The Decarbonization Imperative
Transforming the Global Economy by 2050
Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff



Climate change is the challenge of our lifetimes. If we fail to act, and act soon, we risk leaving our children a world in which humanity’s ability to flourish will be severely tested. The simple premise of this book is to take a detailed look at what needs to happen for us to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change by radically reducing our carbon footprint. Its central assumption is that addressing our global warming challenge will require substantial innovation across a wide number of industrial sectors that promises to disrupt existing technologies and business models and usher in cleaner industries that do not emit greenhouse gases.

This book serves as a complement to Lenox’s 2018 book Can Business Save the Earth? Innovating Our Way to Sustainability, also from Stanford University Press. In that book, Lenox and his coauthor, Ronnie Chatterji, discuss the importance of the innovation system in generating disruptive sustainable technologies. Structured around the core economic players in the innovation process—innovators themselves, managers, financiers, and customers—the book highlights the broader institutional envelope that surrounds the innovation system and the role played by private intermediaries and public interveners in driving the rate and direction of innovative activity.

In this book, we take a deep dive into the challenge of climate change and the need to effectively reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Using a sector-based approach, we analyze emerging clean technologies in five large sectors: energy, transportation, industrials, buildings, and agriculture. We assess the likelihood of technology disruptions leading to a decarbonized future in each sector and, more important, provide suggestions on various public and private levers that could be pulled to catalyze innovation and disruption to meet our 2050 goal. We end by providing a practical and comprehensive technology policy to get the world to net-zero emissions. We note that there are numerous reports and books available that explore each of these sectors more deeply. Our intent is to provide a broad view of technology disruption across all of them and help readers to better understand the scope and scale of collective work that will be needed to decarbonize the global economy by 2050. For those interested in detailed simulations of the “path to 2050,” one of our favorites is the En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulator. Our goal in this book is not to replicate these detailed simulation models, but rather to leverage our understanding of technology disruptions to gauge the likelihood of shifting markets toward sustainable technologies and to posit levers to encourage such changes. In doing so, we hope to illuminate the mechanisms that help accelerate disruptive change, mechanisms that are often obscured in a complex simulation.

Climate change is a global issue, and carbon emissions know no boundaries. To decarbonize by 2050, actions taken by developing countries to curb their emissions while growing their own economies will be crucial. Throughout each chapter we identify and discuss briefly those countries with the most influence to change the emissions trajectory within that sector over the next thirty years. While the primary focus of this book is on the United States economy, we believe that the technologies explored, and the opportunities and levers needed to accelerate their adoption, are transferable to other country economies if given the right market conditions.

In pursuing this project, we have benefited greatly from conversations and engagements with our academic colleagues, students, business leaders, policy makers, and leaders of nongovernmental organizations. The genesis of this book was a series of research reports that we developed as part of the University of Virginia Batten Institute’s Business Innovation and Climate Change Initiative. In addition, under the auspices of the initiative, we hosted two events that brought together leaders from all walks of life to discuss the issues raised in this book: the 2018 Jefferson Innovation Summit to catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship to tackle climate change and the 2020 ClimateCAP MBA Summit on climate, capital, and business. We thank all the participants for their contributions.

In addition, we wish to recognize our various coauthors and collaborators who have shaped our thinking on sustainability over the years: MIT professor emeritus John Ehrenfeld, Ronnie Chatterji at Duke, Andrew King at Boston University, Chuck Eesley at Stanford, Jen Nash at Harvard, and Jeff York at Colorado, among many others. We also wish to recognize the support and influence of the community of scholars that make up the Alliance for Research in Corporate Sustainability. Lenox also benefited from feedback received at academic seminars on this work at MIT, Cornell, and the University of Virginia.

We wish to recognize the support of our colleagues and students at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. They have greatly influenced our thinking and provided inspiration for our efforts. The Batten Institute at UVA provided financial support for this project for which we are most grateful. More important, the Institute provided significant support in terms of both time and talent as the home to the Business Innovation and Climate Change Initiative. A special thanks goes to Erika Herz from the Batten Institute, who was a passionate advocate for our work and primary contributor to the initiative.

This book would not have been possible without the expert research assistance provided by Isabel Brodsky. The figures and tables in the book were created by Leigh Ayers. Thank you for your contributions. They have greatly enhanced the end product. Thanks as well go to Steve Catalano and the entire team at Stanford University Press. In addition, we thank our external reviewers. We greatly appreciate all of your suggestions and feedback. The book is much improved due to your feedback and guidance.

Last, but certainly not least, we wish to thank our families. The latter stages of writing of this book took place during the global pandemic of 2020. We have done our best in the book to reflect the changing world as a result of the pandemic. We greatly appreciate the patience and understanding of our family members as we tried to balance writing with the demands of home life during quarantine. Your love and support kept us moving forward to complete the project.