PepsiCo Inc., Apple Inc. and Rio Tinto Plc are among the members of a corporate buyers club that have now committed $12 billion to purchasing near-zero-carbon steel, aluminum and other products in the hopes of developing greener supply chains and accelerating the production of clean technology.
The First Movers Coalition is also growing with new corporate pledges from companies such as automaker General Motors Co. and Swedish power provider Vattenfall AB to buy next-level green cement and concrete — at least 10% of their needs per year by 2030.
The expansion was announced Tuesday on the sidelines of the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, one year after the World Economic Forum and the US unveiled the initiative with roughly two dozen companies and four target sectors. Supporters say the climate program represents one of the most impactful efforts by the private sector to get airtime at the summit because the corporate pledges should result in real, verifiable action by 2030 that will help bring nascent green products to market in sectors where greenhouse-gas emissions are particularly hard to clean up.
It’s creating “ecosystems of partners who not only make commitments on procurement but work together to create entirely new business models,” said Mads Nipper, chief executive officer of Danish energy giant Orsted AS, which joined the cement and concrete program before the Tuesday event. “By doing things that are hard and feel unsafe — by doing that and proving it’s possible — we can show to the rest of the world that it is indeed so.”
At a commercial scale, truly carbon-neutral concrete, steel, aluminum and other raw materials are far from being a reality. Alcoa Corp., the biggest US aluminum producer, and Rio Tinto are part of a joint venture with Apple to mass-produce aluminum without creating direct carbon-dioxide emissions. But doing so at industrial-strength power levels remains a challenge.
Meanwhile, steel-making accounts for 6% of global carbon emissions and 8% of energy-related emissions, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, and getting to the point at which carbon-neutral steel can be produced at an industrial scale would require billions of dollars in capital spending and significant government investment from nations around the world.
Without the purchase commitments and guaranteed demand created by members of the First Movers Coalition, such products may never arrive, said Varun Sivaram, senior director for clean energy and innovation under John Kerry, the US’s special presidential envoy for climate. “The First Movers are critical to send that initial signal, so those products have a beachhead market,” he said.
The commitments, which are tied to purchase contracts by 2030, are not binding and could be upset by new corporate goals, lagging product development and other unforeseen changes. Still, the company members bring economic might to the demand for green innovation. The coalition now represents 65 companies — from real estate to construction firms — with a collective market value of roughly $8 trillion.
Cement and concrete — the second-most consumed product globally after potable water, according to Kerry — must meet specified levels for embodied carbon to qualify as near-zero-carbon products under the program.
The demand signals sent by the purchase commitments will drive critical investment and help bring to scale “technologies that are needed to decarbonize these sectors,” Kerry said at the event in Egypt. And, he insisted, the corporate moves can withstand shifting political winds in Washington.
“No politician, no election can change the full direction of this, because it is increasingly in the hands of the private sector,” Kerry said.
The Inflation Reduction Act, which unleashes hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits and other support for clean energy and advanced manufacturing in the US, complements the effort by driving down the cost of making near-zero-carbon products, said John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden. “It creates the backdrop and the background for those investments across all those sectors.”
Together, the coalition’s purchasing commitments aim to create guaranteed demand and help decarbonize heavy industrial and transportation sectors responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Apple and PepsiCo’s commitments are for near-zero-carbon aluminum; Rio Tinto is targeting super-green aviation, shipping and trucking.
While lower costs and wider deployment of wind and solar power are helping spur an energy transition, that kind of green shift simply hasn’t started yet in hard-to-abate sectors such as aviation and shipping that are targeted by the initiative, Sivaram said. “The only way to get started is for those technologies to come down in cost and to come to the market.”
(Updates with comments from John Kerry and Orsted CEO from fourth paragraph.)
–With assistance from Joe Deaux.
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