The Slow Motion Myth

If Americans want to decarbonize quickly, we need to know whether it’s possible.

For years now, we’ve been listening to a cautionary drumbeat in the news media about decarbonizing our economy too quickly. The logic says that we lack political courage, and we dare not upset our fragile economy. Therefore, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take decades and trying to hurry the pace is a fool’s errand.

It’s a relentless drumbeat that has been perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. Yet, it must strike enough of a chord with reasonable people to have achieved its common-knowledge status.

I am convinced that this cautionary advice is based more on mythology than facts, and I have some evidence to prove it.

I recently participated in a policymaker summit in Napa County, the picturesque home of America’s prestigious wineries. As it happened, Napa’s neighbor and wine making rival, Sonoma County, delivered the surprise of the day.

Six years ago, the Sonoma County Water Agency decided to make their water system carbon neutral by 2015.

Consider the scope of their challenge. Water systems use a lot of energy to pump and purify enormous quantities of water for use in homes, fields, and factories. Going carbon neutral would require altering the energy supply and how energy is used to store, treat and deliver water because the two systems are inseparable.

How long would you expect such an effort to take? How much would you expect it to cost? If you listen to popular wisdom, you might think Sonoma County’s mission quixotic.

But it wasn’t.

Between 2006 and 2011, the Sonoma County Water Agency reduced greenhouse gas emissions from its water system by 97 percent, and they delivered these results at a net cost savings to consumers.

Lest you think Sonoma County’s achievement was a fluke, consider the energy industry’s rapid shift away from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas in 2012. In one year, the amount of coal-generated electricity in the United States fell by 20 percent.

My small firm’s results were similarly rapid. In our case, we slashed greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds in less than eighteen months with a financial payback that was even shorter.

The notion that society cannot respond to the climate challenge quickly looks like a false assumption. Organizations are proving otherwise time and time again. It would be a tragedy to continue treating their achievements as nothing more than anecdotal oddities.

It’s true that the paths taken from business as usual to low-carbon sustainability were not identical, but this only proves that there are many avenues to success.

The electricity industry turned away from coal, which faces increasingly tough regulations, to lower-carbon gas when gas prices fell.

The Sonoma County Water Agency rethought its energy supply and to whom the costs and benefits should flow.

Bowman Design Group made energy efficiency a top priority in everyday business decisions.

Each of these approaches slashed emissions surprisingly quickly and pushed ever-bigger challenges to the fore: can any business decarbonize within a decade? Can an entire industry? How about a city or a country, a state or a nation?

Why not? The process would be complicated, but we already know how to increase energy efficiency and harness renewable, low-carbon “fuels.”

I don’t accept the notion that responding to the climate threat must, necessarily, take so long as to be ineffective. We simply don’t have that kind of time.

The enterprising folks in Sonoma County have proved that complex systems can respond quickly. If they could do it, shouldn’t the rest of us be able to as well?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of tribp via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.