Author Talks: Can OKRs solve our planet’s climate crisis?

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with John Doerr, investor and the chairman of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. In his new book, Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now (Penguin Random House, November 2021), Doerr offers an actionable plan to conquer humanity’s greatest challenge: climate change. What follows is an edited version of their conversation, with quotations from the book by policy leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, and activists interspersed throughout (in blue).

What gives you hope on this issue?

There’s no guarantee we’re going to cut our carbon emissions in time. We’ve got a very, very long way to go, and we’re not moving nearly fast enough. But there are a few things that give me hope, compared with 12 or 14 years ago. First of all, there’s tens of millions of climate activists, who are now getting mobilized, and I’m truly inspired by the international school strikes. In 2018, Greta Thunberg was one student. In September 2019, she mobilized four million people around the world.

We have to act now, and I believe there is collective energy to act now. With the Climate Pledge … we now have more than one hundred signatory companies with $1.4 trillion in annual revenue and more than five million employees around the world. You can’t get to net zero on your own .…To make the kind of change we’re talking about, you have to get these supply chains to move together.

Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman, Amazon

A second reason for hope is the commitments of Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 global companies, like Apple and Walmart, to reduce or zero out their emissions as early as 2030. Third, there’s the potential for really radical innovation to make clean energy more affordable. Cost is what really matters here. Whether it’s better batteries, green hydrogen, or low-carbon cement, we have an enormous amount of work to do in innovation. Finally, there’s awe-inspiring pressure from employees, shareholders, and investors: $29 trillion of investor capital is now committed to push corporations for sustainability. All of these give me hope.

The world is not in good shape. Our sense of urgency has to be higher and our goals need to aim higher. We set a goal in 2019 to achieve net-zero emissions in our own operations, without offsets, by 2040. At the same time, we need to not only slow the harm and get to carbon neutral, but to find ways to add back ….We’re out to become a regenerative company.

Doug McMillon, president and chief executive officer, Walmart

What surprised you the most in writing this book?

A few things. I knew this was a complicated topic, but I didn’t grasp the enormity of the challenge when I began the book. First of all, let’s talk about speed. According to the United Nations, at the world’s current rate of carbon emissions, we’re going to cross the red line into irreversible climate damage in less than seven years. They say the global carbon budget that we can extend or emit is 400 gigatons, so the clock is ticking. Then there’s the scale of the problem. To reach carbon net zero, which is the only way to control global warming, we can’t just decarbonize the grid or electrify transportation or improve our food systems or any of the many other emissions cuts that are in our book.

If we don’t achieve what we need to between 2020 and 2030, we can’t achieve net zero by 2050. We cannot afford to simply wait to discover something. That would be the height of irresponsibility and recklessness .…Glasgow1 is the most immediate moment where the world can come together and address this crisis.

John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate

We’re also going to literally have to remove carbon from the atmosphere and pump—the estimates are—five billion tons of CO2 underground every year. Five billion tons. That’s the equivalent of running the entire global oil industry in reverse. All in all, this is a bigger mobilization than what we had in World War II, when you’ll remember the Allied factories stopped making cars and appliances to make 14,000 battleships and 286,000 airplanes. It’s the enormity of the challenge that really came home
as I did the research.

Atmospheric CO2 has risen dramatically over the past 200 years.

Tell us about the ten big objectives you set out.

They’re pragmatic and based on actions grounded in the current science. If we focus on the things that matter—not the bright, shiny objects, but the essence of this plan—there are ten big, truly global objectives by which we’ll directly cut or remove carbon emissions, including how we electrify transportation, how we decarbonize the grid, how we feed ten billion people, how we protect our forests and our oceans, how we clean up concrete and steel, essential materials, and then remove the stubborn carbon that’s left in the atmosphere.

You need to be willing to do the right thing—and, frankly, your employees expect it .…It’s not a choice between stakeholder capitalism versus shareholder capitalism; they’re inextricably linked.

Mary Barra, chairman and CEO, General Motors

Ten big solutions, coupled with four accelerators, can allow us to get this job done in time. We can’t wait until 2060 to solve this problem. If we enact the right policies, turn movements into action, we innovate like crazy, and invest like our lives depended on it—because they do—those distinguishing elements of this plan, based on Objectives and Key Results, give me hope.

Will we see a global embrace?

For each of these ten objectives, there’s a handful of key results that, if we achieve them, will meet the objective that’s put forth. Those are the specifics of speed and scale. Now, that’s in the context of a planet that’s been miserable in our response to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s clear that being science based, having steady and consistent leadership, and investing ahead of the problem are relevant to the climate crisis.

It is our fiduciary responsibility to make sure the companies in which we invest on behalf of our clients are addressing these material issues, both in managing climate risks and capturing opportunities to grow their business .…Can capitalism shape the curve of climate change? The answer is yes. I believe it can. But we have a lot more work to do.

Larry Fink, chairman and chief executive officer, BlackRock

The first principle here, I believe, is that in a global economy, global markets are going to push countries to pursue what’s in their national self-interest. Two points about that. The transition to the net-zero economy is the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century. In fact, there’s 25 million new net jobs to be had this decade. The second powerful point is the hard reality of the climate crisis. No country is going to solve this climate crisis by itself. We are going to swim or sink together.

A just transition will require a holistic approach. We need an economic shift, and a living-wage shift, and an educational-attainment shift, and an economic-opportunity shift. We must address every piece of the puzzle.

Dr. Margot Brown, associate vice president, Environmental Justice and Equity Initiatives, Environmental Defense Fund

How will this work for, say, India?

What will it take to get India to commit to net zero, or even harder, get Russia, as an example, to commit to net zero? They’re two really very different cases. For India, clean energy is seen by the leadership, and by the world, as an opportunity to leapfrog dirty fossil fuels.

The game will be won or lost in the developing countries. The United States has about half of the entire globe’s innovation power. We owe it to the world to use that power to reduce green premiums and enable countries like India to say yes to these solutions.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What the developed world has to do is make clean-energy solutions more affordable for everyone. For example, electric vehicles will be competitive in the US at $35,000. In India, they must be $11,000 to compete with the internal-combustion engine, to overcome what Bill Gates calls the green premium. At the grid level in India, they’ve declared a national mission to become a global leader in solar energy. To do so, they’re going to need substantial financing from wealthier countries, namely the US, China, and members of the European Union.

What about Russia?

Russia is an entirely different story. The question becomes what can push Russia into solar and wind? Here, the most powerful lever is going to be the market. A global price on carbon or carbon-bordered tariff adjustments could force Russia to reassess its energy policy. But even without a carbon price, Russia is swimming against the renewable-energy tides.

There’s another petrostate that recently took a different course. That’s Saudi Arabia. Despite its huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is hedging its bets by launching one of the world’s biggest solar programs. The Saudis have done the math. They know that the countries that don’t embrace a clean-energy future are going to lose out.

Livestock supply chains are an important contributor to climate change.

Your daughter inspired you to write the book. Is it enough for her?

As a father, I can assure you Mary will not be satisfied by the book, and for very good reason: it’s because we’ve got a long way to go. This action plan contains ten objectives: big, hairy goals. Each one is supported by a handful of key results, each of which is essential to getting us to net zero. So the action that I’m looking for—that Mary’s looking for, that we want the world to look for—is to measure our success based on these key results.

We’re going to be tracking those at I invite you to join us on this crusade because this is humanity’s greatest challenge, and we are quickly running out of time. We need to activate leaders from all walks of life to move others to act before it’s too late. And that means that we need the leader inside of you, inside of everyone in your audience.

Thinking ahead with a multidecade time frame allows you to take moonshots, to be very ambitious ….Looking to 2030, we aim to run everything carbon free, 24/7. That means every query on Google, every Gmail you send, every transaction on the Google cloud will be done without emissions. We don’t fully know how to get there. We need more innovation. We also need more project financing.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer, Alphabet

Here’s one thing I’ve learned, over my career, from Andy Grove—when teams set truly audacious goals, with a plan to meet them, the results can surpass all expectations. We have an action plan, and we need to get to net zero. We’re going to go for the gigatons. Six of our ten objectives directly cut or remove carbon emissions: those are how we electrify transportation, decarbonize the grid, feed ten billion people, protect our forests and our oceans, clean up concrete and steel, and remove the stubborn carbon that’s left in the atmosphere.

Then, because we have to do this in time, there are four accelerators to get the job done. We need to enact the right policies, turn movements into action, innovate like crazy, and invest like our lives depended on it, because they do. What sets our plans apart is that this has been built on Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs, Andy Grove’s proven goal-setting system. Each of these ten objectives is supported by a handful of measurable key results so we can show exactly how we are going to achieve them.

My beloved husband Steve [Jobs] had time to consider his legacy and his ripple effect, how a life can have lasting meaning. That has also resided in me. What can I do with my time on the planet that is purposeful to me and to others? ….Here is a big lesson we learned: you have to address everything at the same time.

Laurene Powell Jobs, founder, Emerson Collective

What went into turning your plans into a book?

We began with the science—the bewildering array of reports—and said, “We want to be grounded in that and reach out to leaders in the field.” We conducted over 100 interviews and gathered 1,000 different data points, which we verified. There’s 500 research footnotes in the back of the book. We came to the conclusion that we didn’t need another book on climate itself, and we didn’t need to inspire people for individual actions; that’s really expected. We targeted the book at the leader inside of each of us. That’s the part of us that can move others, because we urgently need action now.

This is the decisive decade. So with interviews and with research, we said, “Let’s apply a proven framework for achieving audacious goals: the Objectives and Key Results. And rather than let the case rest with a precise but dry recital of what must be done, let’s enliven the book with stories from entrepreneurs, from activists, from youth, from policy makers—both their struggles and their successes.”

As for top priorities for Glasgow [COP26], I would love to see what we wanted in Paris to finally be made a reality: a global price on emissions because carbon price is so critical to decarbonizing entire economies and to fighting deforestation.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010–16)

Honestly, I cheated a little bit. I’m an engineer and I have a hard time with words. So literally half to two-thirds of the book consists of the words of Jeff Bezos and Mary Barra and John Kerry and others. I think those stories are what’s memorable, and they make this all-important agenda come to life. My dream is that we’ll come out into the world right at the time of COP26, and we can use this as a framework to judge how far the nations have gone in their commitments and then, importantly, hold them to these actions.

1COP26: The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, in Glasgow, from October 31 to November 13, 2021.

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