Rising to the ‘moonshot’ challenge

This article first appeared in Business Green.

Almost 60 years ago, US President John F. Kennedy famously remarked: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

To this day, the Apollo Program stands as a testament to what human ingenuity, persistence and cooperation across sectors can achieve when aligned around one common goal, underpinned by a shared sense of urgency and, crucially, backed up by sufficient resources. But we don’t have to go back more than half a century to be reminded of how much we can achieve – and how quickly – if we put our collective minds to it: the extraordinary success of the development of Covid-19 vaccines in record time has challenged our paradigm of what is possible when humankind faces a challenge that must be faced with innovation and collaboration, and supported by all the resources we can muster. Equally important now is to ensure that the entire world gets access to these vaccines.

We need to bring the same “Moonshot spirit” and sense of urgency to bear on our decarbonisation efforts across the highest-emitting industries – concrete, steel, aluminum, chemicals, shipping, aviation and trucking. These are responsible for 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and are currently on a trajectory of growing even further, when the entire world needs to cut emissions by 50 per cent, in this decade, to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C.

We won’t drive emissions to zero by mid-century if we don’t find the technologies and economic means to decarbonise these industries. The complexities and global scale of these hard-to-abate sectors mean that no organization can do this alone. The Mission Possible Partnership is a new collaborative organisation established to catalyse climate action in the highest-emitting industries and their global value chains by supporting leading corporates to work collectively on their journey to transform their sectors and make net zero industry and mobility the pillars of a thriving global economy. The partnership is intended to complement and accelerate national decarbonisation efforts orchestrated through the Paris Agreement with public-private collaboration.

Decarbonising heavy industry and mobility sectors is hard, but I am convinced it is within our reach. It’s incredibly encouraging to see so many industry groups our partnership supports, including the aviation, shipping and steel initiatives, unveil landmark sector transition strategies in the run-up to COP26 with much more to follow.

Businesses taking action now are sending a clear signal to Glasgow that they stand ready to join countries in tackling the climate crisis. Decarbonising heavy industry will require unprecedented cooperation between governments, industry leaders and financial institutions – nothing less than a paradigm shift around policy-making in this domain. To that end, heavy industry and transport decarbonisation should be on the agenda of multilateral meetings in the coming years, including the G7 and G20 meetings, and countries should build sector roadmaps and transition enablers into the national policy frameworks developed in the wake of Glasgow to translate NDCs into action.

Each of these sectors will require specific technological solutions and policy instruments to help them achieve their net zero goals but there are policy levers and enabling interventions across four dimensions that are relevant to all sectors and will be critical to decarbonising them:

  1. Creating demand via public procurement and product standards: Product standards are universal – they make sure the food we eat is safe and the goods we use aren’t faulty or dangerous. Governments can and must use product standards to lower emissions and improve public health, as they have already done for certain fuels and CFC-emitting products. In addition, as large buyers of many of the materials that heavy industry produces, governments should use green public procurement to significantly lower emissions from industry and spur innovation.
  2. Supporting first movers: Governments play a central role in enabling first-of-type projects which face higher costs and risks than those using established technologies. Just like solar, wind and EV industries surged after initial strong financial support from governments, now our attention needs to turn to public and private sector financing of emerging zero emission industrial technologies and R&D on future breakthrough technologies. To this end, funding for public research in universities and public research institutions, public-private collaborative research projects and funding for demonstration projects can be leveraged to develop and deploy at scale the technologies we need.
  3. Enabling markets and leveling the playing field: We need a credible way to certify products as low-carbon, to build consumer and investor confidence, and we need government help to kick-start markets by levelling the playing field between legacy technologies and fuels and zero-carbon technologies of the future. To that end policies, contracts, and pricing protocols should be used to level the playing field between high-and-low carbon products and fairly differentiate between the carbon content of various products.
  4. Building shared infrastructure and ensure clean energy supply: Just as the electricity grid serves as the shared, public backbone of the power sector, industry needs a shared, public backbone that allows low-carbon fuels and captured carbon from industrial operations to be safely transported, distributed and stored. Companies may need governments to build some of that infrastructure or share the cost of developing and maintaining it; and countries that build that infrastructure first will have a competitive edge.

These are just a few of the policy levers and interventions we will have to deploy to ensure we decarbonise heavy industry and mobility at the pace and scale required. The good news is that many of these interventions will not just help decarbonise industries, but also make them more resilient. We also need to extend the competitive gains won by first movers in this transition to our friends and fellow travelers in developing countries, working to include them in this industrial transformation as quickly and seamlessly as possible. This is what it takes to make our collective climate challenge mission possible.

Throughout history, examples can be found of diverse groups of stakeholders coming together and defying expectations by doing the seemingly impossible. As our name suggests, the Mission Possible Partnership is ready to rise to the challenge of driving climate action in some of the hardest-to-abate industry sectors. If we could muster the will and resources to launch us into outer space, exploring worlds beyond our own, we should be able to harness our energies, skills and resources to ensure that our children and grandchildren inherit a safe, secure and livable planet.  

Written by:

Chad Holliday, Co-chair, Mission Possible Partnership.