Is there such a thing as a coincidence? Here at Paladino, we started deeply exploring new ways to address carbon emissions and Net Zero Carbon in June just as the world hit peak shutdown and stories about reduced carbon emissions popped up in every news feed.

The connections between the global response to COVID-19 and the global response needed for carbon change were unmistakable. At the same time, the environmental impact of the economic shutdown in response to COVID-19 was just beginning to be measured.

Air Quality COVID Europe
Air quality across Europe has improved because of the pandemic because of the massive shutdown in commercial activity.
Carbon emissions China COVID
Manufacturing stoppage in China had an almost immediate impact on global carbon emissions.

After months of demanding climate action (inspired in no small part by Greta Thurnberg), the COVID shutdown showed us how quickly natural balances can be restored, and at what cost.

The COVID shutdown has illustrated that urgent situations demand swift and decisive action. It’s also shown us that there has to be a way forward that brings us back to a new normal.

Whether we are talking about a pandemic or a climate crisis, the solution might be what has been deemed by Tomas Pueyo as “The Hammer and The Dance.”

The Hammer is the one big and urgent move needed to stave off disaster and flatten the curve. The Dance is the collection of sustained actions needed to keep the curve flat for the long haul.

The Net Zero Carbon Hammer: Renewable Energy

As beautiful as it has been to see wilderness creeping back into their natural spaces, the cure to climate change cannot be to stop the economy. The pain and suffering caused by joblessness is not the answer.

Then what is it?

The fact that you are reading this suggests that you are a leader. You are addressing carbon, which is the future of the environmental movement. It’s a big issue, and you might find yourself wondering where to focus. What is your Hammer as you try to bend this carbon curve, and what should you focus on?

The answer is Renewable Energy.

The United States is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record, new government projections show,

GHG Protocol Scope

To achieve Net Zero Carbon today, you must eliminate carbon from the project in a rational way. Here are the GHG Protocol scopes arranged in a stack diagram with carbon data from a sample project. In this example Scope 1 is a small part of the total carbon issue. Scope 2 is bigger than Scope 1 but not as big as Scope 3.

The first step is to drive down Scope 1. If you can remove combustion and refrigerants from the project, you’ve eliminated Scope 1 from your total. One way to do that is to switch fuels, which pushes Scope 1 into Scope 2. A simple example is switching from a gas to an electric boiler. Keep it a one-way conversion. Start with Scope 1 and push everything to Scope 2 that you can.

Why? Once Scope 1 is small-to-nothing, you move to Scope 2 because it is possible to purchase zero-carbon electricity anywhere in the world. That’s the second step.

Recall that Scope 2 is the running emissions from purchased energy, i.e. electricity. The best practice is to reduce energy demand first through energy efficiency betterments. Why? Because it is irrational to demand energy, create carbon emissions, and then spend more money to mitigate the emissions. Leaders just don’t do that.

The opportunity with cutting Scope 2 emissions is that Scope 2 happens every year for the life of the building. Every year there is a new set of emissions that comes from operations. When you solve Scope 2 by investing in renewable energy, that’s your Hammer, because you don’t need to eliminate Scope 2 if you invest in renewables.

If you get a commitment to renewables early in a project timeline, your team can spend that next 8 weeks solving the really difficult emissions – Scope 3 – instead of working through energy efficiency betterments that won’t see the light of day.

Be dogged and hold on to the Hammer of renewables! It makes sense for the clients and for our industry as it gives us the time and space to solve the next problem of embodied energy. Don’t take no for an answer. The costs for renewables is dropping on its own exponential curve. The cost for PV is getting so low that it is negligent not to use PV on bigger projects, and the cost of wind and solar power is dropping the price of RECs through the utility. Renewables are good business!

At Paladino, we are starting the conversation with an argument for 100% electric plant fueled by 100% renewable energy. When our clients buy in, the operational carbon problem is reduced to refrigerants and maybe some transportation emissions, which can be controlled through best management practice. Going all-renewable changes the equation of what you study during design and what the facilities team needs to think about during operations.

The Net Zero Carbon Dance: Scope 3

The Dance is the collection of actions that must take place to keep the curve of carbon emissions and global warming flat.

In the language of GHG protocols, the Dance is going to come from Scope 3. Scope 3 includes embodied carbon of construction, employee travel and commuting, emissions from contracted solid waste disposal, and wastewater treatment. Some Scope 3 emissions can also result from transportation and distribution losses associated with purchased electricity.

Fortunately, there are options now for Scope 3 action.

  • Buy organic offsets such as forest and grassland preservation.
  • Buy technology offsets for methane recovery.
  • Eliminate the emissions of transportation through electric vehicles (another fuel switch!)

Conclusion

It might have been Winston Churchill who said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This global industrial pause has revealed key insights and given us a little bit of time to reinvent our practices before rushing back to business as usual.

You’ll knock the carbon emissions flat with the renewable energy move (your Hammer) and then the long-term management of carbon emissions will come from Scope 3’s operational implications and practices (your Dance).

This could be your leadership moment – don’t waste it!

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