Tracking carbon emissions in real-time, Swiss Re's net-zero secrets and why biodiversity matters
Did you know the word gas originated from the word chaos? The main story in this issue leads us from the discovery to the worldwide monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions. These are the insights and ideas in this issue:
Carbon tracking: From Spanish Netherlands to Space
Knowledge snack: The carbon bubble
How they do it: Inside Swiss Re’s net-zero strategy (Interview)
Best pick: Not just trees, biodiversity matters
Future fantasy (new incl. illustration): Energy from lightning
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From Spanish Netherlands to Space - Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions all over the planet
We can’t manage what we can’t measure, can we? This article explores the origins of carbon dioxide and the means and methods of how greenhouse gasses can be tracked in real time today. The main story in bullet points:
Discovery of "gas sylvestre" (carbon dioxide) in Spanish Netherlands in 1640.
Precise CO2-monitoring since 1958 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
The ecological footprint emerged 1992 at the University of British Columbia.
In 2005 oil company BP popularized the carbon footprint in a media campaign.
Since then tools to calculate individual, corporate and product carbon footprint are being developed to facilitate tracking and reporting of carbon data.
Ibuki, the world's first greenhouse-gas-observing satellite, was launched in 2009.
Today satellite imagery, remote sensing technologies and modern approaches of processing data provide previously unseen environmental information.
In 1640 the chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont burnt charcoal in a closed vessel and noticed the ash weighed less than the original charcoal. His interpretation was that the difference must have transformed into an invisible substance and named his finding “gas”, derived from the Greek word chaos. In the 1750s the physicist Joseph Black explored and identified the properties of “fixed air”, something we call carbon dioxide today.
Fast forward to March 1958, when Charles David Keeling started high-precision CO2 measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Keeling measured atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million (ppm). There is a curve named after him and you can probably guess in what direction it's going. On November 19 it was at 412.44 parts per million (ppm) CO2 in the air and we are now at the highest level in human history. To control warming ppm ideally stays below 400 - as if we didn't have enough to get under control, we need to flatten this curve as well. But before we get off track let’s continue with the carbon tracking.
In the 90s William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel developed the concept of an ecological footprint to examine how much water and land a population consumed. The carbon footprint emerged from the ecological footprint and made it to the center stage in 2005, when a big oil company promoted the concept to talk consumers into believing it was their responsibility (1, 2, 3). By now organizations seem to embrace accountability: Many guides (1, 2, 3) and calculators (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) help companies analyse their footprint. The carbon footprint of a product is usually established through a life cycle assessment (LCA) with this type of calculator, tools and databases. This year many corporate footprints might be a bit different, due to reduced travelling and use of office space – two important contributing factors.
The first step towards a carbon footprint is gathering data. Chasing down all these numbers somehow doesn’t feel how I would have imagined saving the world. But innovation is happening. New services promise to make the task of carbon reporting for small and large enterprises easier, many of them require a login or demo request: Bloom, Emitwise, Fidenso, Greenwise, Normative, Patch, Persefoni, PlanA, Sweep, Watershed, Salesforce Sustainability Cloud or SAP Climate 21.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning can’t be far wherever there are cutting-edge tools. In July former Vice President Al Gore announced a new global coalition that aims to track GHG emissions with unprecedented detail and speed to its source. The coalition embodies nine organizations who research, record and report environmental data:
WattTime’s automated emissions reduction (AER) can optimize refrigerators to perfectly keep drinks chilled whilst minimizing energy use and carbon impact.
Rocky Mountain Institute helps businesses to accelerate the development of climate smart products like low-carbon residential cooling solutions.
OceanMind uses onboard sensors and machine learning to track movement and verify authorizations of fishing operations. The digital ocean police.
Hypervine uses digital technologies to help the mining and construction industry understanding the footprint of building materials for example.
Hudson Carbon uses an on-farm soil laboratory and satellite data to quantify soil carbon sequestration to help the agricultural sector sell carbon offsets.
Earthrise Alliance aggregates environmental and satellite data so it can be used to inform readers or students on what’s happening in our changing world.
Carbon Tracker monitors coal plant emissions with satellite imagery to convince the finance industry that carbon plants aren't profitable.
Carbon Plan applies data science for carbon removal and climate solutions to produce datasets, models and interactive reports.
Blue Sky Analytics uses satellite data with ground measurements to provide near-real-time environmental information, to track wildfires for example.
Not all of these ideas are ready to use. The new possibilities emerging from pairing data science with the availability of satellite imagery are promising. Ibuki, the world's first satellite dedicated to greenhouse-gas-monitoring was launched 2009. NASA’s OCO-2 satellite has observed anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions from space since 2014. ESA’s CO2M is on track to map global CO2 emissions from 2021.
I wonder what Jan Baptist van Helmont and Joseph Black would have thought, if they knew that we would be dedicated to monitor “their” gas from space. It seems the urgency of the climate crisis will enable us to measure the carbon cycle down to the level of the breath of a mouse. Hopefully that will also allow us to figure out the best ways to manage it.
Knowledge snack: The carbon bubble
Stock markets are not reflecting the risk of climate change. The flaw in a company's stock market valuation is described as the “carbon bubble”. According to this idea, share prices do not reflect real value, because the true costs of CO2-emissions and global warming are not yet taken into account. New tools like this digital globe let investors assess the sustainability of their investments.
The “How they do it” section explores how businesses are tackling climate change
How they do it: Inside Swiss Re’s net-zero strategy
Reinsurer Swiss Re is a pioneer in corporate climate action. Last year the company committed to achieving net-zero emissions in their operations by 2030. Just recently they doubled down on their efforts by introducing a triple-digit real carbon price. Swiss Re’s Senior Environmental Management Specialist Mischa Repmann reveals some of the sustainability secrets.
Can you tell us more about the recent developments towards net-zero emissions? Why is Swiss Re pushing this target?
Mischa Repmann: Climate science tells us clearly what it takes to prevent the worst of the climate crisis: we, as the world, need to reach net-zero emissions at around 2050 and then stay net-negative during the second half of the century. This requires first of all to reduce as much emissions as possible as fast as possible. But you can read it in the name "net"-zero. Reductions alone won't do the job. It will also require negative emissions to balance the unavoidable "gross" emissions. And it will require a lot of them, the longer we wait to effectively reduce, the more. Currently it looks like by 2050, some 10 to 20 billion tonnes of emission per year will need to be removed from the atmosphere and stored permanently. This is just about the amount of CO2 that is currently emitted by all the oil and gas that's used worldwide within one year. Hence, using this 'same amount, same scale' analogy, you may argue that over the next three decades, we need to build a negative emissions industry of the size of today's oil and gas industry. Only then, according to science, do we have the chance to limit global warming to well below 2°C. And this is ultimately the target of the Paris Agreement!
Now, Swiss Re has a reputation as thought-leader in corporate climate action that aligns with the science and UN recommendations. In 2003, for instance, we were among the very first to become climate-neutral in our own operations. Today, other corporations are catching up and start compensating emissions via conventional carbon offsets. Swiss Re is now moving ahead to lead the corporate push towards net-zero. For companies, too, the task is two-fold: emission reduction efforts need to be intensified and residual emissions compensated via carbon removal, which is much more costly than carbon offsetting. A year ago, Swiss Re committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 across the company – on the insurance side we signed the UN Business Ambition for 1.5° pledge and on the investment side we became a founding partner of the Net-zero Asset Owner Alliance. Our own operations will be at net-zero emissions already by 2030 through our new CO2NetZero Programme. The programme builds on top-down emission reduction targets, and a 10-years funding scheme to move from carbon offsets to carbon removal certificates.
How confident are you to reach these climate targets? What are the main uncertainties and how will you address them?
This is a great time to answer that question – 2020 has for us been a transition year between the end of our GHG Neutral Programme – where we achieved all targets, for instance 100% renewable power - and the launch of the new CO2NetZero Programme. Uncertainties around net-zero and carbon removal are manifold, owing to the early stage of this movement. There is no carbon removal market as we know it from the carbon offset market. Supply is uncertain, price points are rapidly moving, likely both up (demand surge) and down (learning curve), etc. The 10-years funding scheme is designed to at least keep the programme properly funded, in other words: it puts the right price on carbon: In January next year we start to collect an internal carbon levy of 100$ per tonne CO2 for all our direct and most material indirect operational emissions. The funds are then used exclusively to compensate these emissions. The levy increases linearly from 100$ per tonne in 2021 to 200$ per tonne in 2030. By then, 100% of the residual emissions will be compensated via carbon removal – in line with our net-zero target.
To obtain the necessary buy-in from our business units, group functions, and of course the management, we have been maintaining a steady stream of guidance and communication to our employees – and also to external stakeholders. We will continue to monitor and adjust our system to adjust for business feedback. Generally though, I should add that Swiss Re has been broadly aligned behind the company's goals of sustainable business and emission reductions for over two decades, so I do not envision us running into any hidden areas of conflict between decisions of cost over the environment. The feedback from colleagues on the stringent triple-digit levy, for instance, has been overwhelmingly positive.
Many businesses talk about aligning economic and environmental targets, have you found the secret and what is it for your company?
Swiss Re is in the enviable position where the best interests of the environment and our business naturally align – as a leader in risk management and underwriting, we have a direct business stake in the rate and intensity of natural disasters. The scientific consensus is clear – as we continue to emit CO2 and warm the planet, the intensity and number of perils like hurricanes, floods, droughts, and heat waves will continue to rise. The importance of this link has not been lost out of sight by our management or employees – Swiss Re's CEO Christian Mumenthaler recently became Co-Chair of the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders. So I think the secret for us is that not only is there a valid economic incentive to pursue our environmental targets, but we have strong buy-in across all levels of our company structure – be it in risk underwriting, asset management, or in the way we tackle our own operational footprint.
Anything else you would like to share, to inspire others or to get off the chest?
Maybe let me draw a link to the current situation with the global pandemic. In view of the corresponding economic downturn you could argue that it is a particularly inept time to drive sustainability initiatives in your company. But the special circumstances of the year 2020 may in fact offer the opportunity to kick-start, not to delay, your net-zero journey. Think of the way we very quickly adapted to the new normal of remote business interactions. In the financial sector, business flights are usually the major part of the operational footprint. So, certainly our sector can seize the special times to set ambitious flight reduction targets, and on top to make good use of this year's and future savings from avoided travel spend - invest in reduction measures, support removal projects, engage employees and stakeholders.
The “Best pick” section present a selected article, podcast, video or other resource
Best pick: Not just trees, biodiversity matters
Ecosystem ecology professor Thomas Crowther presents what his research lab discovered:
Before human civilization, the tree population was twice as high.
Today there are o.9 billion hectares suitable to plant 1 trillion trees.
There is no single solution to reverse climate change.
Trees are just a symbol for ecosystem restoration.
Monoculture tree plantations actually damage ecosystems.
Healthy ecosystems are a network of fungi, plants and animals.
Capital, local communities and open data will help restore and manage ecosystems everywhere. Check out the Restor platform the Crowther Lab has developed.
The “Future fantasy” section provides a fictional short story
Future fantasy: First successful attempt in harvesting energy from lightning
28.11.2063 - The team finds the drone in the middle of the desert. It is demolished but still carries the container the size of a large suitcase. Two members measure the voltage of the container - it is fully charged! A breakthrough for the company Bolt, which is trying to disrupt Tesla's monopoly. Tesla produces and distributes 99 percent of renewable energy, storage units and transportation vehicles worldwide. Now the startup Bolt has successfully passed an experiment to capture energy from thunderstorms. A thunderstorm can contain the amount of energy equivalent to several hours of the world’s electricity use. The team at Bolt sends swarms of cargo-drones into storms. The drones carry charging surfaces and battery containers to load during exposure of lightnings. If they can, drones fly back, otherwise they parachute down and leave GPS-signal for collection. Bolt operates on an open source basis and helps engineers all over the world harvest energy from dark skies. It might be the last hope to solve the renewable energy crisis. Despite the sun, water, wind and biomass producing massive amounts of energy, renewable energy progress is still insufficient. And the disposal of nuclear waste remains unresolved. All whilst energy consumption keeps increasing.
In the next issue
Oceans and climate change, a “Knowledge snack”, “How they do it”, “Best pick” and another “Future fantasy” will wait for you. Thank you for reading this issue, together we can help reverse climate change. If you like the content, please subscribe now to receive future issues. New issues are free.