Column: Houston expert on what the path to net-zero will look like
The $275 trillion question: What does the road to net-zero look like?
That’s a good question, and McKinsey took a serious stab at providing an answer in a 2022 report, it considers the net-zero scenario described by the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), a consortium of 105 central banks and financial institutions. McKinsey then describes the costs, benefits, and social and economic changes that would likely be required for the world to start, stay on, and finish the pathway described by the NGFS.
Here is what the report isn’t, and what it doesn’t do. It isn’t a roadmap to net zero, and it does not make predictions. Rather, it offers estimates related to one specific scenario. It does not say who should pay. It does not address adaptation. It doesn’t even assume that restricting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 is achievable. It doesn’t assert that this is the best or only way to of. Indeed, it notes that “it is likely that real outcomes will diverge from these estimates.”
What the report does do is more interesting: with rigor and thoughtfulness, it thinks through what a genuine, global effort to get to net zero would take. Here are a few insights from the report I found particularly noteworthy.
It won’t come cheap. Capital spending by 2050 under the NGFS scenario would add up to $275 trillion, or $9.2 trillion per year on average. That is about $3.5 trillion a year more than is being spent today, or the equivalent of about half of global corporate profits in 2020. In addition, about $1 trillion of current spending would need to shift from high- to low-emissions assets. In short, it’s a lot of money. Of course, some of these costs are also investments that will deliver returns, and indeed the share that do so will probably rise over the decades. Upfront spending now could also reduce operating costs down the line, through greater efficiency and lower maintenance costs. And it’s important to keep in mind the considerable benefit of a healthier planet and a stable climate, with cleaner air and richer land. But the authors do not shy away from the larger point: “Reaching net-zero emissions will thus require a transformation of the global economy.”
Some countries are going to be hit harder than others. It’s hardly surprising to read that countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela, which rely heavily on oil and gas resources, are going to have a more difficult time adjusting. The same is true for many developing economies. To some extent their residents can leapfrog to cleaner, greener technologies, just as they skipped the landline in favor of cellphones. But other factors weigh in. For example, developing countries are more likely to have high-emissions manufacturing as a major share of the economy; services are generally lower emission. In addition, poorer countries still have to build much of their infrastructure, which is costly. All this adds up. The report estimates that India and sub-Saharan Africa would need to spend almost 11 percent of its GDP on physical assets related to energy and land to get to net zero; in other Asian countries and Latin America, it is more than 9 percent. For Europe and the United States, by contrast, the figure is about 6 percent.
Now is better than later. An orderly, gradual transition would likely be both gentler and cheaper than a hasty, disorderly one. The report sees spending as “frontloaded,” meaning that there is more of it in the next decade to 15 years, and then it declines. That is because of the need for substantial capital investment. But why does this matter? There is timing, for one thing. If low emissions sources do not increase as fast (or preferably faster) than high-emissions ones are retired, there will be shortages or price rises. Both would be unpleasant, and could also cut into public support for change. And then there is the matter of money. If a coal plant is built today—as many are—and then has to be shut down, abruptly and well before its useful life over, a lot of money that was invested in it will never be recouped. The report estimates that as much as $2.1 trillion assets in the power sector alone could be stranded by 2050. Many of these assets are capitalized on the balance sheets of listed companies; shutting them down prematurely could bring bankruptcies and credit defaults, and that could affect the global financial system.
The world would look very different. Under the NGFS scenario, oil and gas production volumes in 2050 would be 55 percent and 70 percent lower, respectively, and coal would just about vanish. The market share for battery or fuel cell-electric vehicles would be close to 100 percent. Many existing jobs would disappear, and because these assets tend to be geographically concentrated, the effects on local communities would be harsh. For example, more than 10 percent of jobs in 44 US counties are in the coal, oil and gas, fossil fuel power, and automotive sectors. On the whole, McKinsey estimates that the transition could mean the loss of 187 million jobs—but the creation of 202 million new ones. Reaching net zero would also make demands on individuals, such as switching to electric vehicles, making their homes more energy efficient, and eating less meat like beef and lamb (cows and sheep are ruminants, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas).
There’s a lot else worth thinking about in the report, which goes into some detail about forestry and agriculture, for example, as well as the role of climate finance and what can be done to fill technology gaps. And its closing sentence is worth pondering: “The key issue is whether the world can muster the requisite boldness and resolve to broaden its response during the next decade or so, which will in all likelihood decide the nature of the transition.”
So, is something like this going to happen? I don’t know. There is certainly momentum. As of January 27, 2022, 136 countries accounting for almost 90 percent of both emissions and GDP, have signed up to the idea. But these pledges are not cast in stone, or indeed in legislation, in many places, and as a rule policy is running far short of the promise. “Moving to action,” the report notes dryly, “has not proven easy or straightforward.”
And while some things can be done from the top down, others cannot—such as the considerable shift in human diets away from high-emissions (and delicious) beef and lamb and more toward poultry and legumes. Moreover, inertia and vested interests are powerful forces. “Government and business would need to act together with singular unity, resolve, and ingenuity, and extend their planning and investment horizons even as they take immediate actions to manage risks and capture opportunities,” the report concludes. That’s a big ask.
So, like McKinsey, I am not going to make predictions. But for an analysis of what it would take, this is a valuable effort.
Scott Nyquist is a senior advisor at McKinsey & Company and vice chairman, Houston Energy Transition Initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership. The views expressed herein are Nyquist's own and not those of McKinsey & Company or of the Greater Houston Partnership. This article originally ran on LinkedIn on January 28, 2022.