The urgent climate crisis means businesses need to mitigate their environmental impact. We outline key strategic challenges and discuss collaborative approaches in hard-to-abate industries.
The shift to a low-carbon economy is underway and is likely to unfold far faster and with more profound implications than many might expect. Far from distracting society from ongoing climate action, the pandemic period coincided with a rapid escalation of pressure on multiple fronts:
As addressing the climate crisis becomes increasingly urgent, every business should be on a path toward mitigating its own environmental impact. That includes so-called “hard-to-abate” industries—carbon-intensive sectors with few clear, viable low-emission alternatives, such as road freight, steel and cement making, chemicals, aviation, and deep-sea shipping.14 For years, decarbonizing these industries was deferred as attention focused on easier-to-address emission sources, such as electricity generation and passenger vehicles. But today, spurred by the potentially existential stakes of a planetary emergency, a range of stakeholders—from regulators and investors to downstream customers and activists—are increasingly turning their attention to hard-to-abate businesses, which account for roughly one-third of global CO2 emissions (figure 1).15 Achieving the Paris Agreement goals is likely only possible if emissions in these sectors are also reduced. And doing so brings knock-on benefits throughout the supply chain and helps companies address Scope 3 emissions; green steel feeds into automaking and other manufacturing processes, just as low-carbon cement enables low-carbon construction.
In this environment, a “wait-and-see” approach is increasingly risky. Instead of adopting a defensive, reactive posture toward decarbonization that seeks to mollify stakeholders or comply with regulatory mandates, companies in hard-to-abate industries have an opportunity to proactively shape their low-carbon future through deep collaborations targeting the fundamental drivers of demand. There are manifold benefits to moving early: access to novel and differentiated insights; the ability to share risks and investments and to influence the direction of the transition in their favor; and the opportunity to strengthen relationships with customers and other ecosystem players during the early phases of the transition.16 Early movement can also initiate a snowball effect—as a handful of leaders begin to decarbonize, others will likely quickly follow suit to remain competitive.
In the following section, we outline two key strategic challenges which face most businesses in hard-to-abate sectors—technical gaps and business model gaps—and explore why collaborative ecosystem approaches could be the most effective way to overcome them. Throughout, we draw on examples and case studies from our collaborative research with Shell looking at several hard-to-abate industries, namely deep-sea shipping, road freight, and aviation.17
While each hard-to-abate industry faces its own idiosyncratic set of challenges in transitioning to lower-emission operations, from a strategic perspective such businesses typically face two dilemmas: technical gaps and business model gaps.
Technical gaps arise when direct electrification is structurally constrained, while other viable low-carbon alternatives do not exist or are not yet available at scale to replace current carbon-intensive processes or energy sources. For example, emissions from internal combustion engines in road freight could be reduced with the expansion of battery electric vehicles for some applications, but for many uses, fuel cell electric vehicles using hydrogen could be required. Hydrogen is also required to produce synthetic sustainable fuels for aviation, as well as synthetic methanol and green or blue ammonia for shipping. Producing such fuels at scale requires large amounts of renewable energy (to produce green hydrogen), but also widespread use of carbon capture technology (for blue hydrogen), each of which remains nascent and prohibitively expensive.18 Closing technical gaps often requires focused research, development, and deployment, all backed by patient capital. To get there, hard-to-abate industries can look to share development costs, foster more coordinated and sustained investment flows, and advocate for supportive policy moves that can catalyze early-stage technology development or create the regulatory or market incentives to accelerate progress.
Technical gaps can also bleed into business model gaps that forestall decarbonization efforts. In some cases, a viable low-carbon solution exists but is deficient on one or more relevant dimensions: It may be more expensive to implement or operate, it may be less productive, it may yield a lower-quality output, it may require changes in supplier or customer behavior, and so on. Implementing such solutions unilaterally could put the organization at a disadvantage relative to competitors. In aviation, bio sustainable aviation fuel (bio-SAF), for instance, is a biofuel produced from a variety of feedstocks that can reduce life cycle carbon emissions from aviation by up to 80%.19 It is a “drop-in fuel” with a relatively mature production technology that can be used in existing aircraft to immediately reduce emissions. However, SAF currently costs two to four times more than conventional jet fuel and supply is extremely limited, making it uneconomic without additional investment.20 Business model gaps can be addressed by enhancing market demand and demonstrating a willingness to pay for new solutions; evolving more agile and flexible approaches to deploying new products or services; and collaborating with new partners to share the risk in exploring novel business models. For example, because hydrogen-powered trucks are new to the market, there isn’t enough data yet available on their longevity to predict their resale value and to demonstrate a clear return-on-investment. This makes it hard for individual business leaders to make the business case for fleet replacement. That in turn makes it complex to secure financing from lenders. Instead, some OEMs are exploring a new business model whereby they continue to own the vehicle but lease it out to carriers; essentially, trucking-as-a-service.21
Whatever the specific challenge hard-to-abate businesses face, the root cause is likely traced back to one of these twin strategic constraints. And in both cases, escaping those constraints likely requires working beyond the four walls of the business.
Ecosystem approaches come in a variety of configurations, from joint ventures and consortia to closed platforms and “walled gardens,” and can extend to players far beyond traditional industry lines and the current value chain. Crafting an appropriate approach that targets the right bottlenecks, participants, and behaviors hinges on understanding a sector’s readiness to decarbonize. Assessing three core questions and the six factors that flow from them can help break a very large problem into manageable steps which can be executed upon.
To decarbonize a sector, companies should consider six factors concurrently, and should not focus only on technology.
Why should the sector change? What actions or conditions can trigger industry stakeholders to act?
How fast can the sector change? What effort is required to implement change at scale?
What are the best changes for the sector? What decarbonization accomplishments are most realistic and feasible in the near, medium, and long term?
Assessing readiness, of course, is only the first step. Once you understand the current state and challenges to progress, you can embark on concrete actions to catalyze progress—and remain anchored in a systems perspective with a focus on shaping the core drivers of demand.
Addressing the technical and business model gaps characteristic of many hard-to-abate industries requires first recognizing that decarbonization is a systems problem, and thus should be tackled through collective, ecosystem approaches. Accepting that decarbonization is a systems problem that demands multistakeholder approaches also necessitates a profound mindset shift for many. “Winning” no longer (only) means besting your competitors, but working collectively to achieve lower emissions.22 Adopting a systems view enables players to understand the bottlenecks and critical interdependencies on the path to decarbonization, and then design ecosystem solutions with specific behavioral targets for different players working across the entire value chain. Organizations can work collaboratively to remove barriers, reach critical tipping points, and accelerate adoption of new technologies and business models.23
The key to moving the needle is to get past the typical points which lead some companies to a wait-and-see approach: The mistaken belief that technology development curves and policy shifts are fundamentally uncertain. In fact, neither is uncertain. We may not know everything we would like about future outcomes with respect to either technology or policy, but that doesn’t mean we should be paralyzed by ever-deepening analyses to try to better predict them.
Instead, we should move to do what we can to act on the fundamental drivers of demand conditions in any market-based domain: the needs, wants, and behaviors of people. No amount of technological innovation or policy shift is impossible if people—consumers, customers, business executives, government leaders, and beyond—align their voices in a way that sends demand signals. This can shift trends related to product attributes, investment capital flows, IP sharing, and standards setting. Demand by likeminded companies and organizations can kickstart and accelerate decarbonization change.
The ability to consolidate demand is a critical lever to break out of the chicken-and-egg dilemma that paralyzes so many hard-to-abate solutions. Too often customer demand for low-carbon products is fragmented and of uncertain longevity, which makes producers and financiers hesitant to invest in generating greater supply. A solution could involve identifying and working with key customers who value low-emission products or services and are willing to establish financial arrangements that make such solutions possible. Aggregating demand by pooling together numerous lower-volume customers to create critical mass can also be explored. That’s the logic behind groups such as the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition, which aims to create “a mechanism for aggregating demand for carbon-neutral flying”24—by extension, stimulating the market for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
Efforts to secure sufficient, long-term demand should extend beyond a single sector in many cases. A number of industries have an interest in sustainable biofuels, for example, including airlines (SAF), ocean shipping, and ground transportation providers. Working together can help reach critical mass, and also enable collaborative efforts to assure available supply goes to where it’s most needed in the moment. Willingness-to-pay may not be the only relevant metric for such demand aggregation efforts, either. Customers may be open to making other trade-offs for more sustainable goods—accepting marginally slower shipping times for their products if it reduces associated emissions, for example. In a B2C context, MIT researchers found that many e-commerce customers were willing to wait an additional five days on average for delivery when told about the environmental impact of their decision.25
There are three “action modes” that can be used individually or collectively to help create a flywheel effect for efforts to decarbonize hard-to-abate industries. The goal is to build momentum and create self-sustaining positive feedback cycles all in the service of effecting major changes.
Demonstration projects and proof points can also help show the “art of the possible.” For example, Shenzhen in China converted its entire bus fleet—around 16,000 vehicles—to electric, in the process illustrating the technology’s feasibility and utility at scale in a large, complex urban environment.27
The ecosystem architect’s role can become especially important in instances where participants’ preferences conflict or where short-term self-interest would cause them to opt out or act in ways that are counter to the ecosystem’s vision. The most effective ecosystem architects typically exhibit a rare mix of attributes and capabilities. Most important, they should foster trust. The ecosystem architect should be seen by all participants as acting in good faith and in the best interests of the collective. Impartiality is key, but they should also have an incentive to participate and to care about outcomes. Often, a noncompetitive, neutral third party is best positioned to take on the role.
The challenge with effecting change in the face of uncertainty is that—almost by definition—the outcome is unknowable. Most organizations and individuals have grown up in a world in which “knowability” (a.k.a. the derisking of decisions) is both achievable and desirable. That is certainly the case in situations where data exists, and any player can make a rational trade-off between the cost of acquisition of that data and the likely risk mitigation it can help achieve. But we need a different mindset if we are going to make progress in decarbonizing hard-to-abate sectors.
Small steps forward which are designed either to test specific hypotheses or to catalyze a reaction from others can be a critical part of the solution. For example, consider the dilemma of an executive who knows that the right thing to do for society may have negative short-term consequences for their company—or their career—if they go on record as supporting it. A common reaction could be to retreat inwards and wait until policy shifts in a way that forces them and all their peers to take the step at the same time. An atypical—and better—reaction would be to go public with an anonymous quote which catches the attention of the rest of the ecosystem, giving others who may be similarly waiting-and-seeing the confidence to act themselves.
Even without all the data on hand to justify the decision, people should have the confidence to act quickly with these “minimally viable moves” in order to provoke a future which is increasingly desired by all.29 Because the greatest risk of all is the risk of waiting too long to make progress.
Deloitte’s Strategy & Analytics team creates bold visions and takes decisive action with the confidence that comes from leading insight. We architect strategies for growth transformation and value creation. We use digital innovation to unlock business value through the power of technology.