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The race to zero is also a race to a better future

The race to zero is also a race to a better future

This year’s UN Climate Change Conference brings the world together under a unifying challenge: a Race to Zero; that is, for industry, municipalities, investors and institutions to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at latest – writes Harry Verhaar has over 20 years of experience in the lighting industry, and is Head of Global Public & Government Affairs for Signify. 

With political priorities scattered by an unprecedented global health crisis, it’s now urgent that the energy channeled into our race to economic recovery also propels us on this greater and more crucial journey. 

It is our present, year-old decade that will make the critical difference in how our futures will look. I believe that the best way to serve anyone’s self-interest is to invest in the common interest. To reach this 2030 horizon, world and business leaders must align on a unifying message: that urgent action to reduce emissions is not a diversion or a threat to our quality of life, but will be coupled with a great leap forward in technology innovation and social progress that will reap benefits for all.

The European Green Deal and US recovery plans offer signs of hope, linking climate goals with post-COVID economic and digitalization initiatives. To align on a global scale, we must take a unified approach to the three major building blocks in our “work plan of the decade”: energy efficiency, renewable energy, and carbon storage. We will need all of these tools to realize our climate goals, and by utilizing each one, we will not just slash our emissions, but also create a better quality of life. 

We can see this multiplying effect in energy efficiency improvements. The International Energy Agency reports that implementing energy efficiency plans based on technology already at our disposal could generate more than 40% of the emissions reductions needed to reach Paris Agreement goals. It’s an obvious win for our climate, and also a win for consumers who will feel the difference in their household budget. With rising energy costs and queues at the gas pumps, there has never been a more opportune time to make this case to an apprehensive and financially-squeezed electorate. 

The European Commission’s Renovation Wave initiative builds on this dual ambition. Within Europe and across the world, ageing buildings are the biggest sinks of energy consumption, accounting for 40% of energy consumed and 36% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Most of our current building stock will still be in use in 2050. And yet, our rate of energy renovation remains glacially slow at around 1% per year. Rigorous new building codes can ensure a high standard in the buildings we create, but to make a real impact, we must also go back and clean up our mistakes of the past. If we can raise our energy renovation rate to at least 3% per year by 2030, we will have renovated most of the current built environment over the next 30 years. 

The benefits of investing here are not just double but manifold: lower energy bills, lower levels of energy poverty, greater resilience and greater comfort and wellbeing for occupants. 

One of the quickest wins to make buildings more efficient lies within my own domain: lighting. Within Europe, two thirds of installed lighting is legacy technology, with close to two billion conventional light points that could be switched to LED. Making this simple change could save around €70 billion and would eliminate 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year across the whole of Europe alone. It is quick, simple and low cost, there is very little disruption to the building’s occupants, and the payback is fast. 

The switch to LED is not just an energy-efficiency patch, but accelerates a long-overdue upgrade that delivers widespread benefits. A typical LED light bulb uses 90% less energy than an incandescent bulb and lasts up to 25 times longer, reducing waste. When LEDs are connected, they have potential to improve both energy saving and performance, leading to healthier, more productive indoor spaces. Individual luminaires can be connected to sensors that can subtly shift the light level in response to changing daylight conditions or switch lights off when a room is empty. The addition of smart lighting controls can realize a 30% electricity saving over and above the 50% saving gained by switching to LED. And investing in such a system can lay the groundwork for a digital smart building framework that brings together other functions and applications. 

For individual consumers, switching to LED can be as quick and easy as changing a lightbulb. But on a global scale, there is a bigger job to do – and that means jobs, and people to fill them. The International Energy Agency’s Executive Director Fatih Birol described energy efficiency as a jobs machine. It’s estimated that every euro or US dollar, one million invested in energy renovation also creates up to 20 local jobs. The impact of building renovation most benefits local SMEs – around the world, that’s 90% of companies in the building sector. With much of the global workforce displaced by the fallout of the pandemic, accelerating renovation creates much-needed employment opportunities: jobs for the people who place insulation, who fit out lights in warehouses and streets, who install and upgrade HVAC systems and place solar panels on roofs. 

When energy renovation offers so much potential at so low a cost, why are we seeing so much talking and so little doing? 

I believe it is up to business and political leaders to “walk the talk”. I like to apply the 10/20/70 rule: that is; 10% of our time should be spent on inspiration: creating awareness and engagement for this better future, 20% on aspiration: defining what needs to be done, how much, when and by whom; and most importantly, 70% on perspiration: rolling up our sleeves and getting the job done. 

Everyone believes that their level of complexity is unique – that renovating their building brings the most challenges or that they should wait for the next generation of electric vehicles to swap out their fleet. There are always reasons why someone else should go first. We need to see political leaders demonstrate what’s possible and as a baseline, adopt action-oriented initiatives like switching to electric ministerial car fleets and renovating municipal buildings to make them carbon neutral, not by 2050, but by 2030. Not only does this provide inspiration and build confidence, but it also creates relevant learning that can be used to fine-tune policies and persuade the electorate that this version of the future brings with it many additional benefits. 

It’s also up to businesses to set the standard. Ahead of COP26, Signify joined hundreds of the world’s leading businesses in a letter to the G20 organized by the We Mean Business Coalition. The letter calls on nations to coordinate on faster and more aggressive climate targets and to deliver on climate finance commitments that will facilitate the swift phase-out of coal-fired power generation. Businesses like ours are acting now. We can do even more within the right policy environments. 

In 2015, Signify committed to be carbon neutral in 2020 and to converting to 100% renewable electricity. We achieved our goal in September last year. For an international company with a global manufacturing footprint and supply chain, this has undoubtedly been challenging. We achieved it by making it our most pressing priority and integrating emission reductions efforts as growth drivers within our core business goals. Now, we aim to double our positive impact on the environment and society, including doubling the pace at which we meet the 1.5°C scenario set out by the Paris Agreement. Our pledge is to meet this ambitious target across our entire value chain by 2025. 

As a business, we are active and vocal about our targets because it holds us accountable and generates valuable discussion among our employees, our customers and partners and our peers. It builds pride among our workforce and drives us to innovate. Once again, the impact is multiplied. 

In 2021, Signify’s business is 85% energy-efficient LED and growing. Today, we recognize that LED is not just a more sustainable technology, but in every way, a better one. If we had persisted with business as usual, we would not have created our innovative connected lighting platform that paints pictures with light on the world’s best loved landmarks, or the human-centric lighting that works with people’s circadian rhythm to bring natural light benefits into our indoor lives. 

Our race to zero is a race for the survival of humanity, but it’s also a race to a better future. Innovation has the power to improve our quality of life. Connected LED street lighting is not just cheaper to run, but reduces night time traffic accidents and street crime. Installing modern connected lighting in the workplace saves employers money, but it also increases productivity and employee wellbeing, multiplying the impact may times over.

Change always feels scary and uncertain, yet it is our appetite for change that has to be restored. To find the momentum for the great push forward of our decade, we must keep in mind that the end result of our efforts is not a continuation of the status quo, but a different and better way of functioning as a more inclusive global society that brings with it better health, better opportunity, and better security for more of the world’s people. With change comes the opportunity to reimagine a better future. With change we can innovate, for brighter lives and a better world.

About the author

Harry Verhaar (pictured) has over 20 years of experience in the lighting industry, and is Head of Global Public & Government Affairs for Signify (the new name of Philips Lighting). He is responsible for the strategy, outreach and stakeholder management on energy & climate change, resource efficiency and sustainable development, with a key focus on the role of the LED lighting revolution. 

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