What I will cover this year

5 key focus areas

Hi lovely people,

Happy New Year. Given we’re already 1% of the way into it, I hope it’s off to a great start. I hope your year is blessed and that you find the resolve to reach for the things for which you yearn. I’m rooting for ya.

Today’s newsletter outlines Keep Cool’s content coverage intentions for 2024.

The newsletter in <40 words: In 2024, Keep Cool will increasingly cover a) challenges and solutions beyond carbon dioxide, b) agriculture in general, c) commercialization in industry, d) things that aren’t working, e) ‘intangibles’ and the power of story.


In this piece from 2023, where I was interviewed about why I do what I do, I discussed why writing a newsletter is, in practice, not altogether dissimilar from taking an investor or policymaker's mindset:

Writing is a form of capital allocation… [directing] attention is a form of capital allocation. There's a finite amount of attention that people can pay to things in the world, the same way there's some finiteness surrounding things like human capital … and financial capital.

All of that is a highfalutin way of saying that if you command even a few people's attention, you have some responsibility to direct it responsibly. Here's where I intend to direct my (and your) attention in 2024. The topic areas below won't be the only things we cover. But I'll come back to them regularly. 

1. Beyond carbon dioxide

One thing I find myself chafing against almost daily in my canvassing of information about and coverage of climate change and climate technologies is how much focus there is on carbon dioxide and the power sector and transportation. It’d be a shame if one of the things that came out of this decade of climate work was an overallocation of attention on these things at the expense of others. 

Part of the reason I think this happens is because the power sector and transportation are areas where we've made appreciable progress. At least in terms of things like cost curves (see below for EV batteries) that resonate with technologists' and venture capitalists' brains, as well as actual deployment of technology and infrastructure in the real world.

Rapid decreases in the cost of various battery technologies

I take no issue with this; doubling down on areas where progress is being made makes sense because a) it’s good to have things to be excited about, and b) it’s good to put resources into things that are already ‘working.’ I’d also be the last person to suggest that any single ounce of focus on carbon dioxide is inherently misplaced. CO2 is a powerful driver of global warming, especially the longer the time horizon you’re concerned with. CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for centuries; some of the CO2 emissions emitted today will be industriously at work warming the planet when your grandchildren have grandchildren. We’ll be paying our CO2 debts for many decades to come. 

That said, climate change is about much more carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is roughly half the global warming ‘story.’ Methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and many other factors all play significant roles in driving warming, especially on shorter time frames, say, out to 2050. 

Similarly, global warming is just one of many climate change ‘stories.’ Greenhouse gasses are just one problem. To offer a pretty well-trodden example, tire pollution from vehicles encapsulates my point pretty well. Yes, tailpipe emissions, including CO2 and nitrous oxide, are a principal problem associated with internal combustion engine vehicles. That said, all cars, including EVs, produce a lot of pollution as their tires wear on roads. According to one estimate, 78% percent of the microplastics in oceans come from synthetic tire rubber. Those microplastics end up in fish, which end up on your plate, meaning they end up in your body. The long-term consequences of that are unclear, but are unlikely to be fun.

How many ‘climate’ problems can you see in this picture? I spy at least seven (Shutterstock).

We could wave a magic wand and collectively cut global carbon dioxide emissions to zero tomorrow and still find ourselves in a deep quagmire of other nested climate challenges. I say that not to discourage anyone, but rather as a reminder that some – or indeed many of us – should spend our time and efforts beyond carbon dioxide. 

2. Agriculture

If you digest a lot of climate content, you’re often inundated with statistics and data about how many greenhouse gasses or what % of global warming a certain industry or commodity or practice accounts for. One thing to note is that the methodologies for calculating these data points vary widely. It isn’t difficult for things to get a bit lost in translation. To take one example, you can easily find statements that state that buildings account for up to ~40% of carbon dioxide emissions. Or, you could find visualizations, like this one, that say they account for less than 6%. Confusing! 

The thing is, depending on where you draw ‘the box’ around a specific sector or ‘thing’ influences these calculations a great deal. Do the emissions from the built environment include just the emissions associated with the raw materials that go into the building, such as the emissions-intensive concrete, steel, glass, and more? Do you count the emissions associated with the electricity and heating and cooling systems used by the building? And if you’re going to concern yourself with all greenhouse gasses, how do you compare the impact of various greenhouse gasses to one another? In that exercise, the time frames you choose matter a great deal.

An aerial view of deforestation in the Ecuadorian Amazon in service of cattle farming (Shutterstock)

I offer this setup to qualify the argument I’m about to make. I could very easily argue that of all the major sectors out there, agriculture is the single most significant contributor to a cascade of climate challenges, including but not limited to global warming. Here’s a short list of its impacts:

  • Food: Methane emissions from cows, as well as from rice farming, biomass decomposition, and wasted food that ends up in landfills, will be a primary of global warming out to 2050 (if not the single most significant driver of global warming).

  • Deforestation: One-third of all land globally is devoted to agriculture in some capacity. Clearing land for agriculture or cattle grazing is a leading driver of deforestation and the loss of other ecosystems, which drives biodiversity loss and turns carbon sinks (whether forests, peatlands, or other) into net additional sources of emissions.

  • Land degradation: The way we manage most agricultural land is inherently unsustainable. The Midwestern U.S., a bastion agriculture, loses topsoil 25 times faster than it takes new topsoil to form. At the most basic level, the land we use for agriculture today may not support nearly as much production of nutritious food in 25 years.

  • Other greenhouse gasses and pollution: Synthetic fertilizer use drives a lot of nitrous oxide emissions and a lot of nitrogen pollution. Making it also accounts for 1% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The more you unravel layers of the ag story, the more challenges you find.

Beyond these challenges themselves, the reason I want to focus on agriculture more is because, unlike the power sector and transportation, it often feels like there’s less progress to hang our hats on and get excited about. Major shifts in how the world produces electricity and how people and goods move around are underway. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but it doesn’t strike me that there are significant shifts underway in the way the world produces food for a steadily growing population.

3. Commercialization in industry

It likely isn’t news to many climate practitioners that another area where progress is less rapid than in the power sector and transportation is in ‘heavier’ industry. Reducing emissions from transportation or from electricity production is often a bit simpler than reducing emissions from, say, producing cement and steel, or producing chemicals. One reason for this is that emissions from things like cement are two-fold. There are emissions associated with the electricity and heat used to produce it. But emissions are also a direct byproduct of chemical reactions inherent to making cement or in ‘reducing’ iron ore to steel. 

For example, making cement begins with heating limestone and clay. When limestone is heated and rotated in a kiln, it splits into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide. The calcium oxide is then used, along with other materials, to make cement. The carbon dioxide, however, is a direct byproduct of the production process, accounting for about half of the emissions associated with producing cement. To reduce that half of cement’s emissions footprint, you’re effectively asking the world to make cement in a fundamentally different way than it has since the 19th century. Considering cement is one of the few products the world produces at billion tonne scale, that’s a tall order. 

What cement production in the Ukraine (and the world-over) looks like. Not hard to see the emissions-footprint! (Shutterstock)

As it pertains to industry, what I’m most interested in tracking this year (and for the rest of this decade) are the various projects spawning worldwide that intend to reduce the emissions intensity of commodity-like products like cement, steel, aluminum, fertilizer, and more. 

For a few examples (interestingly, all from Sweden), H2 Green Steel is building the world’s first large-scale green steel plant, where it will use 700 MW worth of hydrogen electrolyzers to produce up to 5M metric tons of green steel by 2030 via a hydrogen-based direct reduction process. It aims to start operating the plant by late 2025. Similarly, Ovako opened a steel mill in September of 2023 that uses green hydrogen for the heating component of steel production. Hofors aims to reduce emissions from their steel mills by 80% by 2030. 

Elsewhere, back on the cement beat, HeidelbergCement has been developing a ‘carbon-neutral’ cement plant since 2021. The plant is slated to launch by 2030 and aims to use carbon dioxide capture technology to trap the dioxide emissions from cement production before they reach the atmosphere. Specifically, the plant will feature ~1.8M tonnes of annual carbon capture capacity. 

These plans are very cool. But the question is, will they come to bear? Will the plants come online on time? Will they cost what they were forecast to cost? Will they produce steel and cement at prices buyers will pay? Tracking these questions is essential. Without a plan for cement and steel and many other commodities (including agricultural ones), deeper emissions reduction won’t happen.

4. Things that aren’t working

As my 2023 ‘year in review’ piece offered, as far as collective climate action is concerned, we’re both doing a lot and simultaneously not doing enough. This can feel a bit like running on a hamster wheel. Paradoxically, something I think will help is spending more time dissecting what isn’t working, whether it’s a technology, a business model, or an argument. Once a week, I hear about a climate tech company that’s going out of business. We should pay attention to why this is happening. 

I read Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster over the holidays. It’s a good book; it's very direct and digestible. That said, in reading it roughly three years post-publication, it was already interesting to pick up on solutions Gates touted that aren’t fairing well. The same is true of Speed and Scale by John Doerr, which I’m halfway through right now.

Specifically, both champion the success of plant-based meat companies, like Beyond Meat. In 2020 and 2021, Beyond Meat was flying high. The company IPO’d in 2019, selling shares for $25 a piece, raising more than $200M in the process. In 2021, it recorded a high watermark market capitalization of more than $12B. It seemed like the company was well on its way to offering a viable alternative to beef and other meat that could actually sell. Investors loved it, and consumers were at least giving it a shot.

Today, the company’s market capitalization is less than $1B. The company made less money in its last full fiscal year than the one that preceded it, and it lost twice as much money (it has never turned a profit over a full fiscal year). None of this is to say the company is doomed. Tesla, now one of the world’s most valuable companies, almost went under twice and has returned more than 95% of its value after its first ten years of operation. Things take time.

Still, from where I sit, I’m frankly not bullish on the biggest plant-based meat players. Perhaps they’ll survive. But will they significantly dampen global demand for meat? I doubt it. 

Global meat production continues to rise, unabated by enthusiasm for plant-based alternatives

Playing this role, of cataloging where progress is getting bogged down, doesn’t bring me joy. That said, I do think reflecting on things that haven’t worked out the way we planned is time well spent. Often, the best shifts you can make in your personal life are not, at least at first, adding net new, positive practices. Instead, first cutting out habits that are the most draining on your health or energy is typically an excellent place to start.

I think the same holds for climate work. What should we stop doing that’s taking up time, money, and attention? The ideal execution of this practice is empowering, freeing, even. Not defeatist. It’s an invitation to re-orient, reallocate resources, and imagine better ways forward, unencumbered by fetters of past failures.

5. Intangibles and the power of story

There are many things that, at first blush, seem unrelated to ‘climate’ that could have outsized impacts on the trajectory of climate work and action. Take, for instance, grocery prices. If you live in the U.S., as you’ve likely experienced, they’re high! We’ll circle back to them in a minute. 

Then there’s the 2024 U.S. presidential election. I hate to be the guy to bring this onto your radar. Regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, I reckon we can agree election years are an attention drain. So far, Trump leads Biden in early polling in many swing stakes. 

Suffice it to say, a Republican administration in the U.S. would be less friendly to supporting climate work with policy or federal funding. Insofar as the U.S. has taken a leadership role in supporting climate technologies since 2020 – a leadership role that has encouraged progress in lots of other jurisdictions globally – if the U.S. takes a backseat again, that would suck.

The reason I named this category ‘intangibles’ is because things like the election are influenced as much by the stories people tell each other as they are by any data point or statistic, technology, or policy. The election itself isn’t intangible. It is a very tangible, discrete event that will soon dominate many media headlines. What’s less tangible are things like the story that Biden’s admin hasn’t managed the economy well. This story is strong, regardless of whether it’s ‘true’ or whether any president or administration has much impact on the economy, inflation, or, to come full circle, grocery prices, in the first place. 

This intangible, story-led dynamic mirrors much of climate work, too. The stories we tell each other about climate change and climate work are very influential and memetic. Climate change isn’t intangible. It’s happening all around us. What is less tangible are the questions we ask ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves about them, whether to motivate, self-soothe, or guide our efforts and how we process what’s happening. Are we making progress? Are we focused on the right things? Is climate work resilient to the stochastic whims of the market, election cycles, or the many seasons of our individual lives as human beings? What we believe to be true about these questions, what stories we feel the strongest affinity with and repeat to others, will reflexively influence what does happen in 2024, or out to 2030, or out to 2050. 

Mind what stories you’re being told. Mind what stories you’re being sold. Mind what stories you’re telling yourself. Mind what stories you’re telling others. Ask yourself, once in a while, “What if that story isn’t true?” 

P.S. if you’re excited to support Keep Cool in 2024 and get good value out of your work, here’s a humble reminder you can support our efforts here:

I’m excited to unpack these topics this year. Got ideas, thoughts, suggestions? Let me know!

– Nick