Equitable Net-zero: Economic Growth without Emissions Growth
by Keith Norman, Chief Sustainability Officer, Lyten
In this article, Keith Norman, Chief Sustainability Officer at Lyten, shares how to break the coheli between economic growth and emissions growth.
Breaking the Link Between Economic Growth and Emissions Growth
Global Net-zero and Biodiversity resiliency rest on one fundamental assumption that has never been achieved throughout human history. That a society can pull itself out of poverty without increasing its emissions and biodiversity impact on the planet.
Think about that for a minute. At no point in human history has a society moved from underdeveloped to developed without creating more emissions and in turn placing additional strain on the planet’s resources. As of 2019, the top 10% of the world’s population in terms of wealth accounts for 48% of global annual emissions. The bottom 50%, just 11.5%. Within any given region, the top 10% typically account for 7 – 15x more emissions than the bottom 50%. In Africa and South/Southeast Asia, the top 10% of the population emit on par with the bottom 50% in North America1. No matter how you slice the data, an increase in wealth drives an increase in emissions.
Equitable Net-zero means economic growth without emissions growth. It means breaking the cycle by enabling the least economically stable members of society to improve their livelihoods in a manner that has limited impact on climate and biodiversity. It means the most advanced economies, which underwent much of their economic development at the expense of the planet, must lead the way with clean tech solutions. With 85% of the world’s population in developing economies, there truly is no net-zero without equitable net zero.
This is a Technological Challenge
Equitable Net-zero is first and foremost a technological challenge. Better policies, better access to capital and better education are critical and absolutely necessary, but none of these efforts work if we do not fundamentally have technological solutions that can provide energy, infrastructure, transportation, food, and water in a manner that does not result in the environmental impacts that have proven to be the standard for economic development throughout history.
Technologies that enable equitable net-zero have three features.
1. They must deliver the intended capability (i.e. power generation, movement of people, clean water) with limited emissions and biodiversity impact. They do not need to be zero, as it is the job of developed economies to deliver the “net” part of “net zero”, which are technologies that remove emissions from the air and restore biodiversity.
2. They must be equal or lower cost than the dirtier alternative. This sounds like an incredibly high bar as much of our relationship with “cleaner” means “more expensive” and unfortunately, more expensive simply will not do. Because a solution works in the wealthiest classes in San Francisco, London, and Tokyo does not mean it will work in Mumbai or Lagos or the thousands of smaller towns throughout the world.
3. They must scale. Technologies must be able to both be manufactured and deployed at a massive scale in the developing world at a pace that supports and ideally accelerates, the growth of developing economies and the movement of people out of poverty.
So simply said. Clean! Cheap! Scalable! This sounds incredibly hard, and it is, but this is where the best minds in the world collaborating with a clear set of objectives can truly innovate. That is the ethos of Net Zero. That is the ethos of COP. That is the fundamental reason Lyten decided to join the World Climate Foundation.
“We founded Lyten with the mission to deliver impact, and we quickly realized the way for our technologies to deliver the most impact for the planet is to collaborate with industrial and government leaders to address emissions for the hardest to abate sectors on the planet. The World Climate Foundation is about action, and we have found an incredible bias for action in this community of public and private sector members.”
Says Dan Cook, Co-Founder and CEO of Lyten
An Example of What’s Possible. The Race to Connect the World
I had the incredible opportunity to work in Southern, Western, and Central Africa for over a decade in the early 2000s. At this time, Europe, the US, and many other parts of the world had been enjoying phone communication for decades. This infrastructure was built by running lines, “landlines”, all across the planet. Lines running across every country. Lines running to every office building and every office within that building. Lines running to every house. Lines running across the ocean floor connecting continents. Literal, physical wires connecting every household. If you had access to these lines, you could talk to anybody, anywhere in the world instantly. If you did not have access to these decades of infrastructure, then talking to someone in your same city would take enormous effort.
The prevailing belief was to connect the unconnected would require a massive, decades-long infrastructure investment to dig holes, run lines, and maintain infrastructure. But then, none of that happened, because cellular technology exploded onto the scene. Suddenly, for a fraction of the infrastructure cost, anybody, anywhere could have a cell phone in their hands. Seemingly overnight (it took years, but certainly not decades, or even a decade) connectivity was possible for nearly everyone on the planet, via technology that could scale incredibly fast, at a price point that made it possible for everyone. Clean! Cheap! Scalable!
We are seeing the same now happen with internet connectivity and the growth in low earth orbit satellites bringing internet connectivity to the previously unconnected with a fraction of the required infrastructure. These are examples of leap-frogging technologies. What took decades and multiple generations to develop can be deployed in a single leap, completely eliminating the cost and time associated with previous generations.
Our net-zero and biodiversity aspirations require leap-frogging technologies.
Focusing on Fundamental Material Technologies
Nearly every technological revolution has been built on the back of fundamentally new breakthroughs in how to use materials. The switch from wood to coal, to oil, to solar and wind has been made possible because we discovered a way to use the properties of a material in innovative ways, to deliver new capabilities that the world needs. In the telecommunications example above, cell phones in our hands are made possible by low-power, silicon-based chips, which have also fueled the digital and now AI revolutions.
The buildings we live in and the roads we drive on are made possible by turning limestone into cement. The electricity in our homes is made possible by the unique properties of copper. The composites that make up modern aircraft and cars are made possible by the properties of carbon found in oil. Harnessing the power of the sun in solar panels is made possible by the unique properties of silicon. Batteries to store renewable power…made possible by lithium and a mix of additional minerals.
We could keep this list going, but what is true in every example above is that the enabling and the limiting factors are the same materials. Solar panels only harness about 20% of the sun’s energy. Why? Because that is the limit of what we can achieve with the current silicon materials. Cement makes up 8% of the world’s emissions. Why? Because limestone naturally releases CO2 when it forms cement. Our power grid is becoming severely limited in capacity. Why? Copper has only so much capacity to move electrons. Wind Farms are limited in size by the weight of the materials to construct them.
Fundamental materials innovation will be at the core of leap-frogging technologies that will allow us to achieve equitable net-zero.
At Lyten, we have developed a fundamentally new material, Lyten 3D GrapheneTM, that is purpose-built to decarbonize the highest emitting sectors on the planet. We take greenhouse gases and permanently sequester carbon in the form of 3D Graphene, an infinitely tunable super-material capable of increasing strength, reducing weight, improving conductivity, and much more. All from a single material. The results? The lowest emissions EV batteries on the planet require zero cobalt, nickel or manganese with 2x the energy density of lithium-ion. Plastics that require up to 50% less material without compromising performance. Lighter-weight aircraft and vehicles. Printed sensors that require no power to measure our environment. And these are just the start of applications utilizing 3D Graphene.
Our mission is to enable the highest emitting sectors on the planet to achieve net-zero without compromising performance, cost, or user experience. In other words, breaks through the barriers holding back existing materials from delivering decarbonisation outcomes that can scale across the developed and developing worlds.
We look forward to working with World Climate Foundation and its members and vast network to help decarbonize transportation, logistics, aviation, construction, energy, and much more.
Lyten is building an entirely new global industry for decarbonizing super-materials. They have recently raised $200M as part of their Series B, bringing total funding to date to >$410M. Their investors are industry leaders, including FedEx, Stellantis, and Honeywell, each working with Lyten as part of their net-zero initiatives. Lyten is currently utilizing its 3D Graphene materials technology to bring three products to market. Lithium-sulfur batteries that will have 2X the energy density of lithium-ion and with zero nickel, manganese, cobalt or graphite. Lyten Composites enable up to 50% materials reduction and lightweighting in critical industries like automotive, aviation, and aerospace. Lyten sensors offer new ways of measuring and monitoring critical infrastructure. In May, Lyten announced an investment from Stellantis, the world’s 3rd largest auto manufacturer, to support their Net Zero by 2038 objectives.
About the Author
Keith Norman is the Chief Sustainability Officer for Lyten. He spent more than 20 years in the Energy industry and was formerly an Executive at ExxonMobil where he held roles including, Global Head of Safety, Health, and Environment for ExxonMobil Upstream, VP of Engineering for US Upstream, and VP of Engineering & Technology for ExxonMobil Russia. Keith led energy technology partnerships at Amazon Web Services and he is an active early-stage investor in cleantech and energytech startups.
1 Chancel, L. Global carbon inequality over 1990–2019. Nat Sustain5, 931–938 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00955-z