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Reversing Global Warming: Speeding Up in the Right Direction

Source: Pixabay / Geralt

If you were teaching a teenager to drive a car (notwithstanding that young people are trending away from learning to drive), how would you react if your young charge was driving along a highway that you knew ended in a steep, unsurvivable drop off a cliff?

Specifically, which of the following would you be most inclined to say?

A. “Please slow down!”

B. “I hope they build a really good bridge before we get there!” Or…

C. “Let’s take the next exit and go in a different direction…”

There is little room for debate on this unless you have a death wish. The obvious choice is C.

Curiously, however, it’s still somewhat rare for companies and other actors in the climate change arena to explicitly state efforts to reverse global warming (i.e. the equivalent of C in the above analogy), as opposed to talking about mitigation (a paraphrasing of B) or even just generally “addressing climate change” (a vague attempt at A).

Some will argue that we need to slow down to change direction. This may have some validity in some sectors (though not in most). However, if it isn’t explicitly stated to what end the slowing is aimed, then the goal appears to be stuck in “less bad” mode which is, simply put, not good enough. It’s as if many don’t feel they have permission to talk about something so ambitious as reversal.

Encouragingly, as I collect my thoughts after an intense Climate Week last week here in New York, there is one theme that stands out for me: it’s not only okay to talk about reversing global warming, it’s also necessary and happening more and more.

Let me back up a step.

Earlier in 2017, as part of a basecamp event exploring how we might reimagine carbon using the principles of carbon productivity as a theme, we heard from author Paul Hawken about the necessity of at least naming this goal. He humbly reported that the book he edited — Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming — came by the name honestly since there simply isn’t another comprehensive plan to reverse global warming, making this one the most comprehensive.

During the basecamp event, several organizations shared compelling stories of commercialized efforts that set them on a path to draw down more than they emit — including Carbon Clean Solutions, Covestro and Interface. These were inspiring stories, yet they ran the risk of feeling unusual as opposed to the kind of “new normal” we’ll need if we don’t want to end up where we’re headed.

With this ambition gap in mind, we set out to engage more corporate leaders in advance of this year’s Climate Week, to identify both leaders with an openness to dialogue on reversal initiatives, as well as existing examples. In other words, we set out to show those who weren’t yet saying “reversal” that it’s not only okay to talk about, but that many are already capitalizing on it.

While we did sometimes hit the proverbial wall — hearing comments like, “Isn’t reversing a rather high bar?” — increasingly we heard that without this bar in place we’re certain to fall short. We also heard repeatedly about the financial opportunities abounding for those who had opened their eyes (and R&D departments) to the scope and scale of the need.

For example, the private capital flowing into carbon innovations through efforts such as the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, explained in more detail in a white paper launched through the Circular Carbon Initiative event during Climate Week, illustrate the expanding possibilities in value creation that directly contribute to a reversal pathway.

And this shift in capital — and mindsets — appeared just as often in conversations with large, incumbent businesses as with the insurgent start-ups and hybrids noted above, although insurgents have their work cut out for them to truly change direction versus merely slow down. During last week’s UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, the “Breaking Through” panel featured executives from Covestro, SAP Ariba and 3M — companies striving to stretch their business models into new forms of value creation that seek to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals. Their progressive action will be critical to the reversal agenda if we are to succeed.

We also heard throughout the week that stronger market pull needs require focus and policy support, and in response we learned of governments already driving the agenda to increase the pace of these market shifts, for example with Canada’s Clean Technology Accelerator, with the country’s recently appointed Ambassador for Climate Change, Jennifer MacIntyre, on point.

And while the clean tech developments are inspiring and — let’s face it — sometimes downright cool, one of the most important “innovations” to reverse global warming, according to The Nature Conservancy’s Justin Adams, is nature — including soils, forests and oceans.

The array of Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) is what he refers to as a sleeping giant, and one we would do well to wake up. By leveraging new and improving research on soil and ocean carbon sinks, and by drawing on improved soil management techniques as we produce food, feed, fiber and fuel, we can significantly increase the amount of carbon sequestered by nature.

Another key element in NCS is the reduction of deforestation, something of high relevance to numerous industrial value chains, including food, pharmaceuticals, mining and construction materials among others. During Climate Week, Adams moderated an event launching a 10-point plan from the Tropical Forest Alliance (a World Economic Forum initiative) to halt deforestation, supported with presentations by a number of organizations including WWF and the Consumer Goods Forum, and long-time forest advocate Michael Jenkins, CEO of Forest Trends.

There are surely more emerging examples — alongside well-established ones — in this fast-moving space. We invite your suggestions of where we and others can look for more compelling ideas about commercial traffic that’s already heading in this new and far preferred direction.

If there really were only one path ahead for us to choose from — say, the one leading straight off a cliff — then slowing down would seem better than speeding up, and hoping for a technological miracle might ease anxieties. But since we do have a better option, one where we head towards a different horizon altogether, and we have sufficient evidence and examples indicating how to shift toward this new direction of travel, we have what we need to change course.

It’s time to not just signal awareness of the cliff, but to stop moving towards it at any pace, to get pointed the right way, and to hit the accelerator.

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This piece first appeared as a Medium article in September 2017 as part of Volans Project Breakthrough platform.

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