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Net-zero emissions pledges matter

January 25, 2022
Chuck McConnell

ExxonMobil’s recently announced pledge of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is another key commitment from the energy industry and a signal that the energy transition is in full thrust — and requires action and not just words.  This pledge is much the same as many other companies in oil and gas, petrochemicals, electric power, steelmaking and a host of other manufacturing enterprises. Industries’ actions are essential because this energy transition will require technical know-how, innovative commercial deployment at the scale industry operates, and investment commitment that frankly only the industries can provide.

Collective action can work — and it has in our past when the public-private partnership can align around the critical mission. Prime examples are removing sulfur from gasoline and redesign of internal combustion engines, eliminating pollutants NOX, SOX, mercury and particulates from power plant emissions, as well as creating solutions that better people’s lives. Technology provides such solutions and must be a part of the actions societies pursue to address climate change.

Let us also not confuse the mission to be the elimination of fossil fuels. Right now, the mission must be to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Let us recognize that the demand of energy will grow some 50 percent over the next 30 years along with the growing global population through 2050 as well. We cannot grow by subtraction. We must innovate, deploy the technology we have today and support the innovation necessary for the future and not be bound by only what we know today as the solutions. Transformation requires a vision and investment.

Industries get criticized for “defending their business interests” and I find that narrow perspective uniquely unproductive — and absurd. Industry is meeting the demands of this ever-growing population that is also more energy-intensive than at any time in the history of civilization. And people’s behaviors, while noble in speeches, are not driven by sacrifice for solutions. People want magic — for industries to provide that magic — and by the way, not cost one penny more. It’s human nature to place blame elsewhere and not be inconvenienced — thus demanding magic.

Industry pledges to achieve net-zero emissions will deliver that magical impact. This is not government intervention but a direct response to the marketplace, consumers and the market and shareholders. But make no mistake, government does have a role. We use taxpayer dollars to invest in national laboratories and technology innovations in universities as well. We subsidize new technologies — and sometimes not so new technologies — to make an impact on our environment. And that is what the government can do at the federal, state and local level to make a difference.

So, given that emissions reductions and getting to net zero is our mission, and that industries are not only pledging reductions but committing to investing in game-changing technologies such as carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS), why do some of us choose cynicism over celebration? The goal is to get to net-zero emissions and not in a way that will lessen our standard of living or stifle growth.

Sustainable, meaningful, verifiable emissions reductions is the answer.  Net-zero pledges and action plans will deliver the sustainable investments and action by industry that is essential, to achieve net-zero emissions and the real transformation that comes with it.

Chuck McConnell was assistant secretary of Energy in the Obama administration. He is the head of the Center for Carbon Management in Energy at the University of Houston.