Many companies looking to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change are in a bind. They want to transition to net-zero carbon emissions, but it's often unclear how to reach that goal.
The water, energy and hygiene solutions firm Ecolab is the latest to commit to a net-zero trajectory—pledging to halve emissions by 2030 and zero them out by mid-century, while signing on to the U.N. Global Compact’s Business Ambition for 1.5⁰C campaign.
Though executives admit they don't know how they'll get there, they're following a roadmap that could work for anyone: Put one foot ahead of the other, and the rest will follow.
Ecolab’s business model is based on innovation and invention in the fields of science and engineering, so the company has an advantage in terms of diving in to seek solutions to a problem rather than trying to account for every twist and turn in the net-zero journey ahead of time.
“We don’t yet have all the answers as to how we’ll get to net-zero carbon emissions, but business needs to come together and create forward momentum. That’s why Ecolab is committing to 1.5°C,” Douglas M. Baker, Jr., chairman and CEO of Ecolab, said in a press statement released on Monday. “Climate change demands urgent action, and it’s absolutely critical that we accelerate our efforts to mitigate its impact.”
That may sound intimidating, but the Ecolab solution begins with the now-familiar field of renewable electricity. That step is already grounded in mainstream technology and marketplace solutions—and the results can be immediate and spectacular.
In Monday’s announcement, Ecolab pledged to transition to renewable energy for 100 percent of its global operations. The company already meets 99.4 percent of the electricity needs for its European operations with renewables. In addition, Ecolab’s new wind farm in North America will come online in 2020, enabling the company to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity in that market as well.
With energy needs met in Europe and North America, Ecolab has established a strong pace out of the starting block.
The rest of the net-zero transition will be a much tougher nut to crack. As a global firm with customers in over 150 countries, Ecolab still has a long way to go for 100 percent renewable electricity across its entire operations. Renewable energy for heating, cooling and other operations also need to be tackled.
Nevertheless, the company has sketched out a plan that leverages existing technology for powerful results. That includes ramping up energy efficiency at its plants, offices and other buildings globally while introducing electric vehicles into its fleets.
Ecolab also plans to work with its supply chain—which is perhaps the most intimidating factor when companies plan for climate action, because it deals with elements outside of a direct control. Here, overly detailed pre-planning could stall out progress rather than helping to accelerate it. A carefully thought out trial-and-error approach may yield more impressive results in the long term, so it will be interesting to see how Ecolab approaches the supply chain space.
Ecolab calls water the “missing link” in the climate change conversation. “You can’t tackle climate effectively if you don’t tackle water at the same time," Emilio Tenuta, VP of corporate sustainability for Ecolab, told TriplePundit. "Water use has an impact on climate change, and climate change has an impact on our water resources. In fact, water scarcity is the first impact of climate change that many communities and companies will experience.”
A quick look at Ecolab's activities in 2018 illustrates why its executives feel water needs to be an equal component in the climate action conversation: Ecolab estimates that its customers conserved 188 billion gallons of water in 2018 alone. They also saved 19 trillion BTUs of energy, equivalent to 1.1 million tons in avoided greenhouse gas emissions. All of these efforts, Tenuta insists, are intrinsically linked.
“As companies make commitments to become more sustainable in terms of GHG emissions, they should also factor in their water use," he told 3p. "It requires a lot of energy to pump, heat, cool and treat water. This energy use, which some estimate to be up to 13 percent of U.S. electricity use, has a significant impact on GHG emissions. By using less water, a company can reduce energy use and lower greenhouse gas emissions.”
There is much low-hanging fruit to pluck in the field of water conservation. Companies can start with the basics, such as installing water-saving fixtures and training staff in water-conserving practices, and there's ample room for more improvement from there.
One good example is a recent Ecolab project at JW Mariott Singapore South Beach. The hotel is known for luxury and sustainability, having won several awards for environmental design and operating efficiency. In 2017, Ecolab outfitted it with a new monitoring system to increase energy and water efficiency during dishwashing.
The new system addressed every aspect of the dishwashing operation, including a light-footprint detergent package that reduced plastic by 96 percent compared to conventional packaging. Considering the hotel washes more than 5,000 dishes each day, it's a single upgrade that carries long-lasting impact.
Companies on the lookout for guidance on climate action can join the 9,500 firms that are already collaborating on energy and water management through the U.N. Global Compact and Business Ambition for 1.5°C.
Business Ambition launched last summer with a commitment to science-based emission targets that support the global push to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius. As of this month, 75 CEOs in 26 countries have committed to science-based targets through the campaign. And that number is expected to increase as recruitment continues during the COP25 climate talks in Madrid this week.
In regards to climate ambition overall, it’s worth noting that Ecolab is headquartered in the U.S., in St. Paul, Minnesota. Even without a strong U.S. climate policy to support its efforts, the company has already had an outsized impact on the global decarbonization effort, and it seems that the best is yet to come.
Image credit: Nitin Sharma/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.