Published 2 years ago.
About a 11 minute read.
Image: Climeworks' Orca machine is one of many promising, yet expensive, solutions to reining in our carbon emissions | Climeworks/Facebook
Many companies say they’ve reached their net-zero goals, but is it really that easy? We can make the numbers look good, at least in the short-term; or we can strive for greater impacts — towards real zero and beyond. If we don’t take this challenge seriously today, we won’t be in business in ten years’ time.
COPs come and COPs go, but one constant remains: After the show is over, there’s
much hard work still to be
Yet, delivering net zero is deceptively easy — at least, arithmetically.
It’s entirely possible for companies to declare victory, with apparent ease, in
meeting their net-zero goals — and to do so within impressively rapid time
frames. No sooner are leading companies announcing their net-zero commitments,
that they’re actually delivering the result: Bolt and EY have already declared;
Nespresso and many
others are set to follow. Even
announced it had reached net zero, this September.
If everyone follows these great examples, our work is complete: Humanity will
manage to avoid the worst ravages of catastrophic climate change. With
everything at stake if we fail, can it be that easy to achieve this increasingly
ubiquitous climate action target? Are we really on track, or are we playing with
OK, here’s how we do it. Firstly, we might put in a ‘good shift’ and develop a
good range of practical solutions — usually focused on quick wins, including
efficiency and demand reduction, reducing waste, and switching to renewable
energies — to reduce emissions by up to 50 percent. An impressive start, we’re
already halfway there.
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Or are we? Did we include everything we should? Or, were we tempted to get
somewhat ‘creative’ in the types of emissions we included within our initial
footprint exercise? Scope 3 (supply chain) emissions are often conspicuous by
their absence, along with other aspects we might consider as harder to
measure, or difficult to influence. A case of out of sight, out of mind?
Mars CEO Grant Reid is rightly concerned that too many corporations are
making net-zero promises that do not cover the full range of their emissions. He
has called for a complete value chain
— from supply chains right through to customers — arguing that where companies
fail to fill the gaps in their net-zero commitments, they ‘will undermine their
credibility, and even more importantly, the climate action movement.’
Reid is right: Credibility is at stake. Without complete value chain
and full transparency, we are leaving a gaping hole in our obligations to people
and planet. And just because something is perceived as difficult to measure or
influence, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Scope 3
could be worth up to 80 percent of our total footprint, we should be using every
tool in the box — and perhaps some new ones — to influence these emissions,
rather than ignoring them.
By developing a comprehensive value chain perspective, not only are we more
complete and accurate in recording emissions and scaling the real challenge,
this broader level of visibility can also reveal a wider range of further
opportunities and benefits. Adopting this approach, on our recent projects with
eBay, we have developed strategies that potentially quadruple positive
impacts, while delivering significant levels of new business — towards true
Furthermore, if we are to develop comprehensive solutions to the net-zero
challenge, we will ultimately find the need for effective
right through the value chain. Net zero and our wider sustainability challenges
cannot be solved in isolation — taking a value chain perspective makes
But, back to the numbers — there’s a further wrinkle we need to work on. Not
only do we need complete transparency in measuring the various sources of our
emissions, we also need equal clarity when projecting the precise impacts for
each of our net-zero solutions. This means complete visibility on how specific
initiatives might contribute towards a complete figure of emissions reduction.
In many cases, communication around how solutions will deliver specific impacts
is rather opaque. How does it really work? Do the numbers really stack up? We
need credibility and confidence here, too.
OK, presuming our footprints and net-zero solutions are complete, accurate and
transparent, up to this point: Then so far, so good. Right? In reality, this is
where the going gets tougher. We now face the significant challenge of what to
do about the remaining 50 percent of our emissions — the portion that is harder
to get at, lying beyond the quick wins. For now, “offsetting” remains the
instrument of choice.
Developing viable solutions for the next tranche of emissions reduction is
widely perceived as difficult, so companies are resorting to offsetting — buying
into schemes elsewhere to compensate for their own residual emissions — like
never before. A rapidly growing
the global market for offsetting could be worth $100
by the end of this decade. And, for sure, the financial markets will be happy to
promote apparent solutions from which they can derive further profitable
Yet, offsetting remains a controversial practice — especially at scale. There
are serious issues we need to address, not least with the efficacy of offsetting
schemes as a viable solution. Of course, everyone is signed up to the best,
right? Except they can’t all be.
Rather shockingly, less than 5 percent of offsets actually remove
from the atmosphere, according to research from the Taskforce on Scaling
Voluntary Carbon Markets. By utilising ‘questionable’ offsets, companies are
effectively playing a get-out-of-jail-free card, yet relying on an easy licence
to keep on polluting. They’re also throwing good money away, which might be used
more productively — for example, by reinvesting in decarbonising their own
Meanwhile, offsetting is becoming so common, our board rooms are in danger of
normalising the acceptance of this rather blunt instrument.
Furthermore, offsetting comes cheap — typically in the range of $75 to $2000+
per tonne of
There is very little in the way of financial incentives for companies to invest
in real action towards deep decarbonisation when the price of offsetting is so
low. Cheap, yes — but no guarantee of quality or impact.
Ultimately, offsetting can only offer a pragmatic expedient; it only buys time —
and very little at that — while we work out what to do with the rest of our
emissions, after the relatively straightforward work on efficiency and switching
such as afforestation, can still be problematic — especially at the scale we are
now starting to consider. A recent Oxfam report calculated the total land
required for planned carbon removal could amount to five times the size of
or the equivalent of all farmland on the planet. Expanding carbon sinks at scale
will also have serious implications for land use, with many other competing
demands — including food production. If used at scale, land-based carbon removal
methods such as mass tree planting could see global food prices surging by 80
percent by 2050.
We need nature-based climate solutions but optimised within a balanced system.
Quite simply, the world doesn’t have enough carrying capacity for all our
offsetting projects and the continued allowances for polluting. The numbers just
don’t stack up.
Part of the problem, thus far, has been the lack of clear and consistent
standards for how we measure and achieve net zero, but help is at hand. Towards
the end of October, the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) launched the
first global framework for net-zero business — the Net-Zero
— seeking to bring much-needed clarity in this space.
Within the new Standard, there’s no room for greenwashing. Emissions-reduction
targets must be in line with keeping the global temperature rise within
1.5°C by 2050 — incorporating robust measures to deliver deep
decarbonisation targets of 90-95 percent across all scopes, with only a limited
reliance on carbon offsets (no more than 5-10 percent). The new Standard appears
to be much more rigorous than most current net-zero
While there is a desperate need for such standards, this should not detract from
the need for serious innovation in developing real solutions. Reaching net zero
is not primarily about compliance — fundamentally, it’s about reinvention. So,
what else can we do to make a genuine impact?
Many businesses and governments are heavily reliant on new technologies to
deliver their net-zero
Yet, such solutions, as we know, are still in their infancy; they’re expensive
and lacking in impact at scale. Furthermore, they have the potential to distract
us from the essential job of reducing emissions at source. The most sustainable
tonne of CO2 is, after all, the one we don’t need to emit. Can we really afford
to rely on capital-intensive workarounds?
That said, there is plenty of hope that emerging carbon-reduction technologies
can add to the solutions mix. Orca, the
world’s biggest carbon-suction
was switched on in September of this year and is expected to capture 4,000
tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, quietly mineralised within the
rocks of Iceland.
Keeping this breakthrough in proportion, we might remember that we will need to
sequester a total of 30 to 40 billion tonnes of
annually. Based on current performance, this would mean developing and operating
around 10 million Orca machines, dotted strategically around the planet. And, at
a cost of more than $10 million for the first piece of kit, this solution
doesn’t come cheap.
For sure, technology and cost-improvement curves will eventually kick in, but we
might be dangerously complacent and profligate if we rely on technology alone to
save the day. Perhaps, this is why carbon-capture technology solutions are not
yet taken seriously
within scientific discussions on climate action?
Given where are today, it’s clear that we need to do much more work within our
Yet, there’s one further challenge we need to be mindful of. While there is so
much energy and momentum behind net zero, we also have to consider: What if net
zero is not enough?
In fact, the science is now calling for us to go further still, towards real
zero and beyond. The Climate Crisis Advisory Group — an independent expert
group advising governments on the climate and biodiversity crises — has warned
of the gap between the Paris climate goals and the implications from the latest
Basically, due to the lack of effective action over the last six years, we’re
likely to exceed the Paris Agreement's
warming threshold as soon as 2030, precipitating a new era of dangerous climate
Net zero is no longer enough; we have to become carbon
— which means both reducing and removing greenhouse gases at the same time. It’s
time to get ultra-practical — we need radical strategies that will deliver a
major impact, today.
Given the scale of the challenge and the need to deliver increasingly bold
targets, rather than incrementally diminishing returns, it is perhaps surprising
that a circular economy appears to be strangely absent from so many
climate-action strategies. Going
can provide a major contribution, enabling up to 40-50 percent of our
Circularity could become an increasingly important strategy — arguably, our most
powerful single instrument for delivering radical reductions in carbon
emissions. Yet, why have so few
made this important connection?
In Part 2, we will explore the explore the virtuous link between radical climate
action and a circular economy, including reference to data from our recent eCAP
project with eBay.
We must account for all emissions, throughout the value chain — avoiding the
urge towards creative accounting, at all costs.
We must move rapidly beyond quick wins and develop a robust range of deep
decarbonisation interventions, avoiding over-reliance on offsetting.
We need integrity when accounting for impact contributions derived from
specific solutions — transparency is vital for credibility of progress
We also need a healthy dose of reality, not placing too much store in future
technology fixes coming to the rescue — some might work, some will not; and
some might not be as effective as desired.
We must also align with more rigorous standards, such as those established
The bottom line: We need to do much more heavy lifting, today; not at some
ill-defined point, later on.
Ultimately, we can make the numbers look good, at least in the short-term; or we
can keep it real — striving for a greater impact towards real zero and beyond.
If we don’t take this challenge seriously today, we won’t be in business in ten
Published Nov 30, 2021 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Mike Townsend is founder and CEO of Earthshine — an international consultancy and training provider focused on circular and sustainability transformations in business, economy, and society — unleashing the capability within people and their organisations.