The CEO of the world’s most sustainable company talks about going carbon-Free

Announced in February as the world’s most sustainable company, Schneider Electric develops systems that manage electricity for business and industry - writes David Vetter in Forbes. In recent years, the energy and automation firm worked with companies such as Walmart, Marriott and Deloitte to improve the energy efficiency of their properties.

Schneider’s CEO, Jean-Pascal Tricoire claimed that companies similar to his will be key to delivering on net zero emissions target. To demonstrate this, the firm has committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025, five years earlier than previously expected.

This shift is supported by Schneider’s steady economic growth: the company’s share price doubled over the past two years and continues to rise in spite of the pandemic. Moreover, Schneider ranked #1 for sustainability out of an assessment of over 8000 companies by research firm Corporate Knights, demonstrating to be true pioneers of green technology.

“We have two competing objectives which are essential. The first one is that everybody gets access to energy, because energy gives you access to a decent life. But at the same time we need to reduce emissions by a factor of two in the next 20 years” - says Tricoir, a devotee of electricity, who is keen to point out that the combustion technology we employ today is deeply inefficient.

Even before decarbonization became a global trend, Schneider was already campaigning for better energy management, which in the 1980s and 90s might have been an alien concept. According to Tricoir, electricity currently accounts for 20% of our energy consumption, but this figure will double in the next two decades.

However, society is slow to adapt: “The problem is human beings. We tend to do things as we are used to doing them”. And while we’re drawn to glamorous electric cars, there is less said about equally crucial housing issues. “The point is we shouldn’t wait for the next big innovation,” the CEO says, “because everything we need does exist: the internet of things; big data; artificial intelligence. All you need is a change of mentality.”

The transition of buildings to electrification is the most pressing challenge, with the existing built environment consuming 40% of the energy we use, while cities produce 70% of man-made carbon emissions. Currently a mere 0,2% of our built environment is transitioned annually, meaning it would take us 350 years to reach our end-goal. Tricoire therefore pitched the idea of digitalization, which can accelerate the speed of improving building efficiency by a factor of 10, for a fraction of the cost. According to him, every home should be digitalized before it’s insulated. The method saves time and energy and grants a return on investment in three years.

Digital retrofitting is the process of connecting all the things that use energy in a building so that they are able to communicate with one another. This means they can be controlled automatically or via artificial intelligence, switching off heating, cooling or lighting when rooms aren’t occupied. Such systems can be scaled up or down, from small houses to multi-building complexes, and can be done wirelessly with minimal change. 

The upsides of such an approach are huge: according to Schneider, the so-called systemic efficiency approach, promoting retrofitting, digitization and circularity, could cut Europe’s emissions by 263 million tons of CO2 per year in 2030. Tricoir’s vision sees all parts of the built environment work together to comprise a more harmonious whole. Schneider calls this “systemic efficiency”, an approach that takes into account electrification, low energy usage and circular systems for water and waste.

“You might change your car every five or ten years, but the decisions we make about buildings and about industry are here to stay,” Tricoire says. “Those decisions can impact carbon emissions, pollution and society for the next 50 years.”