CEOs are still bullish on decarbonization in wake of Inflation Reduction Act

CEOs speaking at the Fortune discussion focused on decarbonization were especially bullish about the tailwinds from the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes nearly $400 billion in federal funding to clean energy.
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Within the next two decades, an estimated 90% of U.S. businesses will face a physical risk to their business. 

“A large part of our economy is going to have a weather-related impact,” said Douglas Peterson, president and CEO of S&P Global, offering a dire warning while speaking at Fortune’s CEO Roundtable on Thursday. He said the U.S. is highly exposed to physical risks because so much of our economy is coastal.

While data shows that the 2015 Paris Agreement pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is off track, governments are starting to move and make changes to frameworks that determine regulation, financial incentives, and taxation. These are all changes that aren’t enough to turn the tide and save the Paris Agreement, but they are leading companies to rethink their investments and the pace in which they make them as it pertains to the energy transition.

CEOs speaking at the Fortune discussion focused on decarbonization were especially bullish about the tailwinds from the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes nearly $400 billion in federal funding to clean energy. Europe’s Green Deal Industrial Plan to enhance the competitiveness of the net-zero industry—while not as immediately impactful—is also a step in the right direction.

“We are investing in the U.S.,” said Ilham Kadri, CEO of Solvay, a Belgian-French multinational chemical company that last year announced a plan to build a $850 million plant in Georgia to manufacture electric vehicle battery parts.

And while business continues to face pressures from inflation, job cuts in once-hot industries like tech, and the banking sector’s crisis in the wake of the failure of Silicon Valley Bank, top executives say decarbonization is still on the agenda. 

“It is not about cost and competitiveness or climate, but we would say, use climate to achieve both,” said Christoph Schweizer, CEO of Boston Consulting Group. Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO of Genpact, was in agreement. “People are protecting long-term investments, even in this environment,” said Tyagarajan. “And I would call out this energy transition as a long-term investment that people are trying to protect.” 

“We think the energy transition is alive and well and actually the aspects of affordability, sustainability, and security are going to lead us to accelerate the energy transition,” said Lorenzo Simonelli, chairman and CEO of oil field services giant Baker Hughes. “But I think it has to be pragmatic.” 

Simonelli says LNG, in particular, is going through a multi-year upcycle that should be supported, as it is the easiest way to immediately drive reduction of carbon emissions. But he says the elements of accounting as it pertains to scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 needs to be worked through as it pertains to regulation.

At Entergy, which delivers electricity to 3 million utility customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, incentives created by the Inflation Reduction Act have led to strong growth opportunities for electrical sales, at a level that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s. 

“Our investors—our customers—are looking at 30-year, 40-year investments,” said Drew Marsh, chairman and CEO of Entergy. “They are thinking about how do we get the first mover advantage and how do we take advantage of the clean energy infrastructure that is already along the coasts.” He said before the Inflation Reduction Act, they had projected a 6% increase in sales growth from industrial customers. But the legislation will likely boost that even more.

George Oliver, chairman and CEO of Johnson Controls—which helps make more sustainable buildings—says he’s educating the public and private sector about the importance of transforming how we build. Buildings represent about 40% of the global carbon. 

“Buildings have been less strategic over time and have gotten a lot less of the capital to be able to upgrade,” said Oliver. “You cannot get to net zero without addressing buildings.”

Even with the keen focus on revisiting major investment decisions in the wake of the Inflation Reduction Act, leaders say there’s still a lot of gaps that must be addressed before the money is deployed. “We believe talent is huge,” said Schweizer. Limitations include not enough workers who are knowledgeable about how to write grants for the billions the government intends to spend on clean energy. And questions remain as to who will plan, install, and operate all of the new clean energy technology.

“From an economic perspective, I think these policies are designed in a way that are attractive and incentivize domestic production,” said Tom Baker, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. “But the problem is going to be the pace.” As an example, he cites the solar manufacturing industry, which has incentives to be developed in the U.S. but the first step—silicon production—requires two to four years to set up and almost a decade before a payback period.

Banks are also sorting out what this all means to balance sheets. “There is going to be disruption to the economy as we go through the set of rules and how much liquidity you are going to have to hold on your deposit base, particularly for the regional banks,” said Dave McKay, president and CEO of RBC. “As we mature the technologies, you will be able to put more of the medium duration risk-taking onto our balance sheets.”

Ron O’Hanley, chairman and CEO of State Street, advocates for changes to the accounting of decarbonizing a portfolio. He cites the example of a U.S. firm opting to invest in a LNG plant in Germany and replace coal. While it is ultimately good for the environment to replace coal, this type of investment actually counts against scope 1 and scope 2, resulting in a regulatory disincentive.

McKay notes there are some signs of investor concerns regarding the risk to the energy transition, pointing to the “significant” outflows recently from ESG ETFs, which have lagged in performance against non-ESG benchmarks. While investors aren’t showing they are particularly calm today, McKay says he sees “a lot of momentum and energy.” He advocates for greater patience for unproven technologies, which can come with risk, but also be successfully integrated into the economy.

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