Somebody Else's Problem

January 19, 2021

Make money by saving the climate? Wait, what?

It seems too good to be true. Saving the planet costs money, doesn’t it? Monster cleanup bills for abandoned oil wells, massive financial losses (to say nothing of loss of life) from wildfires, and crippling recovery expenses in the wake of ever-stronger hurricanes? Isn’t that the story?

That’s what makes the headlines. But there’s another side to it.

The first step in averting catastrophic climate change is eliminating the emissions that are causing it - mitigation. This is mostly about carbon dioxide, but also includes methane, nitrous oxide, and refrigerants like trifluoromethane (that last one has nearly 15,000 times the global warming potential as CO2). It turns out that climate mitigation is a money maker. The reason why more people aren’t making money at it is best summed up in the words: Somebody Else’s Problem.

In his book Life, the Universe, and Everything, Douglas Adams imagines a solution to the problem of invisibility. Instead of expensively bending or reflecting light, or some other similar technological feat, some genius invented the Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field.

An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot.

For most people, and for many businesses, climate and energy is an SEP.

In a very small number of homes, there’s an energy nerd that knows stuff about the cost of electricity, what solar panels are all about, the ins and outs of electric cars, and why insulation is cool. And warm. My home has such a nerd - yours truly. The overwhelming majority of homes don’t. The owners pay their utility bills, grumble when those bills get bigger, worry about climate change and feel helpless, or ignore the whole thing. Somebody Else’s Problem.

Small businesses can’t afford an energy manager. These days, many can’t even afford to pay rent. Hire a consultant? Forget about it. It’s Somebody Else’s Problem.

Some medium to large sized businesses have a dedicated energy manager, or maybe a sustainability coordinator, or an environmental specialist. Often these are funded by incentive programs, and the incumbent has to spend a lot of their time proving themselves in the hope that the company will decide to cover their payroll cost after the government money runs out. It takes a while for such an energy manager to understand how to convince people to make energy investments, to make the case that they pay for themselves, and even to figure out who is the decision maker. It all adds friction that makes it SEPdifficult for these businesses to make much headway. Sometimes they drop the idea, resign themselves to paying their utility bills without fuss, and declare energy and climate to be Somebody Else’s Problem.

The bright spot in this story: Corporate titans. Many have recognized that it's not just good for their image to go green - it’s good for profitability. Quite a few have made commitments to become carbon neutral, or 100% renewable, or something of that ilk. Examples include Amazon, Facebook, Ford, General Mills, and Unilever. They’ve decided that the climate is not Somebody Else’s Problem - and they’re doing something about it. Along the way they’re discovering, to their surprise, that it’s actually more profitable than passing the buck. 

In fact, it’s the same story all the way down the line back to the individual household.

Let’s take a look at a simple example: The family car.

An electric car is a lousy deal, right? It costs way more than the internal combustion engine (ICE) equivalent. Take the Hyundai Kona. The MSRP for the ICE base model is $21,299. The electric version is $44,999. Only a chump would buy one...right?

Enter the energy nerd. First, the federal government incentive immediately knocks $5K off the price. Next, the cost of maintenance is way lower - more than $6K in savings over the life of the car. Finally, fuel. Charging the Kona EV up to its full 415km range costs under $7; it will cost $41.42 to go the same distance in the ICE version. If you drive 20,000 km per year, you save nearly $1,700 with the electric version - that puts you in the black by Year 7. Oh, and this ignores the fact that the electric car will last twice as long (the magic of having 1/100th the number of moving parts).

Most households don’t have someone around that’s into that kind of math. So they go with what they know, and they’ll pay more. Put another way, if householders did the math, they’d end up with more money in their piggy bank.

Weatherstripping? It’s a slam dunk - pays for itself in a few months. Solar on the roof? Cheaper than grid electricity. An air source heat pump instead of a natural gas furnace? Well, the green option was actually more expensive...until the carbon tax hike came into the picture. Now it’s looking a lot better.

Scale that up to a business, and there are even more opportunities. A green fleet. LED warehouse lighting. Waste heat recovery systems. Add up the capital investments, compare that to the savings they produce, and you have a business case.

At the level of our entire community, you have the Pathway to Net Zero Carbon. Put $3.2 billion in, get $4.9 billion out, and all told you’re $1.7 billion to the good. All you need is an organization to serve the role of energy manager, to turn Somebody Else’s Problem into their problem, to solve it, and to replicate that formula at the business and household level.

We’re on it.


Alex Chapman

Executive Director