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  • Writer's pictureKartik Verma

Climate action at McDonald's and Nuclear fusion

Updated: May 26, 2022

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What to expect today:

Carbon accounting

How is carbon footprint classified?

Scientists account for carbon emissions by classifying them into three categories, or “scopes.”

  • Scope 1 emissions are the direct emissions that your activities create — like the exhaust from the car you drive, or for a business, the trucks it drives to transport its products from one place to another or the generators it might run

  • Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions that come from the production of the electricity or heat you use, like the traditional energy sources that light up your home or power the buildings owned by a business

  • Scope 3 emissions are the indirect emissions that come from all the other activities in which you’re engaged, including the emissions associated with producing the food you eat, or manufacturing the products that you buy. For a business, these emission sources can be extensive, and must be accounted for across its entire supply chain, the materials in its buildings, the business travel of its employees, and the full life cycle of its products, including the electricity customers may consume when using the product. Given this broad range, a company’s scope 3 emissions are often far larger than its scope 1 and 2 emissions put together.

Tracking Scope 3 emissions

While tracking Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions is clear because it pertains to direct or indirect control over the company’s operations, tracking Scope 3 emissions is a huge challenge as now you are talking about tracking emissions of your suppliers and emissions in your entire value chain. While we will cover tracking carbon emissions in a separate post later, companies today are grappling with tracking Scope 3 emissions which can make up to 65%-95% of a company’s footprint according to Carbon Trust. Many companies are reporting to the level of Scope 3 already and according to investor sustainability advocate Ceres, over 3,000 companies have reported Scope 3 under the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).

Happier meals?

McDonald's pledged on Tuesday to significantly reduce the use of plastics in its Happy Meal toys worldwide. For a company that sells 1 billion toys every year, it is going to be a massive undertaking. The company has said in its briefing that they will introduce new paper based 3d toys or toys made of biodegradable material and the new toys won't cost franchisees more than the old ones. McDonald’s claims that the benefits wrought by this change would be equivalent to close to 700,000 people ditching the use of plastic for a year. Burger King made a similar announcement in 2019 to eliminate non-biodegradable plastic toys globally by the end of 2025.

Climate action at McDonald’s

McDonald’s has laid out two primary goals to achieve by the end of 2030

  • Partner with Franchisees to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions related to McDonald’s restaurants and offices by 36% from a 2015 base year (already decreased by 8.5% from 2015 levels)

  • Reduce emissions intensity (per metric ton of food and packaging) by 31% across our supply chain from 2015 levels. (already decreased by 5.9% from 2015 levels)

The fine print

While it seems like McDonald’s is making progress on its climate goals, 31% is not close to what other companies are announcing (other companies have announced carbon neutrality or carbon negative goals by 2030), but it is definitely a start (Burger king for comparison has announced they will cut emissions by 50% by 2030). However, what is slightly more concerning is that McDonald’s has not defined their reduction in targets on an absolute basis but rather on a per metric basis. If you read the wording carefully their targets say 31% reduction in “emissions intensity” by 2030. Which, if you read their Climate Disclosure Project (CDP) Report, is defined as metric ton CO2 per metric ton of product produced. Looking at McDonald’s 2020 emission levels (absolute) compared to 2015, we find that from 2015, their absolute emissions have actually increased by 6%, all driven by their Scope 3 emissions.

  • Scope 1: 0.1 million metric tons ( - 40% vs. 2015)

  • Scope 2: 0.43 million metric tons ( - 67% vs. 2015)

  • Scope 3: 53.7 million metric tons ( + 8% vs. 2015)

  • Overall: 54 million metric tons ( + 6% vs. 2015)

While we appreciate the reduction in Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, McDonald’s biggest challenge would be to bring its suppliers on board and reduce Scope 3 emissions. The good news is that the majority of their suppliers have their own climate targets and are developing tailored roadmaps for key ingredients (including beef) to meet global GHG emissions targets.

Nuclear fusion - the holy grain of energy production

Earlier this month Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and MIT built the world’s strongest magnet (reaching 20 tesla in intensity, typical fridge magnet is about 0.001 tesla) using only 30 watts of energy, a key technology required to build nuclear fusion reactors.

What is nuclear fusion?

Nuclear fusion is the reaction that powers the sun and the stars. It occurs when two smaller, lighter nuclei merge together to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing massive amounts of energy in the process. Typical Nuclear power plants which exist are based on nuclear fission (not fusion) where two heavy atoms are merged together to release energy. Nuclear fission leaves radioactive materials as byproducts whereas nuclear fusion, if successfully achieved on earth, can provide an unlimited source of clean energy without producing radioactive waste.

When can we expect nuclear fusion to power our homes with clean energy?

Well, the joke is that nuclear fusion is always 20 years away no matter when you ask. While no company or organization has been able to achieve breakeven fusion (generating more electricity than the electricity required to conduct fusion in the first place), the current accomplishment is a significant breakthrough. Just for reference, the last time MIT built a magnet of this size, it took them 200 million watts of energy as compared to the 30 watts of energy used this time. While this is only one part of a giant problem that needs to be solved before we can achieve breakeven nuclear fusion, the team is expecting to demonstrate the technology by 2025 and build its first fusion power plant by 2030.

Recommendations from the team

  • Ann Arbor Green Fair - Check out on Oct 1, S Main St, Downtown 6-9pm

  • Vision - Take a look inside the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor

  • CNBC- Why Tracking Carbon Emissions Is Suddenly A Billion Dollar Opportunity

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