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Are Net Zero Goals Attainable?

The road to net zero is a long, continuous one, it seems. Many companies are aiming to meet the net-zero goal by 2030 while others have a more ambitious target of 2025. Still, some have a more realistic target of 2050. The question at hand remains: Are businesses really on track to meet their goals? Sit back, it’s time to really dig into this data here.

Global Considerations

In July, the United Nations released the 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Report, Special Edition. But first, a primer before we dive into the report. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity. It’s truly a very ambitious plan. And with it comes 17 sustainable development goals with 169 associated targets, which are integrated and indivisible, according to the United Nations. These goals include:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

Certainly, these objectives reach far and wide beyond net zero, but provide a good glimpse into how our world is doing overall when it comes to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) objectives. Now that we have the background, let’s unpack what it found.

To sum it up best, the report starts like this, “Halfway to the deadline for the 2030 Agenda, The SDG Progress Report; Special Edition shows we are leaving more than half the world behind. Progress on more than 50% of targets of the SDGs is weak and insufficient; on 30%, it has stalled or gone into reverse. These include key targets on poverty, hunger, and climate. Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda could become an epitaph for a world that might have been.”

If you are reading this article, you are either in one of two camps right now: One that says I knew this all along, or the other that is utterly overwhelmed and shocked.

Looking at the environment even further and narrowing in on the climate crisis, we see it is only worsening, as greenhouse gas emissions continue to go up. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report finds global temperature is already 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels and is likely to reach or surpass the critical 1.5 °C tipping point by 2035. Yikes. Not only are we not making progress here, but it looks like we may be trending backward.

Sustainability at the Enterprise

All of this is reaffirmed by a report that was released earlier this summer. Hitachi Vantara released its State of Data Infrastructure Sustainability report. The global survey of 1,000 IT leaders and C-level business executives, including 250 in the U.S., sought to shed light on the importance of sustainability for organizations and the steps being taken to address today’s data sustainability challenges. From what I can unpack, there is both good news and bad news in this report.

The good news is four in five companies say they have developed a plan for achieving carbon neutrality and net-zero carbon emissions. Additionally, 85% claim to be on plan or ahead of plan when it comes to their carbon reduction goals. And, yet the survey reveals the actual progress may not be as steadfast as many businesses would like to believe.

In fact, the report suggests the timing for achieving these goals is still decades away. On average, organizations do not expect to be at net-zero emissions until 2048, which is 25 years from now. Many hurdles stand in the way including regulations and inadequate access to critical sustainability data.

The role of the data center will be key here going forward. Nearly 80% say their data center carbon footprint had either stayed the same or increased in the past two years—and less than 19% say it decreased at all, with only 2% saying it decreased more than 10%. Looking to the future, more than half expect the carbon footprint of their data center will either stay the same or increase and only 12% expect it to decrease more than 10%. This is certainly one area to focus on in the future—and opportunities exist to reduce this with the rise of AI (artificial intelligence).

Another opportunity to decrease emissions is by decarbonizing the built environment. A report released by McKinsey this summer shows decarbonization levers would be cost-effective by 2030 if they are industrialized—that is, produced and implemented at scale with a focus on quality, cost, and time to market. Naturally, the challenge here is supply chains are often fragmented. Still, if we can accomplish this, we can potentially reduce overall emissions from the built environment by up to 75% if implemented at scale in the next five to ten years.

I do believe, with the right people, process, and technology, we can make powerful change in this world, but it does take time and a concerted effort to make it all work. But if we get it right, we just might have a more sustainable world for future generations.

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