Back when he was CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson basked in the aura of invincibility that has long surrounded Big Oil. Right now, he’s probably regretting his decision to abandon the protective cloak of corporate power, but give it a few years and he may come to realize that he got out (of Exxon, that is) at exactly the right time. Because it’s not only Tillerson who has lost his aura of invincibility recently, so has the entire fossil fuel industry.
Lawsuits, such as the one brought against some of the world’s largest oil companies by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, are one reason why. If the court rules in favor of the cities and attributes liability for global warming-related damages to the oil companies, it could be a game changer for the so-called “Carbon Majors”–the 100 companies responsible for 70% of emissions since 1988. Consider that, in 2017, in the U.S. alone, climate-related disasters cost $300 billion.
Investors, too, are piling on the pressure. To date, institutions responsible for more than $6 trillion have either divested, or committed to divesting, from fossil fuels. And the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, chaired by Michael Bloomberg, has put climate risk firmly on the map for mainstream investors and CEOs.
We should celebrate the campaigners and activists who have helped get us to this point. Their success is good news for all of us, bar the Rex Tillersons of this world. Unfortunately though, it’s not enough. From where we find ourselves today, there is no credible pathway to stabilizing global temperatures at 1.5°C to 2°C above preindustrial levels that does not also involve removing significant quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
And is stabilization at 1.5°C to 2°C even the right target? There’s a small but growing contingent within the climate movement that dares to name an even more ambitious goal: reversing global warming. As Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, puts it, “If you’re going down the wrong road, slowing down isn’t enough. You have to stop and turn around.”
To make things harder still, we have to achieve this while delivering shared prosperity for a global population forecast to grow by 2 billion between now and 2050. This is the essence of the carbon productivity challenge we now face. Over the next few decades, we’re going to need to increase the value we get from carbon by at least a factor of 10. And that means we need to learn to think about carbon very differently.
Don’t Blame Carbon
Carbon is one of the fundamental building blocks of life on Earth. It comes in many forms. Our forests and fields are carbon-based. So are many of the industrial materials–from polymers to graphene–that surround us. We eat carbon. We wear carbon. We communicate via carbon-based devices. And yes, we still dig carbon out of the ground and burn it for energy.
What this tells us is that carbon itself isn’t the problem. Global warming, as Bill McDonough puts it, is the result of a “design failure.” By burning fossil fuels, we’ve made atmospheric carbon “a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose, and for the wrong duration.”
So how do we set about fixing this colossal design failure? Turning off the emissions tap is, of course, critical. But, as David Tulauskas, director of sustainability at General Motors, put it after attending a round table we hosted at New York’s Climate Week late last year, “If we only talk about reducing our carbon footprint, we are only having half the conversation.”
The Great Carbon Opportunity
Fortunately, lots of people have already started the other half of the conversation. Innovators around the world are learning that carbon, when used right, can be a source of immense opportunity. Take Covestro for example. This German company is the first in the world to commercialize a CO2-based polymer, which it calls Cardyon, used in mattresses. “Carbon dioxide is a wonderful source of carbon,” says CEO Patrick Thomas. “As soon as you think of carbon dioxide as a source of carbon, then your mind . . . opens up into a whole new spectrum.”
Carbon capture and use (CCU) may be a miniscule industry today, but the Global CO2 Initiative estimates that by 2030 it could represent a $1 trillion-a-year market opportunity. In the process, they conclude, it could help remove 7 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year–around 15% of our current annual emissions. Reversing global warming isn’t just about technological breakthroughs, however. The 80 solutions identified in Drawdown are all based on today’s technologies. Dozens of them are simply about how we better manage natural resources–from forests and farms, to wetlands and peat bogs.
Reducing food waste, switching to a plant-rich diet, and regrowing tropical forests, for example, come in at three, four, and five in Drawdown’s ranking of solutions by quantity of CO2 pulled out of the atmosphere. Solar farms, by comparison, come in at number eight. As for the other half of our carbon productivity challenge–creating prosperity for a growing global population–there’s good news on that front, too. Many of the regenerative agricultural practices that sequester carbon can also benefit the bottom line. Skeptical? Check out Soil Carbon Cowboys to hear how Midwestern cattle ranchers are reaping the benefits of rebuilding the carbon content of their soil.
The Power of Positive Carbon Thinking
Like it or not, we humans are wired to respond very differently to issues depending on how they’re framed. To date, the climate movement has largely told an apocalyptic story about the consequences of our fossil fuel addiction. It’s worked up to a point: The fossil carbon economy is beginning to look vulnerable. But dismantling the old economic order is, at best, half the job.
Our next task is to build the new carbon economy, which draws carbon down from the atmosphere while also delivering shared prosperity for a growing global population. To do that, we need positive goals–reversing global warming, for example, and increasing by 10X the value we get from carbon–that can inspire people to innovate.
As Erin Meezan, Interface’s chief sustainability officer, puts it: “Would you rather be working on a challenge that says create a product for us that loves carbon and shows that we can reverse global warming, or knock off another 10% in terms of the reduction of the carbon footprint of the product. What’s more exciting? You want to work on the product that’s going to manifest an intention to solve the biggest issue facing humanity. Who doesn’t want to do that?”
John Elkington is cofounder and chief pollinator at Volans, a certified B Corporation. His most recent book is The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits with Tomorrow’s Bottom Line, coauthored with former PUMA CEO and chairman Jochen Zeitz.
Richard Roberts is project breakthrough lead at Volans. His work focuses on the role of new mind-sets, technologies, and business models as enablers of sustainable growth. He is also one of the driving forces behind the Carbon Productivity initiative that Volans helped catalyze.