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Decarbonization: A Systems-Level Challenge and Actions to Address Climate Change

Andrea Thompson | December 7, 2021

Across our world, we are experiencing the daily impacts of climate change—breathing smoky air from wildfires, losing power during severe storms, and for many vulnerable people, facing unequal burdens in terms of health, environmental and economic impacts. The most recent IPCC report published in August 2021 put these and other climate effects into stark relief and renewed global conversations—from the dinner table to the boardroom. On the heels of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), the stakes continue to rise. Governments, businesses and individuals are rallying at an unprecedented scale to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and including calls to action within their core missions.

Systems-Level Change is Key

Carbon elimination of the magnitude needed to address climate change requires systems-level change. Why? Renowned scientist and systems thinking expert Donella Meadows reminds us that systems always achieve the goals for which they were designed. Today, we are living in a system where carbon emissions are embedded deeply in our way of life. To achieve a new goal–such as decarbonization–requires rethinking and reshaping our systems on a global scale. Small, disassociated steps will not get us where we need to go. Rather, we can only achieve systemic change by incremental, ground-up progress towards the vision, building upon what we have achieved thus far.

The good news is there are many pathways to decarbonization that will have an impact today. Below are some of the low-carbon opportunities that TRC and our clients are currently focused on. And we are not in this alone; systems change always relies on collective action. As COVID and climate events remind us, we are all interdependent and large-scale challenges cross human-constructed boundaries.


Graphic: Opportunities Pursued by TRC and our Partners for Decarbonizing an Industrialized World, 2021

Action-Oriented Solutions and Decarbonization Service

How we tackle the decarbonization challenge matters tremendously for its future success. As engineers and solution-implementers working with clients in the field, TRC sees decarbonization as fundamentally action-oriented. Carbon leadership is not merely in strategic thinking and planning, but also in execution. This is especially true as we strive towards systems change, wherein solutions will require experimentation, iteration, and continual improvement—or learning through practice.

We approach decarbonization work with three key principles:

1. Are we providing solutions grounded in first-hand knowledge and experience, or are they merely theoretical?

We believe that the best successes for new strategies come from applying real-world insights and experiences on the ground. Decarbonization requires a holistic, intersectional perspective as a systems-level challenge. TRC approaches this challenge by bringing together diverse aspects of the built environment—from energy to infrastructure, environment, digital, and social aspects—through decades worth of completed projects, integrated plans, and portfolio solutions.

Problem-solving for decarbonization also requires genuine, inclusive relationships—with our clients, the people they serve, community organizations, industry colleagues, and others. To that end, TRC has developed a network of community-based liaisons, compensated partners who represent populations across a client’s service territory that historically have been underserved, to examine and inform all aspects of energy program design and implementation from the end-user perspective. The intent of this relationship-driven network is to place a focus on serving customers of color, those customers for whom English is not their first language, those living in rural communities, and those navigating low incomes.

2. Are we actively reducing and eliminating carbon, or are we simply shifting the burden to others?

TRC prioritizes decarbonization through direct emissions reduction and elimination; we avoid a reliance on offsets or other indirect accounting strategies. Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa, a corporate leader in sustainability thinking, recently explained it this way: “Paying somebody to avoid emissions is an important and valuable way that the world is going to reduce its overall emissions…But from a global carbon ledger, there’s still carbon going into the atmosphere. That’s not net zero. And so, while it works at an organizational level, it doesn’t work at a global level.”

Working with this mindset, we help clients identify and address their emissions responsibilities, tackling decarbonization as close to the source as possible, rather than simply shifting emissions elsewhere. We recommend pathways to reduce energy and fuel consumptions, transition to lower carbon alternatives, and extend benefits beyond carbon itself towards resiliency, social equity, and other benefits. For example, we recently worked with a national sports broadcaster to develop a zero-carbon roadmap for scope 1 and 2 emissions at their corporate headquarters, which prioritized deep on-site reductions.

3. As we pursue decarbonization, are we also considering social or environmental harms and inequalities?

We know climate events and carbon emissions impacts fall hardest on vulnerable people. Without full consideration of these factors or pro-active, people-focused decarbonization solutions, we may inadvertently reinforce social harms and inequalities even as we address carbon itself. TRC’s aim is to reshape systems for a future that’s not only low-carbon, but socially equitable.

Increased support and resources for carbon justice are beginning to flow from public offices at all levels, such as the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, which is positioned to be a major catalyst for decarbonization benefits among disadvantaged communities. We are honored to work with clients on projects that address this mission. TRC is bringing this principle to life through our work with the City of Fontana, where we are contributing to a California Energy Commission-funded clean energy microgrid that provides energy resilience and “cool zones” during extreme heat to disadvantaged communities (DACs) via the local City Hall and Senior Center. Through another project, we are providing recommendations for a state agency diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory committee agency to inform policy and programs.

Decarbonization is a major challenge of our time—and to this end, an invitation for systems-level change. This mission keeps many at TRC, including myself, motivated every day and we look forward to continuing to share updates on our collective progress towards this timely goal.

To learn more about TRC’s advisory and consulting services, including decarbonization program planning, design, and implementation for utilities, agencies, and businesses, contact

Katie Wilson, Abhijeet Pande, Nicole Wroblewski, and Josh Stoneman also contributed to this article.

Andrea Thompson

Andrea Thompson is a Sr. Project Manager within TRC’s Advanced Energy practice. She leads TRC client work as well as internal TRC strategic initiatives with a special emphasis on decarbonization, energy resiliency and energy equity. Contact her at

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