Convincing companies to go net zero by 2030, with Project Drawdown’s Jamie Alexander

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Good Clean Energy is a podcast that tackles one of the most existential questions of our time: how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Jim McNiel dives into deep conversations with experts ranging from scientists to innovators to changemakers about the challenges our current electricity systems face and updates on the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.

On this episode, Jim is joined by Jamie Alexander, the director of Drawdown Labs, a testing ground focused on accelerating the adoption of climate solutions quickly, safely, and equitably.

Jamie Alexander’s “aha moment” about climate change came when she realized making the planet climate-safe didn’t have to have a scattershot approach. “Yes, we need to do a lot of things, but we can be much more strategic,” she said. “We actually can use science and what the atmosphere is telling us to guide and get laser-focused about where these big actors use their clout and resources.”

Alexander, cofounder of Drawdown Labs, part of the nonprofit organization Project Drawdown, works directly with corporations to think beyond “net zero” and convince boardrooms that caring for the climate is good business.

“There’s people who say capitalism cannot coexist with a climate-safe world. But we don’t have time to completely dismantle capitalism and build a new economic system in the next seven years that will align with that, right?” Alexander said. “We need to use the resources and the inside of the existing system we have.”

In order to do that, Alexander said, we have to leverage the political and financial influence of already big actors in our current system in order to accelerate climate solutions. Corporations don’t have to cut business or punish themselves, she said. It’s possible to use their core business to help create a climate-safe planet. There are already a few large corporations that are moving in that direction, she said, including Google and Salesforce.

“The more that other companies can identify what their superpower is and use that to help the world get closer to our climate goals — that’s where I think capitalism and climate change are going to meet in the middle.”

Covered in this episode:

  • [3:26] Drawdown’s number one priority is dealing with emissions
  • [4:54] How Project Drawdown got its start
  • [6:01] The need to rally around key climate solutions
  • [7:53] Why the “business case” for sustainability may not be enough for corporations
  • [9:58] Making capitalism compatible with a climate-safe world
  • [14:19] Decarbonization is not a data or a science problem at this point
  • [15:48] A multidimensional approach to climate leadership
  • [17:48] Integrating sustainability into every part of a business
  • [20:04] Google’s commitment to 24/7 carbon-free energy
  • [21:14] 75% of our emissions reductions need to happen in this decade
  • [22:22] Corporate leadership’s role in sustainability
  • [23:58] Why employees are a very powerful accountability mechanism
  • [26:53] A hopeful vision for 2035

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.


Hi everyone. This is Jim McNiel, and welcome to Good Clean Energy.

So years ago, I went to a mentor of mine, and I told him about a challenge I was having. And Eli said, “Jim, sit down. Did I ever tell you about the merchant that was walking through the forest on the way to the market?” This merchant was walking through this path in the woods, and he heard a man cry out and there was a miser sinking in quicksand. And so thinking fast, the merchant went over, and reached out his hand and he said, “Give me your hand.” And the miser looked up at him and shook his head violently. The merchant was like, “What the heck? Here, give me your hand.” And the miser looked up at him and said nothing. He said, “For pity’s sake, sir, take my hand.” And the miser reached up and grabbed his hand. So Eli looked at me, he goes, “Now, do you understand? The miser’s not going to give you anything. All he can do is take it. It’s all in the way you present it.”

It’s all in the way you present it. And this is something that the founding director of Drawdown Labs has learned firsthand, walking into a boardroom trying to convince leadership that it’s in the best interest of the corporation to drive towards net-zero.

Today we’re joined by cofounder of Drawdown Labs, Jamie Alexander. Jamie works directly with corporations to think beyond net-zero and convince boardrooms that caring for the climate is good business. She’s going to walk us through her journey of working to educate corporations on the positive economic and societal benefits of becoming more sustainable. Corporations are getting serious about the energy they consume, where it comes from and what they’re putting back into the atmosphere and can figure out how to do this in the next 10 years as opposed to the next 20. We learned in today’s conversation that 75% of the emissions that need to be cut need to be cut in this decade. So having a 2050 net-zero initiative is not terribly useful or productive. Having a goal to get there by 2030 is a hell of a lot more applicable.

Today, Jamie asked the very, very difficult questions: Are climate change and capitalism compatible? Is there enough economic incentive to get a board moving in the right direction to actually reduce carbon emissions? Can a quarter-by-quarter cadence of business be compatible with a five or 10 or 20 year outlook on what we have to do to address climate change? These are some of the questions that Jamie’s dealing with.

Jim McNiel: Jamie, it’s a pleasure to have you here today.

Jamie Alexander: It’s great to be with you, Jim. Thanks for having me.

McNiel: You bring with you such an unlimited list of topics. I mean, if you look at Drawdown, which is the New York Times bestseller that was put together by a broad team of researchers, it’s a bit of a how-to, positive manual of how to deal with climate change. Is it not?

Alexander: Yeah, I’d say — the comparison we make is it’s sort of the nouns. It’s sort of the “what we need to do about climate change” in one place. And then our work since then has been focused on the “how.” So how do we bring those things into the world at scale?

McNiel: So one of the top things on the list of Drawdown was really dealing with emissions, right? That’s, I think, number one paramount on the list.

Alexander: Absolutely.

McNiel: So what role does your organization play in dealing with that number one priority item?

Alexander: Yeah, so our early work really looked at, “OK, we need to address the sources of emissions,” right? So, reduce and avoid the sources of emissions, and that’s job number one, priority number one. And then we also need to support the sinks — the things in nature, in forests and in the ocean — that absorb a lot of that CO2 that we’re putting into the atmosphere. And then the third category is sort of look at broader societal changes that will indirectly and in the longer-run help us reduce emissions. So those were sort of the three broad areas, but reducing and avoiding emissions in the first place is job number one.

McNiel: What was the impetus behind the entire Project Drawdown initiative?

Alexander: The impetus was really that until then, most of the conversation about climate change was focused on the problem and very focused on the doom and gloom, the horrible possible outcomes, the villains, the problems. And it was sort of an effort to say, “Yes, it does look very bad and let’s look at what the solutions are that we have to address.” And so we really undertook a global research project working with researchers around the world, indigenous tribes around the world, looking at what solutions, what practices, what technologies, what wisdom kind of already existed in the world — and are those solutions sufficient to address this problem? We ended up determining that yes, we have all of the solutions we need to address this problem and to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And now it’s a matter of scaling them. And so our effort was really to say, “Yes, it’s bad, but we have the solutions to address it.”

“Our effort was really to say, ‘Yes, it’s bad, but we have the solutions to address it.’”

McNiel: Jamie, in taking on this role as a leader of Drawdown Labs, what did you discover once you were in the driver’s seat that was different from what you thought you were going to encounter when you started?

Alexander: That’s such a great question. So, the focus of my work has really been to say, OK, we put all of these solutions into the world, but they’re not scaling quickly enough and we’re losing time. So we need to look at tapping some of the biggest actors in society, the biggest levers in society to scale these solutions as quickly as humanly possible. And so, my work is really working with corporations and investors primarily to, for investors, help guide the deployment of capital, what climate solutions. To your point earlier, Jim, not all climate solutions are created equal. Some are much more impactful and will help us see much more dramatic reductions in emissions more quickly than others. And so I think that the “aha” moment for me was, this isn’t like a scattershot approach. Yes, we need to do a lot of things, but we can be much more strategic with our money and with our action and with our activism and business practice to kind of get money and corporate effort and emissions reductions in strategic areas. And, until recently, I don’t think that has been fully understood that we really need to rally around some key solutions if we want to see the reduction in emissions that we need to see this decade to stay within our chances of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And so the “aha” moment for me was just, wow, we don’t have to be sort of throwing spaghetti at the wall. We actually can use science and what the atmosphere is telling us to guide and get laser-focused about where these big actors use their clout and resources.

The business case for climate awareness is not enough

McNiel: Well, it seems to me that the atmosphere is speaking increasingly with a very, very loud voice. It’s getting quite hostile and angry. I mean, the recent news is that we may cross the 1.5 degree threshold within the next five years.

Alexander: Yeah.

McNiel: And that’s a lot earlier than people anticipated and even than most scientists anticipated. So there’s a clear trumpet being played that says, “Hey, we gotta do something about this.” When you walked into the boardroom, I think I read that you kind of approached it the way I would as somebody who believes that economics kind of drives behavior at the corporate level. Were you disavowed of that notion? I mean, did it change from what your perspective is saying, “Hey, here’s a good business case for being climate aware.” Did you find something else?

Alexander: I mean, the business case is important, but I don’t know that it’s enough. One of the sort of insights of our initial work in the Drawdown book was to say, what do each of these solutions cost? And then, what is the return on investment of each of these solutions over the next 5, 10, 15 years? And what we found was when these solutions are scaled at the level we need to, and they sort of displace business as usual, we will actually see a five-x return on investment over the next 20 years, which is much longer of a time horizon than we need to. But it makes a very clear and compelling case, and that doesn’t even account for extreme weather events, for loss of productivity for when employees have to stay home from work because of wildfire smoke or supply chains being disrupted or the healthcare costs associated with air pollution. It doesn’t even account for those costs. And so–

McNiel: Yeah. Or their town is flooded.

Alexander: Exactly, right. All of the things that we are already seeing. So the business case is very clear, but I don’t know that it is sufficient to make the change that we need to see as quickly as we need to see it.

Are capitalism and a climate-safe world compatible?

McNiel: Well, I think you previously asked the million dollar question: Is capitalism and climate change compatible? Right? And, as you pointed out, we’re looking at a 20-year return, which is a five-x, which is a pretty good return on investment, but most public companies are thinking quarter by quarter. Right? So how do we bridge the gap between the long-term payback and the quarter-by-quarter deathmarch that most public companies are on.

Alexander: To me, that really is the million dollar question that we have to figure out. There’s people who say capitalism cannot coexist in a climate-safe world. But we don’t have time to completely dismantle capitalism and build a new economic system in the next seven years that will align with that, right? We need to use the resources inside the existing system we have, and that’s really the goal of our program. It’s to acknowledge, like, we are in this system and there are really influential actors in this system. And so how can we leverage the political influence, the financial influence, the human resources that these big actors have inside this system? How can we use that to accelerate climate solutions?

“We need to use the resources inside the existing system we have.”

McNiel: Well, I think it really is a top question in the business philosophy category. My daughter asked me apropos of nothing last night, “Is it possible for you to have a company that isn’t always growing? A successful company, or a profitable company that’s not always growing?” I said, well, as a public company, that’s a tough thing to do because investors want earnings per share to increase on a regular basis, and they want to get a return. If you’re a $100 million company and you’re putting $25 million down in profit every year, and you’re stuck at a $100 million, that means you’re losing share, and you’re going to be threatened by your competitors. If you’re growing at the rate of inflation, then maybe that’s OK. But you’re still going to be losing share unless the market you’re addressing is contracting, and then you’re going to be losing share because it’s getting smaller. And so these are not simply answered questions. I mean, Patagonia is a great example of an environmentally-sound and observant company, but it’s no mystery that they’re privately held.

Alexander: Right.

McNiel: So you have a lot of latitude if you’re private. And then when you go to this quarter-by-quarter measuring stick. I’ve always loved the practice in Japan of the five-year plan for corporations that allows them to invest a little bit further down the path to have a longer-term view of things. And if you look at even our significant competitor, China, they’re doing five and 10 and 15 year plans. The United States doesn’t do that. In fact, the Western world’s not very good at that. So I think there needs to be a little bit of a mind-shift, if you will, about how much more return you can get with a little bit more patience. Right?

Alexander: Right. I mean there’s also so much possibility for new growth in new areas. So the 100 climate solutions that our Drawdown team of scientists and researchers looked at, we need to scale those. And we need business models to transform so that there can be growth in building the world we need. And that may mean that some products or some parts of the business may need to be phased out that are not compatible with a climate-safe future. Our research is very clear that there is tremendous business opportunity inherent in building climate solutions for the world.

“Our research is very clear that there is tremendous business opportunity inherent in building climate solutions for the world.”

So some of the businesses that we work with, we work with them on looking at — OK, Google, for example, maybe in the past you used to use your technology to help oil companies drill more efficiently. But maybe in the future, you need to pivot to using that technology to help identify where methane leaks are happening so that we can fix those. And so I think there is — and the same thing is happening in big auto. These commitments to stop internal combustion-engine cars by a certain date and commit to pivoting entirely to electric vehicles. I mean, I think these kinds of shifts in the entire model of the business and, ideally maintaining that profit, but really being able to kind of accelerate in new areas is one potential path forward.

McNiel: One of the sentences in Drawdown, deep, deep in the book, I think towards the end that kind of drew my attention is that we can make more money solving these problems today, and we can mitigate the impact it’s going to have on the planet and the costs we’re going to bear. But getting that across in a timeframe that people can appreciate, so that they can say, “Hey, this is a return that makes sense.” That’s going to be a huge challenge for you, right?

Alexander: Yeah, that is the challenge. It’s not a data problem or a science problem anymore. We have interrogated this from all sides. We know that it makes more sense economically and in terms of our health and equity and better quality of life. When we look at the climate solutions that we need to bring into the world, we know that that is of interest to pretty much everyone. And so I think the challenge now is making that case in terms of what you might call kitchen-table issues. What does that look like for different industries or people in different jobs or people in different parts of the country? That’s where it really matters. In states, like what’s happening in states, and how we communicate to people in different livelihoods. I mean, I’m from a family of coal miners in central Pennsylvania where I saw firsthand how when that industry and the steel industry in Pennsylvania went down, how detrimental that was. And I think we need to do a really good job of making sure that transition is done in a thoughtful way.

Sustainability in every part of a business

McNiel: Do you have a recent success story of how Drawdown Labs has helped a public company kind of walk through this transition?

Alexander: So a lot of the work that we do with our business partners is around aligning with a kind of a multidimensional approach to climate leadership where emissions reductions is one major part and it’s step number one, but it’s also looking at how the business can leverage their other influence. So their political influence, where they bank and their employees retirement plans, where those are invested, using that as a leverage point to move capital away from extractive industries and toward climate solutions. And then we look at, as we were just discussing, business model transformation and longer-term thinking and how that conversation can be moved forward.

I would say there’s no one public company that I know of that is doing all of those things that is aligning 100% out of every side of the business with climate action, but there’s definitely leadership happening now around how companies can offer their employees green 401ks as the default, so that all of that money that their employees are saving for retirement is not going against their sustainability goals, is not being invested in fossil fuel companies, but is being invested in climate solutions. There’s a lot of conversation around finance emissions for public companies, like where their corporate cash is going. Right now there’s no big bank that can take a company like Google’s money and, that is not invested in–

McNiel: Guarantee that it’s not going into oil extraction or something like that?

Alexander: Yeah, exactly. And so the question there now is, well, what can we do as a large public company, what do we do now? How do we work with banks to encourage them and to use the aggregated demand from these companies to shift banking practices.

McNiel: And I think it’s really smart of your organization to speak to the community that I’m in as business professionals, like a business professional. This is a professional plan. It’s like, “Hey, if you follow these steps, you’re going to make progress towards mitigating climate change.” For me, I guess the next question is what role do you play to the average corporation that’s not a big public entity, but maybe a few hundred employees that want to be socially conscious? Can they pull a page out of your playbook and just go implement it on their own? Or what do you recommend to a company that aspires one day to be a B Corp?

Alexander: The core principle of our work is really to encourage that sustainability and ESG is integrated into every part of the business. That’s essentially what I think we’re trying to drive. And that concept is relevant whether you’re a hundred person company or Amazon. That means that climate action is being embedded into sales teams and maybe incentivizing certain kinds of sales over others. That means climate action is embedded into the HR job function, into legal. That makes sustainability central. Whereas right now, I think it’s still sort of either like a Skunkworks project or something that’s happening on the side that when there are big layoffs, it’s easy to sort of deprioritize sustainability. So I think whether you’re a small company or a large, publicly traded corporation, embedding climate across your business as central to the business and the business model is relevant. And so we really look for where are there opportunities to get some accountability. And you can find accountability when you write legal contracts that require certain kinds of suppliers, require that their suppliers all have emissions-reductions targets, or tie executive compensation to the achievement of climate targets. So things like that we really look for. Because emissions reductions is such a difficult thing to measure. A company’s ability to reduce their emissions by 2040 — it’s a very difficult thing to measure where they are on that journey on any given day. But there are other things that are measurable. And so those are the things we look at as well to help be a guide for measurable climate action.

“We really look for where are there opportunities to get some accountability.”

McNiel: Is there an example or a gold standard within the public company space, particularly in the U.S., that you would point to and say, “Hey, be more like that company”?

Alexander: I would point to a couple. I think Google is doing a great job of using their business superpower for climate action. Google is one of the world’s biggest energy users, right? They have 2 billion users around the world using Google. And so using that superpower as a big energy user, they sort of embedded in their climate work that one of their goals is to green the electrical grid everywhere they operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So they made this 24/7 carbon-free energy commitment. And they have been really evangelizing that idea and working with other big energy users to similarly work together to decarbonize the grid. And that will have an impact far beyond Google, right? Because when the electrical grid is green, then that means that the energy that individuals use in their households is good for the world, not just for Google’s business.

McNiel: Has Google made a 2030s commitment to net-zero ?

Alexander: That is a great question. I don’t know that off the top of my head.

McNiel: Because one thing you do know off the top of your head is that 75% of the carbon reductions that we need to make, we need to make in this decade, right?

“Every day there are greenhouse gas emissions churning into the atmosphere that are going to make it harder and harder and harder to clean up the longer we wait.”

Alexander: That was a major finding of our work over the last year at Project Drawdown. It was sort of this moment of, holy shit. This isn’t a 2050 conversation. If 75 percent of the action needs to happen this decade, we were way off in talking about this as a net-zero by 2050 conversation. And that was a big miss of science. 2050 is a planetary target and then what happened was corporations were like, “Oh, OK, if that’s a planetary target, let’s make that our individual business target.” But that’s not how the planet works, right? We need everyone to cross the finish line by 2050. And the big emitters to get there much, much, much sooner. And every day, there are greenhouse gas emissions churning into the atmosphere that are going to make it harder and harder and harder to clean up the longer we wait. And so, yes, you’re absolutely right that what happens this decade is the most important thing.

Corporate leadership’s role in sustainability

McNiel: Well, you’ve got also on your list of associations, you’ve got Salesforce, right? So Marc Benioff I think has made some statements about caring about climate. How important is leadership from the top? And is he walking the walk?

Alexander: I think it’s very important, leadership from the top. I think both are important, the grass tops and the grassroots, and we try to work at both levels. Working with employees to help hold their companies accountable and equip them. But of course, CEO and board-level leadership is essential and will make that easier across the board. I mean, I think the one thing that Salesforce has done that I think was really hopeful and innovative was they’re now centering a lot of their business around a product — I think it’s called Net Zero Cloud — that is central to their business now and is actually built in order to help other companies decarbonize. And so it’s not saying we need to cut parts of our business and we need to do less bad and we’re like punishing ourselves. It’s actually saying, “Hey, what we built as our core, cloud computing or CRM software is really beneficial. What if we used that in service of the climate?” And so they’re using their core business now to help other companies decarbonize. And I think the more that other companies can identify what their superpower is and use that to help the world get closer to our climate goals — that’s where I think capitalism and climate change are going to meet in the middle is my hope, if that is done well and if that is guided by science.

McNiel: Yeah, I’m still struggling with this notion of you standing up in a boardroom of a publicly traded company that’s got billions in profits and somehow convincing them to invest hundreds of millions, if not billions, into a net-zero clean climate initiative. You’ve taken different approaches, right? Because I think you’ve heard that some of that logic falls on deaf ears, right?

Alexander: Yeah.

“The more other companies can identify what their superpower is and use that to help the world get closer to our climate goals — that’s where I think capitalism and climate change are going to meet in the middle.”

McNiel: So you wanna mobilize the workforce. You want to build from the ground up inside of companies. What else do you recommend? If you’re an active employee inside of a company and you want to make a difference, what would you recommend to somebody?

Alexander: Yeah. It’s hard. I mean, I was very inspired by the work of the Amazon employees several years ago who started with a handful of people and said, “Wow, it’s crazy that Amazon does not have any climate targets.” This was before they made a big climate commitment. And they gathered 7,000 Amazon employees or more from across the business to write a letter to the board and say, “We are shareholders in this company. And retention matters and you having good talent matters and this issue matters to us. And here’s what we would like to see Amazon do.” And, whether that was directly tied to them making their climate commitment, which happened just like a couple months after that board meeting — I assume there was a strong link there that the employee pressure did accelerate Amazon’s decision to do that. I’m not saying this is like a call to arms for employees to push their companies publicly, but I am saying that employees have a lot of power and they’re not on the hook the way executives are to show a return on investment. They’re shielded from that. And so I think employees are a very powerful accountability mechanism.

“Employees are a very powerful accountability mechanism.”

McNiel: Yeah. Building some consensus inside at the grassroots level can have a big influence on management, that’s for sure. What do you do day-to-day in your organization? I mean, do you engage with corporations to help them on their path to net-zero ?

Alexander: So I do a combination of strategy and then direct engagement with our business and investor community. We bring our business partners together. We try to understand where there are pain points. We’re working with all of them around aligning with this more expansive and sort of multi-dimensional approach to corporate climate leadership. And we look for opportunities where their aggregated voice can be impactful, whether that’s around policy. Our business partners stepped up around the Inflation Reduction Act last year. We placed a full page ad in the “New York Times” calling on Congress to pass bold climate policy that many of our business partners signed onto. So we look for moments where we can aggregate the influence of the businesses and investors that we work with.

A hopeful vision for 2035

McNiel: The great thing about Drawdown — both the book and your organization — is that you guys are super hopeful that it’s not dealing in catastrophe and as you said, the doom and gloom of what climate change could be. But rather, what a healthy, electrified planet could look like, right? And so through your eyes, what does 2035 look like?

Alexander: The 2035 of my hopes looks like walkable cities with mass-electrified public transit that’s free. It looks like every building being retrofitted and electrified and connected and a clean electrical grid. 2035, to me, looks like the world has aligned around a just climate future, and all parts of the economy are marching toward that future together, where there’s not like villains and good guys. Whether you work inside of an oil company or inside of Salesforce or inside of a solar company, like we all have the same North Star and we have a gameplan for the ultimate vision. And we have already made significant strides toward that. But I think that’s sort of like the surround sound future that I think we need where everyone is sort of aligned around the same vision and we’re all in this together. I just really appreciate that we now can have the conversation about capitalism and climate, whereas I feel like for a long time that has been sort of a third rail, not being able to talk about growth, not being able to talk about potentially phasing out some parts of a business that are incompatible. That is now becoming slowly more of a conversation. And I think that is the million dollar question, and we have to stop ignoring it and really face it head on and tackle it together. And so I really appreciate the opportunity to go there with you today.

McNiel: Yeah, I think the one sector where maybe it becomes a third-rail topic is when you’re getting into the oil business. And being able to have a candid conversation about the positive impact that clean energy can have on the world’s energy sector is a great conversation because we need to double the power production that we have today in the next 30 years. And there’s a huge opportunity for Shell and Exxon and BP, who are amazing engineering companies, not just in terms of drilling oil, but building infrastructure, building power plants, building grid — all these different types of things. We’re going to employ more people to electrify the planet than we will ever need to drill for oil. Maybe there’s a bigger piece of pie for you to participate in rather than the one you’re hoarding.

Alexander: Exactly. I mean, I think that you just nailed it. I think that’s exactly right. We need to figure out how to have more of those conversations and make that point much more compellingly than I think we’ve been able to do in the past.

McNiel: Jamie, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and I really appreciate the work that you do, and I think you guys have a great organization.

Alexander: Thank you so much. It’s been really an honor to be here with you today, Jim. Thank you.

Good Clean Energy is edited and produced by Jennifer Hsu. Mixing and sound design by Wade Strange and Mike Clemow at SeeThruSound. Digital production by Katherine Wiles.

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