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Genomics Firms Tackle Carbon Emissions, Face Obstacles to Net-Zero Goals From Suppliers, Shipping

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NEW YORK – When Illumina launched its NovaSeq X series sequencing instrument in September, one new feature drew a surprisingly animated cheer from the crowd: a 90 percent reduction in reagent packaging weight and waste.

The excess of NovaSeq packaging for prior instrument versions and reagent kits had become an internet meme, with labs tweeting pictures of forts constructed with the boxes. By reengineering its chemistry to be stable at ambient temperatures, in two years Illumina went from shipping all of its flagship sequencer's reagents in multiple Styrofoam containers with dry ice to being able to send a kit in a package about as big as a couple of shoeboxes.

Cutting shipping costs will surely help Illumina unlock lower prices promised for the kits featuring its new chemistry. But it will also help as the firm tries to reach net-zero carbon emissions over the next several decades. The company is still working out the numbers for the impact of its new chemistry but should have per-genome emissions reduction data in the first half of 2023, according to Sharon Vidal, Illumina head of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance).

The San Diego-based sequencing giant, with a market capitalization of almost $31 billion, is one of several life science tools and diagnostics companies that have taken the lead over the last three years to address climate change and carbon emissions. Prior to the packaging announcement, Illumina said in July that its commitment to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 had been validated by the Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi), an organization that audits corporate emissions and is backed by environmental reporting nonprofit CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). That makes Illumina just one of a few companies in the world who have gone through the effort to obtain SBTi validation, joining much larger firms such as AstraZeneca ($217.27 billion market cap) and CVS Health ($125.76 billion market cap).

Other companies in the GW Top 40 Index — a list of the 40 largest, publicly traded companies covered by GenomeWeb — aren't that far behind.

Earlier this month, Thermo Fisher Scientific announced that it is now seeking to cut the emissions it has the most control over by 50 percent by 2030 compared to its 2018 baseline emissions, up from its previous goal of 30 percent.

The firm also said that it is pursuing SBTi validation for its targets and net-zero commitment. Agilent Technologies also said it has a net-zero commitment and is pursuing SBTi validation in 2023. Other firms with net-zero commitments include Invitae and Qiagen. Companies with near-term emissions reduction targets include Bio-Rad Laboratories, Natera, and Becton Dickinson. In addition, firms such as 23andMe and Guardant Health are putting together inaugural ESG reports due out early next year that should address emissions, spokespersons for the firms said.

But even the most ambitious emissions reduction programs will face huge challenges. Emissions that companies have the most control over, such as their own facilities and vehicle fleets (scope 1) and purchased electricity (scope 2), are dwarfed by so-called scope 3 emissions, which include emissions involved in everything else, such as sourcing, shipping, and customers using a product.

At Agilent, for example, scope 3 emissions account for 761,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2E), the standard measure of greenhouse gas emissions, or 91 percent of its total. By comparison, a typical car emits approximately 5 tCO2E in a year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. This scope 3 ratio is "typical across our industry," Neil Rees, VP and head of ESG at Agilent, said in an email. "We are aligned with our peers and competitors on this."

Efforts to measure and reduce carbon emissions, especially in scope 3, are "still very nascent," said James Connelly, CEO of My Green Lab, a San Diego-based firm that works with both commercial and academic labs on sustainability. "It's a little bit of a Wild West. We're just now getting good data and developing consistent methodologies."

For life science companies, manufacturing of product components and shipping are usually the largest source of scope 3 emissions. Leading firms, including Illumina and Thermo Fisher, are engaging suppliers to reduce emissions, although many companies have not yet launched those programs.

Success in changing supplier behavior would go a long way toward proving that this wave of climate action isn't simply "greenwashing," the practice of paying lip service to environmental issues to boost public perception of a firm. "While there was a time when companies could just make a carbon claim and not do anything about it, that time has passed," Connelly said. "Companies need to be doing more, but the leading companies are making a lot of progress."

Firms across the US are racing to get a handle on their emissions, especially after the Securities and Exchange Commission's recently proposed rules that would require reporting of climate-related information from publicly traded companies.

Overall, the companies in the GW Top 40 Index are several years behind leading firms in other science- and technology-based industries. For example, Microsoft calculated its baseline emissions in 2013, has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030, and has emissions data on 87 percent of its suppliers. US government science contractor SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) has been reporting greenhouse gas emissions since 2014.

Many GW Top 40 companies have chosen 2019 as their baseline year, given that it was the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some firms have chosen 2020 or 2021 as a baseline, including Qiagen, Natera, and Bio-Techne.

While the broader biotechnology industry isn't as heavy a carbon emitter as, say, construction — which contributes around one-third of total US greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 MIT study — it is a "significant contributor to climate change," according to a study published this year by My Green Lab. Including the pharmaceutical industry (life science tools are part of that industry's scope 3 emissions), biotechnology emits more carbon than the forestry and paper industry, but less than the semiconductor sector.

In addition to need, the report suggested that opportunity should also drive climate action in the life sciences. "Unique to the industry sector, science has the organizational resources, innovative culture, and mission-focused drive for companies to lead the global fight against climate change. By becoming a global leader on addressing climate change, starting with its own footprint, biotech and pharma has the potential to inspire other industry sectors to follow in their footsteps," the report said.

Illumina has been working on carbon emissions since the inception of its corporate social responsibility program, formally launched in 2019, said Vidal. That was also its baseline year, with scope 1 and 2 emissions totaling approximately 34,000 tCO2E. The firm's scope 3 emissions are 87 percent of its total, suggesting a baseline carbon footprint of approximately 261,000 tCO2E. Illumina has committed to net-zero emissions and a 90 percent reduction in scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2050, including a 46 percent reduction in total emissions by 2030.

"One large opportunity to reduce our emissions will be reaching our target of utilizing 100 percent renewable electricity at our global facilities by 2030," Vidal said. In 2021, Illumina sourced nearly 60 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, which led to a 24 percent reduction in scope 1 and 2 emissions, compared to 2019.

Indeed, renewable energy sources are a popular choice to reduce emissions. Bio-Rad, Thermo Fisher, Agilent, and Qiagen all said they're also relying on renewable energy to meet climate goals.

The big hairy beast

Casey Stock has only been with Natera for about a year, but she's already helped the Austin, Texas-based reproductive health and cancer molecular test maker evaluate its entire carbon footprint and build its climate strategy.

As head of ESG and sustainability, she is part of a core ESG team of about 20 people across the company. Beyond that, a group of 80 employees work on the "green team," including engaging with the firm's executive ESG committee.

In Natera's baseline year of 2021, its tests were responsible for a total of 94,267 tCO2E, or 0.08 tons per test. Like most peers, scope 3 emissions account for the vast majority of that — 86,553 tons.

Getting that scope 3 number took an immense effort from Stock and her team, she said. It's an investment that not all companies have made. Invitae and Bio-Techne, for example, are still working on measuring their scope 3 emissions, though they already have numbers for their direct and electricity-based emissions.

Having worked in corporate sustainability for nearly a decade, Stock said getting the full view of emissions was a key part of her pitch to the firm.

"In my experience, scope 3 is oftentimes the largest component of a footprint that [a company is] not measuring," she said. "You can't manage what you can't measure."

"Scope 3 is the big hairy beast," Stock said. There are different ways to account for these emissions. Illumina, for instance, uses the Greenhouse Gas Protocol corporate value chain accounting and reporting standard for scope 3 emissions. Reassessing scope 3 is a yearly occurrence, and using this particular accounting method is a requirement for SBTi validation, Vidal said. Illumina also uses carbon accounting software but declined to disclose which one.

Stock said she used the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and an Excel spreadsheet to calculate emissions. "Our vendors make up most of our emissions," she said. "Their scope 1 and 2 are our scope 3." Natera has approximately 150 critical suppliers, and part of her job is collaborating with those companies to pursue emissions reduction initiatives as part of the firm's scope 3 reduction goal.

"I've been included on what we call quarterly business reviews with our key vendors," she said. There, they'll discuss existing initiatives like reducing assay kit waste and weight. Harkening back to her adage about measurement and management, she has sent out a survey to try and find out how much those vendors are measuring their own emissions, and whether they're engaged in net-zero or other science-based targets.

The focus is on getting vendors to measure their scope 1 and 2 emissions, rather than set an absolute emissions reductions target, she said. The firm is working with 25 of its top 100 suppliers to reduce those emissions.

Supplier requirements and collaborations like Natera's are one way that companies across the industry are driving down scope 3 emissions, Connelly said. Thermo Fisher, Agilent, Invitae, and Illumina are also pursuing these types of programs. Illumina has a "strategic supplier scorecard program" to assess environmental sustainability commitments from those companies, Vidal said. Both Invitae and Agilent have adopted supplier codes of conduct. At Invitae, that means having "expectations for our suppliers and their subcontractors to comply with applicable laws and to operate their businesses in an ethical and sustainable manner," according to Chief Sustainability Officer Erik Kaiser.

At Agilent, it means reducing and reporting emissions. "Agilent will have more to share on this initiative in our 2022 ESG report" due out next year, Rees said. "However, there are already positive signs that many suppliers have already taken action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions."

In a statement, Thermo Fisher said it is "engaging with 90 percent of suppliers … to set science-based [emissions] targets by 2027." The firm said it was not able to respond to questions about its emissions in time for publication of this article.

However, it's unclear whether any of these companies would choose to end a supplier relationship over emissions. "We have approached our engagement with suppliers with more of a partnership approach, especially for our strategic suppliers where we seek to help and support them on their own journey," Illumina's Vidal said.

Some firms are also tying executive compensation to hitting ESG targets. At Illumina, "select ESG targets are included in annual corporate goals and influence executive compensation through the management performance scorecard," she said.

The cost of GWAS

Bioinformatics is illustrative of how much is still unknown about the carbon footprint of genomics. As companies continue to grow, every instrument and test kit they ship will generate more data stored and analyzed by computers, which need electricity.

In January 2020, Loïc Lannelongue, a bioinformatician at Cambridge University in England, began looking for data on the climate impact of high-performance computing in biology after watching from halfway across the globe as colleagues in Melbourne shared apocalyptic pictures of the wildfires that were ravaging Australia.

A graduate student at the time, he thought it would be a "nice two-week break" from his dissertation. "It turned out that nobody cared," he said. "Outside of artificial intelligence, no one had really looked at it."

Now a postdoc, he devotes about half his time looking at the emissions produced by key algorithms in genomics and molecular biology. His team created an online calculator to spit out carbon emissions based on inputs like cores used, computer run time, and location. In March of this year, he led publication of a study of the carbon footprint of running several key bioinformatics pipelines, including GWAS analyses, genome and metagenome assembly, and RNA-seq.

The study did not provide total estimates for how much cumulative carbon these analyses might add in a year, but the overarching picture is clear: generating, storing, and analyzing data carries a measurable cost. For example, a GWAS analysis of 100 traits for all 500,000 samples in the UK Biobank emits nearly 1.8 tCO2E.

"The carbon impact of bioinformatics is not the biggest problem the world is facing right now," Lannelongue said. "But we can't really afford to only tackle the biggest numbers. We need to be sensible about everything." 

As more and more bioinformatics move to the cloud, it's important to keep track of those emissions. "As the industry shifts and we have more computing power out of the lab, we're not getting rid of that impact, but moving it," said My Green Lab's Connelly. 

Partnering with cloud vendors that are working to increase their use of renewable energy can help companies "take advantage of greener, cleaner options," Illumina's Vidal said. "That's our scope 3, but it's their direct emissions."

Points of consideration for carbon emissions reporting

For companies interested in setting their own climate goals and starting carbon accounting programs, the ESG leaders GenomeWeb spoke to had some practical advice.

"Our advice is to first engage your people," Illumina's Vidal said, a sentiment echoed by Natera's Stock. "Smaller companies might not have a dedicated corporate social responsibility team, but there are no doubt people across functions willing to be these change agents and to be involved if given support and guidance," Vidal said. Also, biotech companies should have plenty of Ph.D.s with the right mindset. "It's about collecting the data and understanding the starting point," she said. "We always recommend starting with the facility level to get an understanding of emissions and the calculations and how you can make an impact before moving on to the value chain piece."

"Focus on achievable reductions and quantify current emissions across all operations and functions," Agilent's Rees said. "Determine the maximum reduction opportunities within their span of operational control and identify the likely long-term investments in (additional) emissions offsets required to achieve net-zero emissions across the entire business." Investment in renewable energy may have a long lead time, so starting earlier is better, he said, and having short-term targets can help one manage progress.

"No matter where a company is on the maturity journey of [corporate social responsibility], there's really no 'done'; it's all through a lens of continuous improvement, understanding where you're starting from and how you improve from there," Vidal said. Utility companies may offer free energy audits, she added, or provide information on self-guided opportunities.

"And no matter the size of the company, there are small changes and awareness that can be implemented that can make a change and reduce the [carbon] footprint," she said.

And if SEC rules aren't enough of a reason to get started on reducing emissions, companies may want to consider that customers may be facing their own pressures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Not only are companies like Illumina and Agilent seeking to design instruments with smaller carbon footprints, but also every firm's emissions count elsewhere in the value chain. After all, one company's scope 1 and 2 emissions are another company's scope 3.

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