This edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Simon Mundy, Moral Money editor at the Financial Times. In the book Race for Tomorrow: Survival Innovation Profits on the Front Lines of Climate Crisis(William Collins Jan 2022), Mundy writes about his journeys to 26 countries to meet those at the frontlines in the climate crisis. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
What is the biggest gap in your book on the climate crisis?
There are some fantastic books already on the market on climate change, but I also think that most people haven’t read any of them. Why? The subject can be intimidating for many people. It can seem abstract. It’s full of complicated science and statistics. There’s been a lot of rhetoric around it on many sides. I felt that a book that didn’t get into polemic and instead focused on the negative sides of the story could be useful. It would show that there is something much bigger, which is the amazing human response.
All over the world, people from every walk of life—some of the richest people in the world and some of the poorest people in the world—are engaged in trying to respond to the challenge of climate change and the energy transition that it is forcing us to undertake. These stories are filled with incredible human stories.
I wanted to make the most out of it by sharing the stories of people who do extraordinary things in many cases or are facing extraordinary circumstances. It is the most powerful, dramatic, compelling, inspiring, terrifying, and most moving story in the world right now, and will continue to be for the rest my life. This is the greatest story of the century.
It might become less abstract to think about the big issues. The next time you hear about direct air capture, after having read my book, I would hope that it’s no longer just an abstract concept and that you’ll think, “Oh, yeah, that’s Edda and Christoph. That’s what they’re working on—this extraordinary project in Iceland to suck CO2 from the air and turn it into underground stone.” You start to associate the concepts with the actual people and the extraordinary stories behind them. This can be extremely useful for people.
What was the most alarming story about climate-change that you’ve come across?
There’s one thing that people need to think about, which is migration. As a result of the many impacts of climate change, people are already moving around the globe. This will get more severe. This was something I witnessed in Bangladesh.
Many people talk about the danger that parts of Bangladesh will end up underwater. What’s happening right now is the intrusion of salty water linked to rising sea levels and storm surges across much of southwestern Bangladesh—areas that were historically rice-farming areas. Rice farming is labor-intensive and provides employment for many people. Many places are becoming too salty to support rice. You’re seeing rice-farming areas turning into shrimp-farming areas.
There are many positive aspects to shrimp farming. It can generate a lot of foreign revenue. But it’s less labor intensive. It can also increase soil salinity. It can lead to people who were once rice farmers but are now homeless or landless. They’re moving in enormous numbers to cities, predominantly Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
I saw the situation in the southwest. I understood the reasons people moved. I witnessed communities being hit by rapidly increasing levels of infant death and miscarriage. This is a huge health problem and people are addressing it. It is becoming seawater. It’s horrific. In many cases, they are forced to flee. When they get to Dhaka, they’re staying in overcrowded slum areas that are incredibly unsanitary. The flow of people is growing stronger.
This is obviously a huge crisis, and it’s going be a crisis within developing countries. It will also be because people from developing nations, in their despair, will look to move to other countries to try to reach the developed countries. What does that mean for politics? In the US or Europe, what does it mean for politics? What effect does this have upon politics? Do you end up with politicians gaining influence by promising to keep out the “climate migrants”? That’s already started happening, hasn’t it? Are you ready for something more extreme?
These are important things to consider. While things that occur in developing countries may seem distant to many people, if they get serious, they can have an impact on people in the developed world. It was important to me to try and understand this side of the story in the book.
What was the most inspirational story you heard?
There were many. I want you to know that there were many. This book is not only about the problems but also about people who are trying to find solutions. Some of them were very inspiring.
There’s one area I want to focus on: the direct-air-capture business. It’s controversial, by the way. Many people believe that focusing on things such as direct air capture could lead to complacency. Potentially, people could start saying, “We don’t need to worry too much about emissions, because we can just suck them all out of the air.” I would agree that would be a stupid position to take.
However, we will continue to have residual CO2 emissions from things such as agriculture and aviation for some time. We already have far too much CO2In the atmosphere. We used to have 280 parts/million; now we have well above 400. It would be ideal to find ways to reduce emissions, even if they were eliminated completely. That is what’s happening here in this project. It’s two start-ups that started separately and have now joined forces.
Climeworks is one of them. It’s two young German engineers that started working together in Switzerland. They formed a company to seize CO.2The CO was extracted from the air by using a membrane, fan, and a container. It wasn’t clear to them how they would dispose of the CO2. Separately, Carbfix Iceland— a subsidiary of Reykjavík Energy, one of the area’s big electricity companies—was figuring out a way to pump CO2It was dissolved in water and deposited into the Icelandic basalt rock, where it would become limestone.
What we’ve been doing for several centuries now is take coal—a solid, carbon-rich substance from underground—burn it, and turn it into a gas, and up it goes into the atmosphere. They are now trying to extract that carbon gas from underground and turn it into stone underground. It’s almost a reversal of the problematic carbon process.
Climeworks technology is a box that suckers CO2 from the air, and it’s combined with the Carbfix Iceland technology that pumps the carbon underground, where it’s turned into limestone. Each individual box is about the size and dimensions of a passenger car. It can absorb up to 50 tons CO2A year without the atmosphere
Now, the global total greenhouse gas emissions is 50 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Effectively, to neutralize it, you would need a million of these machines. It sounds impossible. That’s what I said to Christoph Gebald, who’s one of the cofounders of Climeworks. He said, “Yes, it sounds impossible. It is easy to make these things than a car, considering that we make 90 to 100 million cars each year. If humanity really wanted to make 100 million of these boxes a year, it probably could.”
It was an interesting point that he made. It was a reminder to me that we can think at a large scale when it is time to address the climate crisis. This isn’t me saying we should make 100,000,000 boxes, but it could be done if we wanted.
Sometimes, during my research, people would talk on a scale so ambitious that it almost made me believe they were delusional. Then I thought, “Hold on a minute. The climate crisis itself is on an unprecedented, global, and massive scale. The level of sophistication that humanity has now achieved, in terms of various technological advances that we’ve made, is also amazing.”
One thing that I took away from my research was that we can be a hell of a lot more ambitious than we’ve been so far when it comes to tackling this crisis. The questions are: What areas will we focus on and how quickly can we increase the action in those areas.
One thing that I took away from my research was that we can be a hell of a lot more ambitious than we’ve been so far when it comes to tackling [the climate-change] crisis. The questions are: What will we be focusing on and how fast can we ramp up our action in those areas?
What did you learn about India and its water woes.
India’s an interesting case. I was there when I started the project. I was the Mumbai correspondent. Financial TimesI went on a trip with my wife, a few weeks after I arrived in India to check out a drought in Maharashtra. This is a region in west India that contains Mumbai.
What I saw was shocking; I’d never seen anything like it in my life before. Reservoirs were just completely empty, with cracked bottoms—the earth at the bottom of the reservoir was like a desert. There was not a drop of water. Maharashtra’s high suicide rate has been a national scandal. Every day, thousands of farmers kill themselves. It’s a terrible, terrible crisis.
Then, look at the trends behind that. The area’s average rainfall has been falling every decade. As the global climate changes have influenced rainfall patterns, the average rainfall in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region has been decreasing. I discussed this in my India chapter, as well as the debate surrounding how to deal.
Mahyco is a company in Maharashtra. It’s run now by Usha Zehr, the daughter of the late founder, B. R. Barwale. The founder was also a key figure in the Green Revolution in India. Zehr is speaking about this new stage of Indian technology for food. It was previously hybrid seeds. Now she wants to use genetic-engineering technology, whether it is what’s normally thought of as genetic modification, which involves taking a gene from one species and adding it to another species, or gene editing, where you’re not inserting a foreign gene but are simply changing genes one at a time. This is some of the most advanced technology that has been created recently. She is saying, “Look, this can save lives. This can give crops new properties that will make them more resistant to droughts and other climate impacts.”
Vandana Shiva was my first encounter in New Delhi. She is one the most prominent environmentalists worldwide. According to her, a small group of multinational companies are exploiting farmers by locking them into using certain seeds. She believes genetic engineering will make this problem worse. She’s strongly against it. She also raised concerns about the safety and efficacy of genetic engineering.
WHO has not found any cause for such concerns. But Vandana Shiva’s statements have fueled opposition to genetic-modification technology not only in India but all over the world. In Europe and North America, she’s become influential. This is causing opposition among some politicians to the widespread use genetic-modification technology. It’s a fierce debate.
Personally, I’m conscious of the opinion of bodies like WHO, which say that with genetic-modification technology, there’s no reason to worry about it more than any other form of plant breeding. But the fact is that it’s a live debate, and I thought it was an important debate to delve into. We need to think carefully about the best technology to help us face the extremely powerful effects of climate changes.
Do you have any thoughts on US technology start-ups that are working on the climate crisis?
I focused on technology start ups in the US. It was an interesting part of my journey. I was traveling all over the US, and I visited a company called Quidnet Energy that’s supported by Bill Gates, among others. It is so interesting because it’s using technology that was originally developed for the fracking industry, for the oil and gas industry. It’s using this for renewable-energy storage.
So how does it all work? A solar farm, for example, develops or produces excess electricity during the day that you want to store for the nighttime, when the sun’s not shining. The excess power can be used to power a pump that pumps underground water into a crack in ground. This is similar to fracking. It’s stored in there at high pressure, and then you close the tap. You’ve got this water at high pressure just sort of stored up underground. Later, you say, “Now it’s nighttime. We need to access that energy.” You open the tap. The water flows up at a high speed and drives the turbine. This generates electricity.
It is a new company, and it’s just starting to roll out that technology. It was incredible to see, especially as the people who worked on the project were formerly in the fracking industry. Talking to them, I noticed one thing that was very interesting was that they were proud of being part the solution. Increasingly, some people in the oil and gas industry are feeling uncomfortable with this sense that you’re just part of the problem. You suddenly realize that you can switch to the renewable-energy sector by using the same skills. Now you feel like you’re being part of the solution.
There’s a lot happening in the US. What’s interesting to me is that companies in the US, more than in other countries I visited, are pushing the envelope in terms of new technology. This was the most exciting part of my research.
What gave you hope during your trip to China?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I visited China in January 2020. I visited several of the leading companies in the Chinese cleantech space—BYD, for example, in Shenzhen. The cutting-edge technology at the US companies I mentioned was what was most impressive. There’s a lot of exciting technology also in China, but it was the scale of BYD that blew me away.
They have 40,000 people living in large dormitory buildings on one campus in Shenzhen. They’re making solar panels and electric monorail systems. It was amazing. Speaking of the COVID-19 pandemic, when that started, BYD became one of the world’s largest producers of surgical face masks almost overnight.
It’s amazing to see how fast and large a company such as BYD can move. Of course, we talk about it as a Chinese company, but Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is one of the big investors in there. These are international companies.
There’s a lot happening in China, as there is in the US. If you look at the larger, long-term strategic battle between China and the US as well as other countries around the globe, the race for the title of superpower in the clean energy era will be a bigger part.
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