Recently, I sat down with Valérie Mitan, NZero’s Vice President of Global Environmental Science and Sustainability. Valérie is a dedicated trail runner, a parent of two multilingual children, and a highly skilled motorcycle rider (though she’s given up her favorite adrenaline rush to reduce her carbon footprint). Born into a French-Moroccan family, Valérie studied in Germany, and has lived and worked in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, building a deep, global perspective on the problem of global warming and its human impact across cultures. She is now a U.S. citizen, where she leads a dedicated team of environmental scientists building carbon inventories, analytics, and decarbonization roadmaps for corporate and public sector entities.
So when I wanted to take a look back – and forward – at the state of sustainability and the fight against climate change, Valérie was my natural choice to talk with.
As Valérie settled in and blew steam across the brim of her dandelion root latte, I framed up the question: empirical data shows that global warming has been ongoing since at least the beginning of the 20th century, but the pace has increased dramatically since the 1970s. Recent studies suggest that the rate of warming may again be accelerating, two decades into the 21st century. Has the battle to slow and reverse climate change likewise accelerated? Where were we during 2023, and what will we see in 2024?
“There is no doubt that the pace of warming is increasing,” Valérie told me, “and the problem is that the rate of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity is not slowing.” One of the most important things to happen in 2023 was the release of the Global Stock Take (GST) at COP 28. In order to reach the 2030 target that was agreed to in the Paris Climate Accords in 2015, global emissions would need to be reduced by approximately 7% every year until 2030. Instead, GST indicated that emissions have increased by approximately 1.5% annually. “This is sobering,” She told me, “but like poor marks on a midterm exam, it emphasizes the urgency for all nations to course correct.”
“If the GST numbers at COP 28 were sobering,” I asked her, “were there other positives that came out of the conference?”
She immediately pointed to the pledge made by over 100 nations to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, by tripling the global capacity of renewable energy, and doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements before 2030. However, nothing was done to reduce subsidies to oil and gas industries, and no OPEC nations signed the pledge.
"The stronger progress in 2023 was made on the regulatory front,” Valérie explained, “as well as technology.”
She pointed to New York’s Local Law 97 and the implementation of the European Union’s CRSD, among others. These represent impactful regulations with consequences. Aspirational pledges and goal setting is good, but in 2023, for the first time, she explained, decarbonization began to grow teeth.
“But just penalizing companies will not be enough, will it?” I asked.
“Don’t forget the Inflation Reduction Act,” she said. In 2023 the Biden Administration secured $369 billion over 10 years that is critical to enable the U.S. to meet the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge signed at COP 28. “Frankly, it's only a drop in the bucket of the investment we will need, but it is the largest investment in clean infrastructure ever passed.” Also not to be forgotten, she pointed out, was the key agreement at COP 28 to operationalize the loss and damage fund to aid vulnerable countries that are impacted by climate change.
“So those items are future investments,” I said. “Let’s talk about the future. Can you peer into your crystal ball and give me some predictions for 2024?”
Valérie sat for a moment behind her cup. As a data-driven scientist, predictions are hard for her. Probabilities she can manage, but predictions are another thing. “I can’t,” she said, “and one of the reasons is elections.”
She ran through a list of countries facing pivotal elections in 2024 that, if they break against climate policy, could significantly derail the already insufficient pace of decarbonization. She specifically put the U.S. election at the top of the list. If the policies of the Biden Administration are reversed, rather than accelerated, she believes that the U.S. will have no chance to meet its Paris targets, and neither will the world.
I asked her to dig into the details, give me some predictions that don’t involve calling dozens of national elections around the world. “Ask me questions,” she said, “and I’ll give you answers - but these aren't scientific predictions, they’re educated gut predictions.”
Fair enough. I started the interrogation:
“In 2024, will we move to a low carbon, distributed energy world, with batteries in homes?”
“Not that broadly in 2024. Regulation will move too slowly, but the cost of storage will drop and big players will do it.”
“What will be the most impactful technological improvement?”
“Green steel and Green cement will hit more widespread production. These technologies are critical to reduce the massive lifecycle emissions problem. And, if I can name a second, actual, effective carbon capture and storage will emerge as a viable alternative, not just as a corporate shell game ploy.”
“Will significant nuclear generation go into development?”
“No, regulations won’t move that fast, but the last technological constraints for modular and next generation nuclear power will get solved. Stay tuned.”
“What will be the positive surprise? What will be the deus ex machina in the narrative of 2024?”
“A boom in supplier engagement and collaboration will demystify supply chain Scope 3 carbon emissions.”
“What will give you the most hope?”