In the summer of 2020, during a time that for many companies was the height of the pandemic’s disruptions, we surveyed energy and sustainability professionals about the impacts of COVID-19 on their programs. Among other findings, we discovered that, although access to financial resources was likely going to constrain energy or sustainability initiatives, the majority of companies were not slowing down on their sustainability goals, and many were prioritizing building efficiency, digital technologies, and renewable energy in their return to operations.
In 2021 we wanted to share an update on the latest pulse on corporate sustainability and climate action programs resulting from our most recent market research. In the updated edition of our Corporate Climate Action Databook, we asked CEOs and senior-level energy and sustainability professionals to report the biggest energy and sustainability challenges they are facing, how disruption and climate change are affecting their organization, and what strategies and technologies they are using to respond.
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Renewables, efficiency, and digitization have risen in importance
In 2021, companies are confident that clean technologies, digital solutions, and resource efficiency are key solutions to managing disruption and planning for future climate risk. Although these strategies all topped the 2020 list mid-pandemic, each has grown in significance this year. With 60% of companies reporting that disruption has caused them to pursue renewable energy, compared to 42% saying the same in 2020, there’s a clear signal that companies are eager to decarbonize their energy supply.
This result from our research is reinforced by market signals. Within our own client network, we’ve seen companies rapidly announcing new renewable energy deals and commitments. And with recent extreme weather events still top of mind, which took a serious toll on organizations heavily relying on natural gas, it’s no surprise that organizations are keen to diversify their energy mix by adding renewables. The impact of these events and the response in our survey lead us to agree: the faster the transition to a clean power grid, the better.
“To adapt to climate change, we are deploying smart technologies that increase the proportion of renewable energy and monitor and optimize energy consumption” – 2021 survey respondent
It’s also interesting to note that, 10 months later and with an end to the pandemic on the horizon, companies appear to have backtracked on their commitment to regular remote work and reduced air travel. We attribute this result to the relief of the most severe lockdowns from the pandemic being lifted and leaders feeling more comfortable navigating business in this disrupted world, and respondents feel more hopeful about an eventual return to normal working and business arrangements. But is this a missed opportunity to adapt business models permanently to make a longer-lasting impact on emissions? Only time will tell.
Climate change remains the top concern, but cybersecurity has grown the most
When asked about current or future risks to energy and resource supply, 51% of respondents in 2021 believe that climate change and its associated impacts were the greatest threat – more than any other option posed. Global momentum around climate action has significantly accelerated between 2020 and 2021, with many likening the disruptions from the global health crisis to what we are beginning to see already as a result of the climate crisis. Like the pandemic, companies are seeing that climate change has a material impact on almost every facet of their business. From stakeholder pressure, to dangerous weather causing damage to physical assets and supply chains, to changes in consumer behavior and preferences, respondents report that climate change is already affecting their operations in countless ways.
“Due to climate change, we have witnessed our supply chain to be less efficient. When our distribution system gets interrupted, we have to halt production” – 2021 survey respondent
Respondents also overwhelmingly agree (85%) that energy and sustainability programs are an opportunity to build resilience in their business. 100% of respondents also reported that they have either increased or maintained their investments in digitization in response to the disruption over the past year. Remote work and disrupted supply chains have accelerated the pursuit of digital solutions for many organizations. However, with increased digitization and the proliferation of AI and IoT comes increased concern over cybersecurity. As our way of working becomes progressively more connected and automated, companies are keeping a close watch on their exposure to cyber risks.
Innovative funding surges in the face of resource and CapEx constraints
For years, our research has indicated that companies were underutilizing innovative funding mechanisms, such as Energy-as-a-Service (EaaS), green bonds, and power purchase agreements (PPAs), to finance energy and sustainability initiatives. While we have seen incremental growth in these alternatives to CapEx over time, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that companies’ plans to use these mechanisms overtook the more traditional routes to financially resourcing new projects.
“The biggest challenge over the past 12 months for us has been building a plan where energy and sustainability efforts act as assets rather than liabilities in the balance sheet.” – 2021 survey respondent
In 2021, after months of cost containment and competing priorities—operational continuity has been the main focus for many organizations during the pandemic—necessity has given rise to innovative funding. With so many companies trying to reconcile their ambitious commitments to climate action and sustainability with newfound resource constraints, they’ve finally taken serious consideration of new ways of financing energy and sustainability investments. Interest in PPAs has dramatically increased, taking the top spot (46%) of respondents planning to fund energy and sustainability initiatives in the future. Green bonds, EaaS and performance contracting also saw huge jumps over our previous two years of research. As a result of compounding crises that have put a prolonged strain on budgets, it seems that innovative funding has finally made the breakthrough we’ve been predicting since 2019.
With each set of research we conduct, climate action is consistently becoming more important and embedded in organizational strategies. Explore our latest databook for more facts and figures on the state of corporate climate action in 2021.