulus spending announced globally since the pandemic began, so far $1.8 trillion is being used to mitigate the impact of polluting sectors such as energy, transport, industry, farming and waste.
If we are to meet our climate goals, access to the skills required to implement and manage the transformation to net zero economies will be a critical success factor. Recognising what skills will be needed is key. If we accept that digital and electric offer the fastest path to net-zero with the least disruption then it naturally follows that these are the areas where jobs will be created. More electricians, panel-builders, designers, engineers, software developers and high-tech roles will be required. Helping to deploy digital and electric tech at scale. Retrofitting our buildings, homes and factories up to 10 times faster and more efficiently – while revolutionising the way we live, manufacture, and travel. The IEA has estimated that 9m new jobs could be created globally in the coming year if countries follow a green recovery path. These jobs will, by their very nature, be mostly local jobs that cannot be imported from one country to the other. They will require a local service context, know-how and customer proximity.
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Whilst electricity powered by renewables and enabled through digital technology can’t solve 100% of the climate challenge, it can get us a significant way there. Let us focus on the technologies and energy sources we know work now, are readily available and safe to deploy. We can’t afford to wait for miracles in the race against climate change.
Everyone has a role to play – scientists, engineers, inventors, politicians, business owners, employees, fathers and mothers who want to leave the world a better place for their children.
The sooner we all recognise this and prioritise action and investment in the solutions at hand, the faster we can make serious inroads into our emissions.
 BNEF 2020
 IEA/WEO, 2019
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