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The compelling case for being ‘climate positive by design’

Designing climate-positive societies, workplaces and widgets is the missing element in climate models and, by consequence, climate action.

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The incorporation of the “climate positive by design” metric into the scenarios considered in the IPCC report would bring tangible economic benefits. Image via Shutterstock/Petrmalinak

Despite the inertia of the carbon-intensive economy and the fossil fuel capture of public policy, climate change has emerged as a top priority for boardrooms.

Among the critical decisions being made is where to anchor any commitments for decarbonization. Is it to stay within a maximum temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures? Is it to reach net zero by 2030? Is it to measure, disclose and reduce Scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions annually? Is it to be Paris-aligned, which necessitates a just and equitable approach to climate solutions?

Underpinning all these approaches to climate progress is science.

Yes, and…

While scientific understanding provides us with clear overarching parameters, the climate models are not without subjectivity. As any scenario planner knows, value judgements are made to assign weights to certain factors over others; what is included and excluded in a pathway is subject to many forms of bias. Because green business and finance rely so heavily on these models for strategy, the community can ill afford to turn a blind eye to the underlying assumptions of the models.

So what underpins the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models in the latest update, the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), that businesses and financers use as a basis for action?

There are different types of scenarios under three IPCC working groups (WG): WGI uses future climate scenarios based on shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs) and representative concentration pathways (RCPs); WGII uses climate resilient development pathways that are largely the same as the SSPs based on different levels of adaptation; and WGIII uses global GHG emissions based on integrated assessment models, which also generate the SSPs and RCPs.

Becoming climate positive by designing low carbon living and working spaces and equipment — known as 'sufficiency' in the scientific discourse — is just as important as other measures such as the impact of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

There is an open process to submit climate scenarios to the IPCC, including models produced by oil and gas companies. According to IPCC lead author Yamina Saheb, of the 3,131 scenarios submitted for AR6, only 17 percent could be considered compatible with the Paris Accord. In the end, over 40 models made it into AR6 as first coordinated by the World Climate Research Programme’s Coupled Model Intercomparison Project.

One significant problem with the scenarios included in the AR6 is that they do not adequately account for a key ingredient to decarbonization: preventing greenhouse gases from the outset, or becoming climate positive by design.

Becoming climate positive by designing low carbon living and working spaces and equipment — known as "sufficiency" in the scientific discourse — is just as important as other measures such as the impact of renewable energy and energy efficiency. These preventative measures, however, are almost never considered in IAM climate scenarios. That is one reason why these scenarios require a large amount of negative emissions.

Key elements of climate positive by design include enabling public transit, eliminating programmed obsolescence in equipment, prioritizing multi-family homes over single-family buildings, and moving to a four-day work week. This metric is not (French) focused on behavioral changes at the individual level but rather on systems changes at the community and larger level.

According to the IPCC, these climate positive by design policies are "a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human well-being for all within planetary boundaries." The concept can be found across the globe. In Sweden, for example, the term "lagom" is used to describe something that is just the right amount — not too much and not too little. In Swahili and the many countries such as Tanzania that speak it, the term "imetosha" may describe contently having enough. The Chinese saying "知足常乐" is also rooted in such contentment.

The incorporation of the "climate positive by design" metric into the scenarios considered in the IPCC report would bring tangible economic benefits. For one, it would help better quantify notions of climate justice. As a recent report by Global Endowment Management notes, climate justice is "a holistic approach that includes and transcends data, seeks to change existing power structures, and ensures that climate contributions and conversations are led by and centered on those most impacted."

The most climate impacted consumers and citizens have been advocating for less talk of solutions such as planetary stratospheric aerosol injection, for which it would be nearly impossible to obtain free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), and more structural change, such as eliminating the need to own and use a car. Commuting by light rail, for instance, is as one Ohio-based resident claimed, freedom; "rebuilding neighborhoods and creating places that are dense and vibrant enough that people can easily walk to grocery stores, pharmacies or even their jobs" is exactly the kind of climate solution that is missing in scenarios included in the IPCC reports.

Another advantage of adding climate positive by design into climate models is that doing so provides a concrete pathway for companies and their financial backers to meet their climate commitments. What is the current incentive for developing an LED version of the forever lightbulb or appliances that last as long as a lifespan? This would help create one. What is the best way to incentivize real estate developers to construct multifamily housing? This would help.

Energy efficiency without carbon efficiency is very much wanting. We know very little can be considered, let alone enacted, unless it is counted. By overlooking this critical measurement in climate scenarios, the IPCC is doing businesses and our society a disfavor in reaching climate justice goals.

On the flipside, if designing climate positive equipment and living and working practices were to be included in the next round of the IPCC report and scenarios, the various standards such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP) and the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF) could also incorporate these measurements so that companies could get credit for what, in many cases, they are crucial to implementing.

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