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Book Review: The Decarbonization Imperative

It’s easy to write a post on social media that says we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions then add a hashtag like #ActOnClimate. What’s harder is knowing what greenhouse gases are at work across the economy and the steps required to reduce them. The upcoming book by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff is here to help.

The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 takes “a deep dive into the challenge of climate change and the need to effectively reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.”

When the authors say “deep dive” that means the book doesn’t read like your parent’s latest mystery novel. It is packed with details and examples, along with questions about whether society can make the transition to a decarbonized economy effectively and in time to avert the worst effects of climate change. The authors remain positive about the prospects even if their narrative presents a bleak answer to both questions. The book welcomes a reader already engaged in how to combat climate change. It takes them beyond generalities.

“The challenge before the world is overwhelming, requiring a profound shift in so many large economic sectors over the course of a few decades. But try we must,” wrote Lenox and Duff. They present five sectors of the economy for review: Energy, Transportation, Industrials, Buildings and Agriculture.

Running throughout the book is the theme of electrification as a way of economic decarbonization. Energy, or electricity generation more specifically, is a key consideration. The other four sectors depend to varying extents upon the energy sector, according to the authors.

Lenox and Duff name all the carbon-free operating methods for generating electricity and point to solar as the one with the most promising capability to disrupt current patterns toward decarbonization of the economy. The narrative is familiar: solar technology is effective, it is currently inexpensive, and costs continue to decline. “Utility-scale solar is now competitive with fossil fuels,” wrote the authors.

Nuclear power is mentioned multiple times in the book as a potential solution to decarbonize electricity generation. Readers of this blog know my skepticism about building new nuclear power generating stations. Like many, I point to the failures at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). According to the nuclear regulatory commission, “Today, the Three Mile Island-2 reactor is permanently shut down and 99 percent of its fuel has been removed. The reactor coolant system is fully drained and the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated.” The other two disasters remain ongoing.

Lenox and Duff acknowledge the high cost of current nuclear reactor technology. They also mention Bill Gates’ nuclear project. In his 2021 book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Gates wrote, “I put several hundred million dollars into starting a company to design a next-generation nuclear plant that would generate clean electricity and very little nuclear waste.” While Lenox and Duff acknowledge new nuclear power is too expensive for economically disruptive potential by 2050, Gates’ investment is of the kind for which they advocate throughout the book. If Gates’ company resolves issues with nuclear power, as is its stated goal, it may be worth another look.

The authors emphasize no sector of the economy is without challenges in getting to decarbonization. The benefit of reading the book is its broad overview of these challenges.

There is a lot to absorb in The Decarbonization Imperative. Unless advocates are willing to do the work to understand this narrative, what’s the point? I recommend the book for its analysis by sector and for the ways each sector is connected with others. Climate advocates often focus on electricity generation and electrification of transportation yet to decarbonize the economy, all sectors must be addressed. Zero emissions will be a tough nut to crack, especially when zero means zero.

The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff is scheduled for release from Stanford University Press on Oct. 29, 2021. Click here to go to the book’s page at Stanford University Press.

About the authors

Michael Lenox is the Tayloe Murphy Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He is the coauthor of Can Business Save the Earth? Innovating Our Way to Sustainability (Stanford, 2018) and The Strategist’s Toolkit (Darden, 2013).

Rebecca Duff is Senior Research Associate with the Batten Institute at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She also serves as the managing director for Darden’s Business Innovation and Climate Change Initiative.

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