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Worldchangers Conference gives students insights on the net-zero imperative

Mar 25, 2022

L-r: Rebecca Duff and Michael Lenox

Rebecca Duff and Michael Lenox

The timeline for countries to reach net-zero emissions to avert the worst effects of climate change is tighter than expected warn the authors of a new book looking at ways to decarbonize the planet.

Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff, co-authors of The Decarbonization Imperative, told Ivey’s HBA Sustainability Certificate students the world likely needs to aim for net-zero emissions by 2040, not the 2050 target discussed at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26 Summit).

Showing a photo of a glacier in Greenland melting into the sea, Lenox said climate change is already here and current decarbonization efforts will only prevent even worse outcomes.

“Every year we delay this reduction in our emissions, it shrinks that timeframe that we have to achieve net zero emissions and it’s looking like 2050 might be optimistic at this point and we might need to do this by 2040,” he said. “To say this is a major problem is an understatement. This is a huge blip and a huge change to our global economy.”

Lenox and Duff were the keynote speakers for the Worldchangers Conference, which is one of several extracurricular activities in the certificate program offered through Ivey’s Centre for Building Sustainable Value. Organized by Professor Oana Branzei, Director of the Sustainability Certificate program, the conference also included panel sessions with thought leaders, innovators, funders, and entrepreneurs focused on how to achieve a cleaner future.

Introducing the Worldchangers Awards

A highlight of the event was the announcement of the Worldchangers Awards, which will be given out later this year to recognize the growing body of world-changing work Ivey alumni have been doing for decades. Theresa Ebden, EMBA ’22 and Director of Marketing and Communications for Growth & Strategy programs at Accenture, is the incoming Co-Chair of the awards selection committee. In a video address, she said the Worldchangers Awards will celebrate one Ivey alumni leader each year whose initiatives are playing a part in making the world a better place.

“Now more than ever, we need diverse leaders who can find the way forward and who can drive change for good at a global level,” she said. “This is the greatest business challenge of our time and Ivey is rising to the challenge.”

Disruptive innovation is a decarbonization pathway

In addition to net-zero targets, Lenox and Duff said disruptive innovations will play a big role in decarbonization, but require buy-in from consumers as well as support from various stakeholders, such as regulators, government, and private intermediaries. Recent examples of such innovations include electric vehicles or solar and wind power.

Lenox took the students back in time detailing how new technologies have repeatedly replaced the old. He cited the example of whaling, which was a vibrant industry when whale oil was used for lighting, but eventually disappeared after whale oil was replaced by kerosene in the 1850s.  

“This idea of disruption. This idea that new technologies come about and replace the old is really central to the way we’ve been thinking about climate change and the decarbonization challenge that we face,” he said.

But the commercialization of new technologies continues to be a challenge and Lenox said widespread adoption doesn’t occur unless new alternatives are both cost-efficient and effective.

Duff told how the success of ENERGY STAR®, a public-private initiative, came through differentiating products and getting many stakeholders involved to present the products and reduce their cost.

“There needs to be an education and a marketing push … You can’t just offer a green product or a more efficient product without speaking to some of the benefits,” she said. “The most important thing when you’re trying to replace an existing technology is to make sure it performs the same or better. The most disappointing thing is for somebody to purchase a green product and not get the basic needs met.”

Rethinking industry dynamics

A radical reconfiguration of industries is also needed to achieve decarbonization. Lenox said greenhouse gas emissions are particularly high in electricity and heat production and agriculture and forestry so we need to rethink how we approach these industries. He described how new developments, such as using drones to reduce water use or vertical/indoor farming methods involving controlled environments, are helping, but we need more innovations to grow output and shrink the carbon footprint.

Carving a path forward in the emerging net-zero economy requires a fundamental business shift, said Duff, where organizations consider their business model and operations through a sustainability lens. She said she’s encouraged by signs that businesses are responding to the climate change challenge.

“We are starting to see sustainability becoming the fabric of the company and its decision-making … That’s exciting for me and it gives me hope because I do think we’re at a point where sustainability has to be part of a company’s DNA,” she said. “No matter what role you have at a company, you’re going to have to think about sustainability and the risks of climate change and also the opportunities of climate change for your company.”

Student takeaways from the Worldchangers event

In his blog, Brian Chang, an HBA ’23 candidate in the Sustainability Certificate progam, shares highlights from the opening and closing keynote sessions and a panel session on Sustainability and Decarbonization.