A growing number of major companies are following the lead of Amazon, Microsoft, and Google to set aggressive targets for achieving net zero carbon emissions in their businesses. To hit those commitments, companies need to make important decisions about where to focus the time, energy, and money they have to invest in sustainability.
It may seem like companies need to make these decisions immediately, but the technology is evolving rapidly. The commitment creates a vacuum to pull faster technological evolution if we can avoid the temptation to fill it with decisions too soon. We have questions to answer first.
Will freight move across the country fueled with hydrogen, or will battery improvements make electric feasible? Will we replace plastics altogether, or will we get better at recycling? How will we address the intermittency challenges of solar and wind, which only produce power during the day or when the wind blows? All of these questions require answers at an industrial scale to make the decisions that will put us on track to meet even our most modest goals.
WE HAVE BIG QUESTIONS TO ANSWER AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE
Every day these questions go unanswered is another day that more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere and another day that we are further away from our net-zero targets. It’s tempting to make fast decisions and move into rapid execution. If the decisions around things like our transportation infrastructure and energy grid were easy to change, this would be exactly the right thing to do. We could take our best shot, learn from the experience, and rapidly evolve our solutions. In fact, for things like messages to change consumer behavior, this approach works best because it accelerates our ability to develop effective solutions.
The climate change technology that we need most requires making decisions that, once executed, will not be easy to change. In the United States, we need to replace thousands of gas stations with electric vehicle charging bays. Not everyone has a garage with easy access to power. Most utilities are not yet generating 100% renewable power for those charging stations. We need a new, electrified transportation system, and we needed it yesterday.
It will take trillions of dollars and years of time to build out the infrastructure we need in 2050. We don’t yet know how to invest that time and money so that it’s not wasted on projects that don’t deliver results. Any commuter has seen highway projects drag on with one delay after another—and we know how to build highways. The risk of delay is much higher on all the things we don’t know how to build.
But, it is possible to make good decisions that accelerate solutions, even when urgency and risk are sky-high. Just consider the COVID-19 crisis.
EARLY COMMITMENTS AND LATE DECISIONS ACCELERATED VACCINE DEVELOPMENT
To say that there was an urgent need to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine is a massive understatement. Every day that people go unvaccinated is a day with more infections, more death, and more opportunities for new variants to emerge. At first, experts thought it would take years to get a vaccine. Instead, scientists developed multiple effective vaccines in under a year.
A series of good decisions made this possible in the United States. First, the National Institutes of Health invested in the development of mRNA vaccines, as scientists matured the technology even though they didn’t know exactly where it would first be used. This technology was on the shelf, ready to use when the news emerged of a novel coronavirus in China. Second, teams worked in parallel to develop the vaccines. As a global society, we pursued at least 16 vaccines at once. Moderna and Pfizer developed the mRNA vaccines, while Oxford University, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and more pursued other tracks.
Instead of betting heavily on one solution, the U.S. program Operation Warp Speed directed its $18 billion budget to multiple vaccine candidates that showed promise. The funds supported scaling up manufacturing even before Phase 3 clinical trials started on any of them. In months, three vaccines were approved for emergency use in the United States. That way, when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine showed troubling side effects, the entire COVID-19 vaccination program wasn’t forced to shut down. Early commitment and late decisions gave us better alternatives.
EARLY COMMITMENT AND LATE DECISIONS TO ACCELERATE NET-ZERO
Companies, public policymakers, and social entrepreneurs can take the same approach to accelerate the journey to net-zero carbon emissions: Commit early, decide late. Here’s how:
• Commit to net-zero targets—and hold the space open for the innovation you need to get there.
• Invest in basic research to build core knowledge in key technologies. This will help answer the big questions that will inform your decisions.
• Provide funds to demonstrate that promising solutions can scale up—without committing to a final decision. Support multiple pilot projects that test alternative solutions at scale. Ensure that teams capture and share what they learn. Investments here pay returns in the form of solutions that are more mature, and better fall-back positions if the chosen solution disappoints.
• Converge on the final decision for major investments as late as possible to preserve flexibility. You’ll know you’re ready to decide when you have high confidence in your decision that is based on real-world data.
We don’t yet know how Microsoft and Google will keep their server farms powered up and cooled down in the year 2050. We don’t know what Amazon delivery vehicles will look like, how they will be powered, or if they will have drivers. But we do know that transportation and power generation are only two parts of our economy that have to be decarbonized and that it will take a lot of time and money to do it.
We have a lot of questions to answer and important decisions to make on the path to net-zero carbon emissions. The way to get there faster is to commit early— and decide late.
Katherine Radeka is the founder of the Rapid Learning Cycles Institute and author of High Velocity Innovation: How to Get Your Best Ideas to Market Faster.