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How Chicago’s Poop Becomes Amazing Fertilizer

Claudia Baldwin

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This story was first published on Next City, a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities through journalism and events around the world.

Gardeners in Chicago have a secret weapon in their quest to grow the juiciest tomatoes or the tallest sunflowers — other people’s poop.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the entity responsible for treating Chicago’s sewage, has been converting “biosolids” into usable compost since 2016. MWRD’s six treatment plants treat anywhere from 2 million to 1.2 billion gallons of water each day. MWRD’s treatment volume, and also the fact that Cook County is the second most populous county in the U.S., makes MWRD one of the largest agencies in the country to provide biosolids compost.

Prior to 2016, the agency made biosolids available for use golf courses and sports fields, but in 2015, state legislation made the compost available to the public. Now, the fertilizer is composted with wood chips, and anyone can bring a bucket to a pickup site and take as much compost as they want.

But with a billion gallons of sewage flowing through the district’s plants daily, there’s a lot of compost. This realization led MWRD Commissioner Kimberly Du Buclet and her staff to begin researching how to best use these biosolids.

“We’re always looking for ways to engage and partner with community organizations,” she explained. “[And] we’re always looking for ways to innovate while we continue our mission of recovering and developing reuse opportunities for water, biosolids, algae, phosphorus and other nutrients that we collect during the treatment of wastewater and stormwater.”

Fortunately, community partners were interested in using this compost. In the winter of 2020, The Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative and “farm-to-vase florist” Southside Blooms reached out to MWRD with a plan for the compost. Emerald South owned about four acres of land on a vacant lot in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood, in the city’s South Side. Emerald South and Southside Blooms were mutually interested in beautifying the lot, but planting on that much space requires a lot of fertilizer (or compost). It would be an expensive venture.

“We ran the numbers,” said Quilen Blackwell, president of Southside Blooms. “It would have cost us like $7,000 or $8,000 if we were to buy [the compost].”

MWRD delivered 300 cubic yards — 21 truckloads — for free. (Any organization within the MWRD’s boundaries that can use at least 10 cubic yards of compost can qualify for free delivery.) This compost allowed Southside Blooms to kick off a surge of sunflower plantings throughout the four-acre space. The newly minted urban farm boasts 27 flowerbeds sprouting 8-foot sunflowers.

Those familiar with biosolids in agriculture wouldn’t be surprised by Southside Blooms’ outcomes. Tacoma, Washington, has been selling “TAGRO” (Tacoma Grows) compost from biosolids for almost 30 years.

“We had our own demonstration garden and we started growing flowers there,” said Daniel Thompson, division manager of wastewater operations at the city of Tacoma. “We started entering our flowers in the state fair, and we would win blue ribbons left and right.”

It would have cost us like $7,000 or $8,000 if we were to buy [the compost].

Because Environmental Protection Agency standards dictate that only Class A (pathogen-free) biosolids can be used as compost, TAGRO’s compost and MWRD’s EQ Compost are chemically very similar. So while Southside Blooms is only using EQ Compost to grow flowers, biosolid compost is safe to use to grow fruits and vegetables.

“We started to do pumpkins and watermelon and the results were fabulous,” Thompson said. “Other people would see that at the fair, and also the home gardeners were using it for their tomatoes.”

One other factor that boosted TAGRO’s popularity among Tacomans is that it outperforms conventional, store-bought compost. Thompson notes, “Washington State University has several studies they did with [their] product compared to Sunshine Mix, which is sort of the gold standard for potting soil,” which illustrated TAGRO products’ superior performance.

Replication of these results in Chicago could be a boon for the long-term goals of Southside Blooms and the Southside Chicago community, in general.

“What this is about for us is trying to establish the floral industry as an anchor industry in the inner city to really scale down a lot of poverty and violence and blight in our communities,” Blackwell said.

He explains that the floral industry is a $35 billion per year industry in the United States, but 80 percent of flowers sold here come from abroad. Southside Blooms’ mission is to provide jobs for at-risk youth and adults while providing an environmentally friendly product. The EQ Compost Program is one step in promoting this model of local economic development and beautification.

The environmental benefits from the program are also broad and likely more immediate.

Industrial activities in the South and East sides of Chicago have laced much of the soils in these areas with heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. As Blackwell explains, sunflowers are actually effective soil remediators, because they draw heavy metals out of the soils. Additionally, turning impervious asphalt and concrete into green space helps with flood protection. As climate change has led to increased flooding in Chicago, improved flood protection is becoming a greater concern for those at MWRD. With the city’s freshwater supply coming from Lake Michigan, the possibility of excess, untreated stormwater flooding into the lake poses public health concerns.

The success of Southside Blooms’ work could encourage growth of more urban farms assisted by the EQ Compost program — inside and outside of Chicago.

“We have a site in Gary, Indiana that we started this year [and] we would love to be in other cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, you name it,” Blackwell explained. “The larger goal for us is definitely more about establishing industry to provide jobs for a lot of these average young people who are currently being lost to the streets.”

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Environment

Grab Your Stainless Steel Mug, the Reusies Are Coming

Claudia Baldwin

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If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: Recycling alone is not the circular economy.

Once we agree on this, we can focus on innovative solutions in material and product design, safer chemistry, new business models, remanufacturing, and refill and reuse. This is why the Circularity team is always looking for creative upstream solutions and why we are fans of Upstream Solutions.

Upstream is a nonprofit think/do tank that works to “spark innovative solutions to plastic pollution by helping people, businesses and communities shift from single-use to reuse,” according to its website. Its work spans policy, business engagement, community action, research and media. For those of you (unlike me) who don’t already have too many podcasts to listen to, Upstream also produces The Indisposable Podcast. I recommend you give it a listen.

Because the Circularity team at GreenBiz is full of fanboys/fangirls of Upstream’s work, we are very excited to partner with the organization this year to host a screening of its third annual Reusies awards at Circularity 23. The Reusies celebrate innovations in reuse by companies large and small and by individuals and communities working to make reuse a reality. Nominations for the award are open through Feb. 24, so make sure to enter your favorite reuse solutions before the deadline.

To learn more, I reached out to Matt Prindiville, CEO and chief solutioneer at Upstream, to ask him some questions about Upstream’s work and the Reusies. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Jon Smieja: Let’s start with a big question. Why reuse and not the 100-plus other topics you could work on in sustainability and the circular economy?

Matt Prindiville: Four years ago, [Upstream] did a landscape assessment of the plastics and circular economy space, and our analysis showed there were three big trends.

First, plastic pollution was creating significant risk for consumer brands. The public concern and outcry had become a game changer. But with all the attention paid to the problem, there wasn’t enough focus on how we solve it at scale — and what were the truly transformational solutions versus ones that sounded good but didn’t hold up under closer inspection.

Second, China’s decision to no longer accept low-value mixed recyclables upended the economics of recycling in the U.S. Cities that were used to making a little bit of money on recycling low-value mixed plastics were suddenly having to pay a lot of money — more than disposal — to have them hauled away.

And third, half measures and false solutions were proliferating. With all the attention paid to single-use plastics, many companies started offering or promoting other single-use products and materials as replacements. But when we looked at the life-cycle assessments of these alternative materials and products, we realized that you were just trading one set of environmental problems for others. You might not have plastic in the environment, but now you’ve got greater climate pollution or something else.

Through this exploration, we realized that the real game changer was packaging reduction — getting people what they want without all the waste. So we went all-in.

Smieja: Tell us a bit more about Upstream? What is the vision of the organization, and how are you working to move the needle on reuse?

Prindiville: At Upstream, we help leaders ideate, accelerate and scale circular strategies that create thriving communities and build the reuse service infrastructure of tomorrow. More specifically, our vision is for 30 percent of consumable goods to be sold in reusable formats in the U.S. and Canada by 2030. We know that building and scaling a new reuse economy will require a wholesale shifting of supply chains for consumable goods and services from the current single-use paradigm to new reuse service models. Our core roles are as conveners and bridge builders, content creators and knowledge curators, and solutions ideators and catalysts. Ultimately, our goal is to support our growing community and the broader movement in getting reuse to scale.

Smieja: Amazing. Reuse is such a critical piece of the circular economy puzzle. Okay, let’s get to the Reusies. 2023 will be the third annual awards. Where did the idea for a reuse awards show come from?

Prindiville: The idea came to us back in the fall of 2020. My colleague Julie [Lamy] and I were sitting outside in the cold on my back porch co-working at a distance. We were lamenting about how hard the reuse companies were getting hit with the pandemic shutting down a lot of their operations. We talked about the need to uplift and help raise the profile of this emerging sector, and Julie said, “What about an awards show?” And I laughed and said, we could call it “The Reusies” — just making fun. After another good laugh and some more conversation, we realized that we had something here, but we needed a high-profile partner that could really elevate the idea and get companies excited to participate. So we pitched Closed Loop Partners, and fortunately for us, they said yes. They’ve been amazing partners in co-producing the event. That’s where the idea came from, but it’s really been the incredible team of event producers, videographers, and our hardworking staff that have made it all possible. It’s our love letter to the reuse movement.

Smieja: I’d love to hear a bit about a past winner or two. What are you looking for in reuse innovations?

Prindiville: The biggest thing we’re looking for are ideas that can scale — especially in the different sectors that are most ripe — like food service, beverage and consumer goods. There are a number of winners that we’re really excited about like r.Cup in the food service sector and The Rounds in enabling technology.

With the corporate initiative award, we also want to acknowledge corporations that are making strides to prioritize and implement reuse. We want to support the companies that are doing the kinds of things that we want others to replicate. For example, last year’s finalists were Coke for being the first to make a major corporate commitment that has an actual reuse/refill target with a specific date; Pepsi’s SodaStream acquisition as a reflection of the company’s ambitions toward reuse solutions; and Kroger’s partnership with the CPG reuse/refill service Loop, which ultimately won the award. Kroger is Loop’s first brick-and-mortar retail launch in the United States, piloting in 25 Fred Meyer stores in the Pacific Northwest. Loop has been the original CPG innovator pulling in Fortune 500s, and according to them, the Kroger partnership is their most impactful partnership to date.

Smieja: Last question for you, Matt. What innovations are you looking for in Reuse that we’re currently missing? Asked another way, what are you looking forward to in the next couple years in this space?

Prindiville: From our perspective, infrastructure unlocks everything and the big strategic questions are around:

Design. What does it look like? What needs to happen to make it happen? What are the phases of development?
Financing. How much does it cost? Who pays for which part?

Businesses need to collaborate with each other to build the infrastructure for pooled reuse systems — many companies; few collection and washing platforms — to work, and scale requires pooling investment to align stakeholders, capital, investment and policy behind large-scale projects in cities and regions in the U.S.

Fortunately, the landscape over the last several years has changed. First, most consumer brands have signaled support for extended producer responsibility and deposit return systems, and many have now piloted reuse systems in food service, beverage and consumer packaged goods. Second, many NGOs and large-scale institutions have or are developing reuse initiatives. Third, there are big opportunities at the state and federal levels, and lots of interest in city policy. Last, there are dozens of reuse service companies operating throughout North America — possibly nearing 100.

The sea change is that the private sector is now engaged. But we know we’re working to co-create a future that doesn’t exist yet. There has to be ideation, experimentation and alignment around strategies to get us there.

[Interested in learning more about the circular economy? Subscribe to our free Circularity Weekly newsletter.]

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Original Source: greenbiz.com

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Courage: the Vital Aspect of Sustainability Leadership We Don’t Talk About Enough

Claudia Baldwin

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[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

We live in times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (also known as the management term VUCA) with unstable economies, transforming societies and a fast-changing climate.

This global situation calls for bold action, a willingness to take risks for the greater good, and collective adaptation to ever-changing conditions. The actions we take now will determine how the world looks as we pass major sustainability milestones — in 2030 and 2050. And the impact of those actions will reach beyond our lifetimes, shaping the lives of generations to come.

Yet our current leadership model is not sufficiently producing this kind of action for a sustainable future, calling to redefine what good leadership looks like. While some aspects of leadership will remain, such as setting out a vision and executing a strategy, the future leader will need to possess an evolved mindset and new skillset in order to lead effectively and make a positive impact.

Leadership skills for the future

In 2015, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gave us a comprehensive plan for a sustainable world by 2030, tackling major challenges such as climate protection and gender equality. To achieve those goals, new skills and qualities are required — the ones leaders need if they want to pave the way to a sustainable future.

Our current leadership model is not sufficiently producing this kind of action for a sustainable future.

To support this, the Inner Development Goals provide a framework of transformative skills for sustainable development. One dimension is “Acting –Driving Change.” It includes “courage” as a quality that emboldens leaders to take steps into the unknown when they might otherwise freeze up. In this framework, courage is defined as the ability to stand up for values, make decisions, take decisive action and, if need be, challenge and disrupt existing structures and views.

In my view, this is one of the most important qualities for successful sustainability leadership in these significant times.

Cultivating courage in the Decade of Action

Sustainability has emerged as the defining issue of our time, and there is still much work to be done. The SDGs are ambitious and holistic, and considering how far we still have to go to achieve all of them, in 2020, the UN declared a Decade of Action: 10 years to transform our world.

Our legacy as leaders depends on our willingness to act. Sustainability is about change management and the transformation of our current systems, which requires bold action. And courage is the foundation of such action.

Courage is not a novel concept to leadership, but it seems absent from many organization values and leadership statements. Yet I believe it is even more important when it comes to sustainability leadership: purpose-driven leadership is about questioning the status quo, overcoming obstacles, dealing with resistance and driving transformation. All of this requires courage.

What is courage in leadership?

Courage is a powerful word that comes from the Latin root word cor, meaning “of the heart.” Courage is a quality of the heart. We often think of courage in these terms — a valiant effort by a cartoon warrior, or a large-than-life person overcoming major challenges.

But courage does not need to be that grand — it also exists in our small actions. Courage is moving beyond one’s comfort, speaking up in a meeting, making a difficult decision to do the right thing, investing in a sustainable future.

Courage is at the heart of transformational leadership. Aristotle called it the “first virtue” because it makes all of the other virtues possible: it is the foundation that allows to practice all other leadership virtues consistently.

Courage in sustainability leadership means:

Thinking not only for the near-term but also for the long-term — considering impact on future generations
Driving large-scale transformation at the individual and collective level, and for the whole system
Changing people’s hearts and minds and creating a deep cultural transformation
Including stakeholders and partnering for co-creation — aligning different viewpoints and forming strong alliances on common ground
Challenging traditional approaches and driving innovation
Being resilient and pursuing moonshot goals
Taking informed and intentional risks — knowing that the greater risk is taking no action at all

Being courageous

Some of these examples may seem daunting. How can you summon the courage to take big steps and make bold changes for the greater good?

Although we describe courage as a quality, it is in fact a decision we can learn to make. Proof of this can be found in every instance of overcoming a fear — we can build courage through exposure and practice. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather finding the strength and faith to move ahead despite of it.

During my professional journey, I have seen people successfully build courage and put it into action — and I have practiced the same myself. Here are three practical tips that can help integrate courage into leadership.

Couple purpose with ambition. If there is a clear motivation for transformation and a meaning behind it, the journey becomes bigger than oneself. This helps us make difficult decisions and provides the drive for pivotal changes.
Build a culture and a network of people that prepares for and inspires bold moves. When we are surrounded by people committed to the purpose, their support and the culture can help rewire our thinking around discomfort, risk and failure.
Find courageous role models. There are examples of courageous individuals all around us, in the media and in our lives. These role models can help us to see something that exists already within ourselves.

Courage is one of the most important leadership qualities, and it is a decision that leaders will need to make every day if they want to contribute to a more sustainable future. Courage enables us to take action, it is contagious, and it also generates hope. If leadership results in influence, then courage generates the underlying trust. Today, as we move through the Decade of Action, we need courageous sustainability leaders more than ever.

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Original Source: greenbiz.com

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Purifying the ‘miracle Metal’: How to Decarbonize Aluminum

Claudia Baldwin

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[This article is part of a series by members of the First Movers Coalition. You can read more stories about the initiative here.]

Aluminum has been described as a “miracle metal.” While it’s the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, the complexities involved with refining it made aluminum more precious than silver or gold during the 19th century. Napoleon III so valued it that he would serve his most honored guests their food on aluminum plates. It remains a high-value material today, prized for its lightweight versatility, military-grade strength, resistance to corrosion and because it is infinitely recyclable.

So, what’s not to like? Well, the energy-intensive series of processes that turn raw bauxite ore into a pure metal emit on average 16 metric tons of CO2 for every metric ton of primary aluminum produced. The sector as a whole generates around 1.1 billion metric tons of CO2 each year, accounting for 2 percent of global man-made emissions. More than 60 percent of these emissions come from producing the electricity consumed during the smelting process.

What’s more, demand for the miracle metal — driven by industries such as transportation, construction, packaging and the electrical sector — is predicted to increase by almost 40 percent by 2030. Two-thirds of this growth is expected from China and Asia, a concern given China’s smelting process is heavily reliant on captive coal-fired power plants. Without advances in recycling and decarbonization, the sector’s emissions could careen towards nearly 2 billion metric tons by 2050.

Tough target from First Movers Coalition

A handful of new technologies hold the potential to clean up aluminum, but only the most ambitious meet the tough target of the World Economic Forum’s First Movers Coalition (FMC), a global initiative to harness the purchasing power of companies to decarbonize the planet’s heaviest-emitting industries. Members of the FMC have committed to a goal that at least 10 percent of the primary aluminum they procure annually by 2030 will be produced via near-zero emissions processes. The definition of “near zero” is the tough bit: emitting less than three metric tons of CO2 per metric ton of primary aluminum. That represents a huge reduction in current emissions of 85 percent or more.

To understand how to achieve such deep decarbonization, we need a speedy tour of the aluminum manufacturing process. Bauxite is the raw material — it’s mined from the ground and refined into aluminum oxide, or “alumina,” through a multi-phase process that includes heating it to around 1,000 degrees Celsius. To achieve this heat, many refineries burn fossil fuels onsite, which emit large amounts of CO2 in the process. The second process, known as smelting, turns the alumina into pure aluminum metal through electrolysis, which uses a lot of electricity and carbon anodes that also emit large amounts of CO2.

Existing forms of renewable energy — such as hydro or solar — will get us about two-thirds of the way to zero-emissions aluminum.

The good news is that existing forms of renewable energy — such as hydro or solar — will get us about two-thirds of the way to zero-emissions aluminum. We can use clean energy for the new electrified boilers and calciners involved in refining bauxite ore into alumina — and also for the electricity-intense smelting process. But this can be expensive in the short term. It means moving the plants to locations with access to renewable power and retrofitting the refineries to install the new equipment.

Some emerging new technologies — which can be implemented at existing aluminum plants — can help narrow the gap towards zero-emissions aluminum. The smelting process can be fully decarbonized by replacing those carbon anodes with inert anodes that emit oxygen instead of CO2. A process known as “mechanical vapor recompression” enables the thermal energy needed for refining to be recycled rather than released. And for the remaining emissions, there are technologies such as carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) to intercept emissions from both the refining and smelting processes. When a few of these breakthrough technologies are used in conjunction, they can get the whole aluminum production process below the threshold of 3 metric tons of CO2 per metric ton of primary aluminum.

Unlike most other sectors in the FMC, recycling can play a large part in the journey towards decarbonizing the aluminum sector, especially as the metal is considered infinitely recyclable. Recycling takes around 5 percent of the energy needed to make new aluminum, so it makes commercial as well as environmental sense. Aluminum remelting is widespread at scale today with more than 30 million metric tons of recycled aluminum flowing back to new products annually. It can also contribute towards a just transition, as collection, sorting and recycling offer the potential to create new jobs while reducing the natural resource extraction required to support primary aluminum production.

Consequently, the FMC has set an additional target for its members to ensure that at least 50 percent of the aluminum they use annually by 2030 is recycled. However, recycling alone won’t be enough to slake the growing global thirst for the metal — in fact, it will supply just half the expected demand by 2050, according to the 1.5 degrees C-aligned transition strategy published by the Mission Possible Partnership. So getting primary aluminum production as near to zero emissions as possible remains a top priority.

The tech solution is there. Now to make it happen

While the technologies to decarbonize aluminum production may exist in prototype forms, like all new technologies that have yet to reach scale, they are expensive. Commercializing them is challenging — and it’s not just the cost; aluminum’s value chain is complicated and extended.

Take a beer can, for example, which is typically made of more than 50 percent recycled aluminum but still requires primary aluminum. First you mine the bauxite, then you refine it into alumina. It often goes somewhere else to be smelted into pure aluminum. The metal is then processed into discs or coils, bought by companies that punch them into cans, sold to beverage businesses and bottlers, distributed to retailers and only then reaches the consumer. This long supply chain is compounded by the size of the buyers. Whereas steel and concrete have big “anchor buyers,” such as auto manufacturers or state procurement agencies, aluminum is bought in small amounts by lots of players. And all the players involved — from the mine company to the beverage retailer — must be aligned to share the goal and the cost of decarbonization.

Ball Corporation, a major manufacturer of aluminum packaging and a member of the FMC, has made a first move towards aligning with its value chain partners. The company has teamed up with aluminum suppliers and fellow FMC members Novelis and Rio Tinto to create Canada’s first specially-marked, low-carbon beverage can for Corona beer. The can is made partly from recycled aluminum along with near-zero emission primary aluminum refined with hydropower and smelted using a greenhouse gas-free inert anode technology called Elysis. This breakthrough has been made possible by an unprecedented collaboration between two competing aluminum industry giants — Alcoa and Rio Tinto — along with $13 million (CAD) of investment and technical support from Apple, plus additional investment of $80 million (CAD) each from the Canadian and Quebec governments. Elysis is still at the prototype stage, but the team is aiming to make the technology commercially available by 2024.

Aligning the value chain, through coalitions such as the FMC, is critical to decarbonization efforts. Without an aligned value chain, demand signals to producers may not lead to any change. These kinds of coalitions also lead to better conversations with governments around a range of subjects, from tightening policies on recycling to co-investing in R&D.

When a breakthrough technologies are used in conjunction, they can get the whole aluminum production process below the threshold of 3 metric tons of CO2 per metric ton of primary aluminum.

Governments have a key role to play in encouraging the decarbonization of primary aluminum refining and smelting. The Middle East has an opportunity to contribute, using its plentiful solar power potential. China is showing movement in the right direction, shutting some coal-powered refining operations and opening new plants in regions abundant with hydropower. But governments may also need to provide direct financial support to the sector. The new technologies needed to decarbonize aluminum — including additional renewable power, CCUS and redesigning the smelting process around inert anodes — will cost around $1 trillion up to 2050, so it is likely that states will have to step in with incentives, investment and market-based measures. The production of materials such as lithium or copper — vital to the low-carbon transition — already attract government subsidies. So, too, must aluminum, given its role in helping decarbonize other sectors such as transportation and battery technology.

In Europe, the European Union’s proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) is a wake-up call to aluminum suppliers looking to export into the single market. By 2030, the CBAM could levy a tax of 100 euros per metric ton of CO2 contained in imported products and materials, mimicking the cost of the E.U.’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) for local producers. For a metric ton of aluminum with a 16 metric ton CO2 footprint, that could add 60 percent to the cost of the metal. While such a mechanism may help decarbonized aluminum compete on an ongoing basis once commercialized, the model of direct government investment in breakthrough technology may be necessary to crowd in corporate finance and derisk the decarbonization pathway.

The sector is in a race against time to scale-up its nascent near-zero emissions production to deliver the supply required. Companies need to take a clear leadership position, to support the deployment of the deep decarbonization technologies that are needed to align the sector along a pathway to net zero by 2050. There will be additional costs, but coalitions such as the FMC will help create the transparency and collaboration required to address those costs. The technology is there to make it happen — and that’s worth raising if not a glass, then certainly a low-carbon beer can.

This article was co-authored by Jonathan Walter, and BCG’s Andrew Alcorta and Henry Mumford.

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Original Source: greenbiz.com

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