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The Next Economy
The Mountain Ahead:
Surveying the Path to Carbon Negative

We are at the very beginning of the most challenging leg of the climate journey; many companies have yet to commit to zeroing out their emissions. Still, a few at the cutting edge are responding to the call for a higher bar to be set and are staking their reputations on achieving it. 

In order to head off the worst consequences of climate change, it's too late to simply keep reducing or even eliminating carbon emissions. While absolutely essential, that is no longer enough. Even if we could eliminate all emissions by 2050 — which is extremely unlikely — that would not limit climate change to the necessary levels put forth in the Paris Agreement.

To bring the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down to safe levels, we need to dramatically reduce emissions and actively pull carbon out of the atmosphere and keep it out for as long as possible. 

Think of the problem of excess carbon in the atmosphere as analogous to a bathtub that is overflowing and never empties. There are inflows of water, which are emissions flowing into the atmosphere, and outflows as water spills over the side — emissions being removed from the atmosphere. Reductions (and avoidances) are those solutions that reduce inflows — essentially turning the faucet down. These could be efficiency improvements, electrification, switching to renewables, the cessation of polluting activities, and the protection of natural systems. 

Ultimately, we need the water in the tub to get lower and achieve a certain equilibrium. This means that we need to find a way to get a lot of the water out and prevent it from filling up again.

The business case for regenerative strategies

Join us as representatives from AT&T, the Climate 4.0 Project, ERM, CSR Lab, Optoro and Porter Novelli present a host of ways that sustainability champions can engage the C-suite on programs or strategies that will benefit the environment and/or society as well as the company — October 18 at SB'21 San Diego.

In this context, removal means either storing emissions underground — absorbing them into natural systems such as trees or embedding them into something that will last a good while. According to one scientific model, roughly 33 gigatons of CO2 equivalent need to be removed each year going forward to keep warming below 2 degrees fahrenheit. As you might have guessed, we're not anywhere near being able to do that yet; though there are pathways emerging that could get us there.

We are at the very beginning of the most challenging leg of the climate journey; many companies have yet to commit to zeroing out their emissions. Still, there are a few at the cutting edge that are responding to the call for a higher bar to be set and are staking their reputations on achieving it. 

Erin Meezan is VP and Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface Inc — a maker of carpet tiles and other flooring products. By now, most are familiar with Interface’s sustainability leadership and legacy. Since1994, the company has reduced the carbon intensity of its business by 96 percent (blowing past an 80 percent goal along the way) while reducing the carbon footprint of its entire product portfolio to zero. And back in 2016, when few companies were even talking about going carbon neutral, Interface pledged that it would be carbon negative by 2040.

When asked about Interface’s journey, Meezan responded that she was quite sure that they weren’t the only ones on it. Yet all the companies who have made similar pledges are in a place where they are thinking, "Okay, we've made the commitment — now, what do we do?"

"As a company who has been a pioneer and taken its whole product portfolio to carbon neutral, we definitely feel like we need to take that next hill — which means [going] carbon negative,” she said. “So, we've made a public carbon-negative commitment.

“We've done an analysis and then shared publicly our full carbon liability, including scope 3. That serves as a starting point to give us a number that we have [to exceed] in order to go negative. We have begun plotting that number against what we can do [internally]. What it has meant for us is a fundamentally different approach to product, going from this idea of trying to make our supply chain more efficient and give us low-carbon materials, to new material innovation boosting a lot more and different biomaterials that go into our products to actually make them store carbon."

As a first major step on this path to negative carbon emissions, Interface just announced a series of carbon-negative carpet tile backings called CQuest (as in "sequester"). The use of certain qualified biomaterials, combined with specialty yarns and proprietary tufting processes, results in a carpet tile that — when measured cradle to gate — pulls more carbon out of the air than was used to produce it. It's worth pointing out that Interface was able to achieve this entirely within its own design, production and supply chain operations, without relying on any form of offsets. But the company will be the first to acknowledge that not every business can do this.

Meezan told us: "We're just in the early days; and the ones that we just launched are carbon negative by the hair of their chinny-chin-chin. So, we know we can do more as we work on product formulation, dematerialization, and more efficient manufacturing to make the product more negative."

It’s clear that there is no single path to negative carbon emissions. Depending on the nature of the business, some companies — primarily manufacturers — will have the opportunity to incorporate carbon-storing materials into their products. Other sectors will have to seek options outside of their own operations. But even among those that produce goods, many will not be able to offset their entire footprint through product reformulation.

Meezan acknowledges that. "Even the combined work of storing carbon in the factories and in products is not going to get us to the full carbon liability that we have as a business. So, we’re going to have to do something else that balances the rest of that out. We just can’t get enough [carbon-negative] materials into the product to offset the whole piece. And I expect that's where a lot of companies will be."

Interface’s plan is similar to its strategy for going carbon neutral. It consists of three phases: First, measure and understand the full scope of the company’s carbon footprint. Second, look at what reductions and removals might be achieved within the product formulation and within the business and supply chain. Finally, address the remainder through investments in legitimate, verified activities outside of the business to bring the overall footprint to below zero.

While that third category sounds a lot like what is happening right now in the offset market, there are key differences. For one thing, getting to carbon negative requires removal offsets, which are different from reduction offsets — "because, no matter how hard you try, you can't reduce your way to negative," Meezan pointed out. 

This is an important point. Carbon removal is the process of removing carbon that has already been emitted from the air.

We already have natural mechanisms that remove carbon — such as nature-based solutions, including forests, mangroves and wetlands that must be preserved and protected. We also have the possibility of dramatically lowering the emissions during farming through regenerative agriculture — that, for example, uses low tilling techniques that prevent carbon dioxide from being released from the soil.

There are also a growing number of technology-based removal solutions, such as direct air capture and the development of durable products (such as cement or steel) that incorporate CO2 into their structure. These are analogous to opening the drain in the tub.

It's also important to note that as the IPCC has stated, our existing outflows — which primarily come from forests and wetlands, which are themselves diminishing — not only need to be protected, they must also be supplemented with additional capacity for carbon removal.

So, how can companies get access to carbon-removal technologies in order to reach net zero? Today, the most direct way is to support removal projects is through carbon finance — i.e. investing in carbon credits. This will funnel much-needed financing directly to projects and technologies that need it to get off the ground.

The carbon-removal credit market is in its very early days and there are some early-stage solutions out there. Nori launched a carbon-removal market based on Etherium, focusing initially on regenerative agriculture. Puro.earth is another. Shopify has purchased 15,000 tons of direct air capture from Climeworks and Carbon Engineering, which was arranged through a request for proposals (RFP). United Airlines recently announced its intention to invest in direct air-capture technology to offset the impact of its flights. There are also nature-based carbon-offset programs available today that involve some degree of removal — primarily biochar and reforestation programs. 

Biochar played a role in Microsoft's purchase last year of 1.3 million metric tons of carbon from 15 suppliers across 26 projects around the world. Microsoft is also in a partnership on bioenergy with carbon capture (BECCS) with Chevron. Meanwhile, IKEA decided to buy a forest — or actually, several — adding up to over 600,000 acres in the US and Europe that are now protected from development. 

These are all good things, but we need a lot more. In order to get a lot more, we need a robust carbon-removal market if we are going to meet the Paris targets.

Yet, Meezan says, “It took the voluntary carbon market a long time to get to a place where we felt like there were clear standards for unregulated carbon offsets — whether that's the voluntary carbon standard [Verra], or the stakeholder approach, etc. That took 15 or 20 years. We do not have time to wait 15 or 20 years for the voluntary market to decide what is a credible ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere."

As Noah Deich, founder and President of Carbon180, puts it, "It's the Wild West right now. There is no clear standard for what a carbon removal credit is."

While there are a number of carbon-removal actions being put forward as solutions — such as forestry, agriculture, cement, direct air capture, carpeting, etc — there isn’t a standards body to set a universally accepted way to compare all the different types of carbon-removal pathways.

This lack of uniformity has led to a situation where voluntary offsets can be found at prices that are quite low today, while direct air-capture credits can run as much as a hundred times higher — which is too high for the market, though it will likely come down in time. So, right now the only affordable solutions are nature-based removal projects. 

Deich thinks that since no government will tell companies to go negative anytime soon, climate action in removals is going to remain voluntary. And that we need to manage our expectations, "until it becomes incredibly cheap or until the government says 'you have to do it — and here are the standards that apply.'"

While Deich might sound pessimistic, he isn't. He just doesn't think that the private sector can do it alone.

So, what’s needed in order to make carbon removal a business standard? We need more science-based solutions — both in terms of new and lower cost ways of removing large-scale volumes of carbon, as well as better methods of measuring carbon removal. Clear standards and regulations are also needed along with incentives — whether that be in the form of grants, tax credits or a higher price on carbon.

Deich agrees, and then adds that all of these can be achieved through government action. Policy would facilitate things innovation programs along the lines of the National AcademiesEnergy Futures Initiative. Infrastructure, including a network of CO2 pipelines and storage hubs, should be built. Additional demand incentives, such as expanding on the 45Q credit in last year's government budget that was specifically targeted at point-source capture at mature industrial sites (with that credit, manufacturers can earn $50 per metric ton of CO2 captured and stored permanently or $35 if the CO2 is used, such as for enhanced oil recovery [EOR]) should be offered. The government could also set standards for everything from carbon accounting to safely injecting CO2 underground.

"Far and away the best dollar a corporate can spend on this right now in this space is actively lobbying for climate action at the Federal and State levels," Deich says. That would create a huge return, since the government can fund all that science and innovation and set standards, etc. Those are the types of activities that are too expensive for individual companies to fund but are pre-competitive, so they benefits any company that wants them." Carbon180’s full plan can be found in their Transition Book.

To reach that desired state, we'll need more clarity on what is and isn’t carbon removal; and what the important differences are between one type and another. There are a range of criteria that need to be accounted for, such as the fact that solutions operate on different timescales. One type of removal, such as the installation of DAC machinery, while expensive can remove large amounts of carbon from day one, while planting a new forest — a much cheaper solution — removes carbon more slowly. 

The good news is that early adopter companies are already solving for net zero and solutions are being worked on. With a supportive administration in Washington, DC, we can be optimistic that a rapid expansion of carbon removal will soon take place. What's less clear is the specific form that all these changes will take.

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