A Meta-Analysis of the My Climate Journey Podcast

Authors: Thor Elfarsson and Chris Richardson

Summary: The 100+ climate-focused interviews chronicled in Jason Jacobs’ My Climate Journey (MCJ) podcast represent a trove of insights from technologists, entrepreneurs, impact investors, accelerators, and policy makers. ADL Ventures sees MCJ as a large scale Voice of the Customer study on the challenges and barriers the climate community faces today. ADL has conducted a robust analysis of over 300 “wishes” outlined by Jason’s interviewees and outlined five major emerging themes.

For access to ADL’s Dynamic My Climate Journey “Wish List” Analysis that allows you to explore over 300 insights, please complete the form to the right.

Introduction

My Climate Journey is a podcast that is focused on climate change and hosted by Jason Jacobs, a friend of ADL Ventures. Jacobs interviews a variety of investors, founders, scientists, policymakers, and nonprofits to better understand climate change and what we can do to fight it. Altogether, these interviews comprise a robust body of work that provides a decarbonization roadmap for those early on their own journey as well as for grizzled veterans of the climate fight.

ADL is passionate about uncovering the policy, technical, and business model barriers to resource efficiency and productivity in a comprehensive and holistic manner. Both to inform ADL’s ongoing work in cleantech and other energy-related legacy sectors and as a gift to those engaged in developing solutions, ADL has conducted a rigorous analysis of all 107 episodes as of June 2020.

Below, ADL has aggregated some of the insights from this analysis, with a particular focus on the “what if” statements posed by the interviewees. See table below for our summary and visualization of the over 300 unique and detailed insights. Together, this visualization represents what we think are the best ideas that the climate-focused community has for clearing the way towards deep decarbonization. We hope they are a call to action for those focused on this problem from a technology, capital, or policy perspective.

Five leading insights emerge from this analysis: 

  1. A price on carbon, however unlikely, would efficiently reduce emissions and accelerate the development and deployment of innovative climate solutions.
  2. Catalytic public sector funding is needed to commercialize hard tech climate solutions.
  3. Divestment signals climate-friendly sentiment; ESG investing creates tangible benefits.
  4. Collaborating with hydrocarbon companies may be more productive than punishing them.
  5. An all-of-the-above strategy is needed to tackle this multifaceted problem.

We break down each of these points in detail.

Five Leading Insights from ADL’s analysis of MCJ Podcasts

1. A price on carbon, however unlikely, would efficiently reduce emissions and accelerate the development and deployment of innovative climate solutions.

The theory supporting carbon pricing is elegant and robust, and there is widespread support among economists for a price on carbon. Moreover, carbon pricing has a good track record of efficiently reducing emissions.

Accordingly, a common point of discussion in almost every conversation was a price on carbon. For policymakers and climate advocates, a price on carbon represents the most effective and efficient policy lever to reduce emissions. Rather than mandating reductions in carbon emissions, a price on carbon incentivizes market actors to find the most cost effective way to reduce carbon emissions. The prices of fuels and products would increase in proportion to their carbon intensities, and millions of consumers, business executives, and power generators would adjust their consumption accordingly, significantly reducing carbon emissions. 

A price on carbon is a solution in and of itself, but it also accelerates the development and deployment of other innovative climate solutions. To the MCJ entrepreneurs, a price on carbon would greatly accelerate the path towards commercialization. Less carbon-intensive products and fuel would become comparatively cheaper and more competitive, easing the path towards commercialization and attracting additional investment into innovative climate solutions.

Importantly, there are practical barriers to creating and implementing a price on carbon. Perhaps the biggest issue is that a price on carbon is politically untenable in the U.S. Pricing carbon raises electricity and fuel prices, at least in the short term, which can both expose domestic manufacturers to foreign competition and cause consumer backlash: The Yellow Vest movement in France started in response to a tax on gasoline, and Australia repealed a carbon tax that increased the prices of energy after facing intense backlash from the public. 

There are policies and pricing structures that may mitigate these problems. One option is to redistribute the revenues from a carbon tax to all U.S. Citizens. A tax of $40 per ton of carbon would increase the price of gasoline by 36 cents per gallon and electricity costs by 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. For most U.S. citizens, this would be more than offset by a dividend of approximately $2,000 per household of four. Another benefit of a carbon tax and dividend is that it is revenue neutral, making it easier to gain support from both Republicans and Democrats. A carbon tax and dividend would still disadvantage emissions-heavy domestic producers relative to foreign competition, but this could be mitigated with a border carbon adjustment, a tariff on imported goods from countries without a price on carbon. 

California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is another example of carbon pricing that limits the carbon intensity of fuels. California has successfully implemented a cap-and-trade based LCFS program where producers can either produce low carbon intensity fuels or buy a limited supply of credits and produce higher intensity fuels. Similar to a carbon tax, this provides enough flexibility for producers to reduce emissions without radically disrupting businesses. Between 2011 and 2016, the use of alternative fuels grew by 50%, while the average carbon intensity assigned to these fuels declined by 30%, reducing emissions by around 25 million tons. Although it has led to a $150/ton+ price on carbon, an LCFS has been more politically tenable, partially because costs are borne more by refiners and others upstream in the value chain.

Regardless of the political feasibility or format of a price on carbon, there is widespread agreement among entrepreneurs, climate experts, and policymakers that we need some form of carbon pricing. While most agree that we need a price on carbon, few argue that carbon pricing is the only policy that we need to solve climate change. In fact, many Democratic policymakers assume that it will be simply too hard to pass a national price on carbon, and are directing their activists towards mandates and regulation

As we outline below in the “all of the above” section, a carbon price would be game-changing but is only one arrow in the quiver. A substantial reduction in carbon emissions will come from an effective layering of many imperfect solutions, some of which will hopefully include various forms of carbon pricing. 

2. Catalytic public sector funding is needed to commercialize hard tech climate solutions.

Too often, promising hard tech climate solutionsーphysical products which can be distinguished from software solutionsーfail on their path towards large scale deployment. Characterized by high capital intensity, significant technical risk, and long time horizons, hard tech ventures often get stuck in the valley of death before commercialization, unable to raise the capital necessary to demonstrate that their technology will work at scale. A venture with $5-10 million in funding may develop a promising solution that works in the lab, but without $100 million to demonstrate that their tech is economical at scale, the venture will fail. Long time horizons and high capital intensity deter traditional venture capital firms, and the high risk of failure makes it difficult to go the project finance route. 

This funding gap highlights the need for catalytic public sector or philanthropic capital. In situations where private sector investment is not sufficient to bring promising climate solutions to market, the government stands to create large welfare gains by funding promising demonstration projects, paving the way for additional private sector investment.

3. Divestment signals climate-friendly sentiment; ESG investing creates tangible benefits.

In theory, widespread divestment would cause less demand for oil and gas equity and raise the cost of capital funded by equity, ultimately reducing carbon emissions. However, the practical impact of divestment is murky. Despite splashy announcements by Blackrock and other major investors, divestment is done at a small enough scale today that it has only a marginal impact on the demand for oil and gas equity. Widespread divestment would be incredibly difficult to accomplish—the high pre-COVID dividend payouts of oil and gas equities are traditionally a core piece of many portfolios. Even though widespread divestment may be unlikely, the current COVID-19 crisis has triggered a dramatic decrease in oil and gas stock prices and CapEx spending. Questions about the post-COVID financial viability of oil and gas investments have only been accentuated by BP’s $17B write-down of its oil assets. 

Regardless of whether or not divestment is a smart investment decision, the jury is still out on whether divestment is an effective policy for driving behavior change of fossil fuel companies. After California’s pension fund CalPERS divested from a company, Anne Simpson, the Director of Board Governance & Strategy, received a personal letter from the chairman of the board thanking her for doing so, as it freed them from another layer of oversight. 

Anne Simpson

The fossil fuel industry plays a massive role in society. By divesting, you lose your seat at the table, and you sell it to another investor who doesn’t necessarily care about climate change. By maintaining investments in companies that fail to meet climate goals, CalPERS is able to keep boards of directors accountable and ensure that companies are not causing or contributing to any systemic risk, such as climate change, that could damage the fund’s long-term prospects. 

A more constructive lever can be ESG investing, investing in companies with high environmental, social, and governance metrics. Investing according to these metrics creates positive incentives for companies to improve, as a company that improves along these lines will have more investment than one that does not.

4. Collaborating with hydrocarbon companies may be more productive than punishing them.

Large hydrocarbon companies have valuable expertise and vast resources, both of which could be immensely useful in developing and deploying climate solutions. However, many of these companies have deliberately propagated climate denial, lobbied against climate policies, and deliberately misinformed the public. Understandably, the decision of how to work with them is contentious. Naomi Oreskes, a prominent History of Science professor at Harvard, strongly believes that large hydrocarbon companies have proven time and time again that they are unable to act in good faith, and that any attempt to work with them is bound to fail.

Naomi Oreskes

However, most other MCJ interviewees hold utilitarian attitudes towards this dilemma. Many argue that despite their wrongdoings, large hydrocarbon companies are needed for their resources and expertise and that a collaborative approach, in the end, will be more productive than a combative approach looking solely for retribution. 

Despite past wrongdoings, many of these companies appear to be committed to developing net-zero technologies. The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a consortium of oil and gas companies, has committed to investing over a billion dollars into decarbonization technology, and member companies collectively invested $7B into low carbon solutions in 2018. These investments, particularly by the European oil and gas majors as shown in the chart below, will yield tangible reductions in emissions.

Even for the European majors making a major investment in low-carbon energy, that investment has historically paled in comparison to more drilling. After the 2020 write-downs, it is possible that we’ll see a more significant investment shift.

Independent of whether or not these companies are acting in good faith, there is a clear consensus that accountability measures are necessary to incentivize good behavior. Without implementing clear incentive structures—such as assigning a portion of CEO pay to carbon reduction goals—we have no way to ensure that promises to reduce emissions will be followed through on.

5. An all-of-the-above strategy is needed to tackle this multifaceted problem.

Although there are many appealing potential solutions, there is no silver bullet for climate change. Rather, a substantial reduction in carbon emissions will come from an effective layering of many imperfect solutions. We will not be able to rely solely on entrepreneurs, investors, or policymakers, but a combination of all of the above might be enough. 

The overarching message of My Climate Journey is one of urgency, but also of tentative optimism. Climate change is a rapidly approaching existential threat, but by improving and advancing on every front, we have the potential to fix this problem.

Taking the MCJ Analysis Further

This article represents just a sneak peek at the insights that have emerged from this analysis. For an interactive visualization of our repository of over 300 insights (screenshot below), submit your request at the bottom of this page for complimentary access.

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