Georgia Leaders Discuss the Business of Climate Solutions

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera and Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian discuss how businesses can make positive changes to address urgent issues such as climate change.
Left to right: John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation; Ken Foskett, chair of the Atlanta Press Club Board of Directors; Maria Saporta, editor of SaportaReport; Quinnie Jenkins, director of community relations for Delta Air Lines; Ángel Cabrera, president of Georgia Tech; Beril Toktay, faculty director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business; Nick Valencia, CNN national correspondent; and Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines

Left to right: John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation; Ken Foskett, chair of the Atlanta Press Club Board of Directors; Maria Saporta, editor of SaportaReport; Quinnie Jenkins, director of community relations for Delta Air Lines; Ángel Cabrera, president of Georgia Tech; Beril Toktay, faculty director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business; Nick Valencia, CNN national correspondent; and Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera and Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian recently discussed how businesses, both small and large, can make positive changes to address urgent issues such as climate change. The conversation, “The Business of Climate Solutions, Local to Global,” was moderated by SaportaReport editor Maria Saporta and CNN national correspondent Nick Valencia, and hosted at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. The event was part of the Atlanta Press Club’s Newsmaker Leadership Series and produced in partnership with the Drawdown Georgia Business Compact, an initiative of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business. Read more for highlights from the discussion.

Urgent Action Needed

When Saporta asked Cabrera to rank on a scale of one to 10 the degree of urgency with which climate change needs to be addressed, without missing a beat, he responded, “10.” He referred to the latest “sobering” report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which describes how the perils of climate change are not only in the future but are already here now.

Bastian said, “We can’t walk out of this timeframe without a renewed commitment to replenishing the Earth … and creating an opportunity for all of our children going forward.” 

Cabrera, hopeful that humanity can find solutions for this present threat, used the lightning-fast development of the Covid-19 vaccine as an example of what can happen when humanity unites to face a global threat. Solving the climate crisis, he said, will require “the best of our best thinking” from scientists, engineers, policy experts, social scientists, and others in many fields. 

Embrace Innovative Solutions

Cabrera additionally shared how Georgia Tech and Delta partnered on a project to remove the wiring from certain aircraft entertainment systems to make them wireless devices. That small change, removing kilograms of material from planes, led to improvement on the fleet’s overall efficiency. Cabrera said, “A lot of innovation is not about, ‘Oh, let’s all stop flying … or stop living.’ No, it’s, ‘How can we be smart about doing this?’” He acknowledged Georgia Tech experts in the room who understand what types of combustion technology can be most efficient, and those who are working on carbon capture. He said that while some may think carbon reduction is anti-business, the truth is quite the opposite. Cabrera said that many innovative solutions will, in fact, create more opportunities for business.

Scaling Up

Developing innovative ideas and technologies isn’t the problem. The question is: How are they to be funded and scaled? Bastian said, “Ninety-eight percent of [Delta’s] footprint is fossil fuel … jet fuel.” The airline industry is classified as “hard-to-decarbonize.” While Delta is working with Georgia Tech and other organizations on how to replace their energy source, there isn’t presently a viable alternative to jet fuel. Bastian said, “At Delta, if we acquired all of the sustainable aviation fuel that exists in production today in the world, it’s enough to fuel our planes for one day.” Even though sustainable aviation fuel can be produced, it’s incredibly expensive, costing anywhere from three to five times a gallon more than jet fuel. “Energy producers aren’t going to invest the tens of billions of dollars required unless they know they’re going to have somebody on their side,” said Bastian. 

The speakers expressed hope that our government can intervene the same way it did with electric vehicles (EVs). Incentives and subsidies created the investment for EVs to be produced – and this segment of the auto industry is now seeing a boom.

Preparing Business Leaders

The Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business supports corporate sustainability through education, research, and industry partnerships. It is motivated by the example set by sustainable business visionary and Interface founder Ray C. Anderson (IE 1956, Honorary Ph.D. 2011), who understood the role of business in tackling the big challenges the world is facing. 

Cabrera said, “[The center] is aligned with this vision that business ... and business leaders have a key role to play. And it all starts when a business leader says, ‘This is important, and I want to hire someone to lead the effort.’” He also explained that the solutions that are going to be coming forward are not just new technologies but new business models that accompany those technologies.

Climate Solutions Start at Home

Drawdown Georgia is a multi-university research collaboration led by Georgia Tech, with leadership from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Its research has resulted in a list of 20 proposed carbon solutions tailored to Georgia to help businesses of all sizes understand the importance of their carbon impact.

Cabrera said, “This is an effort to bring this global problem close to home.” 

Drawdown Georgia takes into consideration the state’s unique economy, population mix, and geography. Delta is one of the 28 (and counting) Drawdown Georgia Business Compact members seeking to reduce their carbon footprint and positively impact “beyond carbon” issues of equity, economic development, and public health.

Overall, the discussion underscored the urgent need for businesses, the government, and individuals to take action immediately. Valencia summarized what exactly is at stake. He said, “This is one of the most important discussions of our time. As a father of two small children, I want to make sure that I leave a good world here behind for my kids, and I know that these individuals here are doing their part to make sure that the future generations have a world to live in.”

In addition to the Atlanta Press Club and the Drawdown Georgia Business Compact, other sponsors included Delta Air Lines and Southern Company Gas.

Left to right, Maria Saporta, Nick Valencia, President Cabrera, and Ed Bastian
Left to right, Maria Saporta, Nick Valencia, President Cabrera, and Ed Bastian