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The Elkington Report

It's time to reimagine carbon

It requires a new language and tools, and they're emerging even faster than you think. Covestro, Interface, LaFarge-Holcim and UBS get it.

It’s time to reimagine our relationship with carbon, the element most critical to life on Earth — and yet now increasingly demonized as the main chemical culprit in accelerated climate change. This was the overriding conclusion I took away from the Carbon Productivity Basecamp in June (#ReimagineCarbon).

The event, coordinated by us at Volans and others, featured powerful keynotes from Paul Hawken, introducing his Project Drawdown team’s work on the modeling of 100 climate solutions, and from Interface Chief Sustainability Officer Erin Meezan, who explained the radical new thinking behind the company’s Climate Take Back initiative.

For a sense of what they said, take a peek at this video short from Atlas of the Future. Further interviews will be posted shortly, both on the Carbon Productivity website and the Project Breakthrough website, which we are co-evolving with the U.N. Global Compact.

What is "carbon productivity"? It involves generating radically greater economic, social and environmental value from the carbon we use, whether it comes from "durable," "living" or "fugitive" sources.

Bill McDonough nicely frames the new language of carbon, distinguishing between three types:

  • Living carbon: "organic, flowing in biological cycles, providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow."
  • Durable carbon: "locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibers like paper and cloth to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused."
  • Fugitive carbon: which "has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, ‘waste to energy’ plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture and urban development."

Early efforts to boost our carbon productivity focus on how to make better use of the carbon that we can still burn (such as creating "fugitive carbon," in McDonough’s new language) within the sort of national carbon budgets being pioneered by the U.K. Committee on Climate Change in the fifth round of its carbon budgeting.

Clearly, our initial focus has to be on fossil fuels. The Carbon Productivity Tool developed by SystemIQ and the Future-Fit Foundation is a crucial first step. It is designed to help businesses measure their carbon productivity, to boost their performance by generating more value from less fossil fuel carbon and to collaborate with other companies across their product value chains.

The collaboration with Future-Fit has been critical, increasing the odds that we don’t focus on carbon to the exclusion of other factors required to create the future we want.

We must work out how to reinvent our relationships with both living and durable forms of carbon.
The tool enables businesses to compare alternative sources of feedstock and energy inputs, process and performance improvements, and product designs for environmental benefits in both the use and after-use phases. Companies then can identify the best interventions to optimize their carbon productivity.

But, as the Project Drawdown analysis makes abundantly clear, we must also work out how to reinvent our relationships with both living and durable forms of carbon. In particular, we must work out how to draw down fugitive carbon from the atmosphere in massive quantities — and how to regenerate living systems that capture and store huge amounts of carbon that otherwise would end up back in the atmosphere.

Crucially, too, we must figure out to make these newly understood aspects of carbon management economically viable at scale. Indeed, if any one element of our Basecamp surprised other people, it was the pace of development in carbon capture and usage. We heard from pioneer carbon-capture-and-use companies such as Covestro, a founding member of our Consortium, and Carbon Clean Solutions.

A typical audience response was: "I had no idea that we were so far along in terms of capturing carbon from the atmosphere — and not just pumping it into holes in the ground but turning it into useful, commercially viable products."

On the Covestro front, a novel catalyst is being used to create cardyon, an innovative raw material for the production of high quality, flexible polyurethane foams — the sort of thing that goes into car seats and mattresses. It is produced with up to 20 percent carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere. The net result: manufacturers increasingly have more sustainable raw materials to help cut their reliance on fossil fuels.

Carbon Clean Solutions, meanwhile, is developing novel process engineering and chemistries to recover carbon dioxide at a cost of around $40 per metric ton, offering 40 percent savings compares with conventional processes. 

Our Basecamp coincided with a convening in New York, to review progress on the Carbon XPRIZE, promoting the development and deployment of breakthrough technologies. The Carbon XPRIZE mandate — to Reimagine CO2 — has been a profound source of inspiration for our own efforts. So we were thrilled to welcome two participants in the New York event — from 9 Billion Lives and LaFarge-Holcim — who helped cross-pollinate the events.

Meanwhile, to get a better sense of the landscape of opportunity, we continue to evolve our Carbon Productivity Map. This spotlights a growing number of key actors in the closely intertwined worlds of climate change and carbon productivity, and key links between them. Wherever we look, brilliant minds are beavering away on ways to better understand, manage and regenerate the planet’s increasingly wobbly carbon cycle.

It’s time to move from critical mess to critical mass.
As Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute noted, for years people have asked: "How do we reduce the amount of carbon in our products?" What they meant by that is the embodied carbon dioxide. Now, we’re trying to gently turn them to: "How do you get as much carbon dioxide as possible into your product? How do you have your product sequester carbon dioxide?"

That’s a very different question, she notes. It makes us think differently about carbon. It says: "We’ve got a carbon excess in the atmosphere. Can you make your [product] out of [atmospheric] carbon?"

At a second Basecamp we ran with the Swiss Bank UBS, this time on the confluence of money, data and trust, one participant said: "It’s time to move from critical mess to critical mass." Totally. It’s time to join up not just today’s dots but tomorrow’s, too. And that’s where we’re headed next. More shortly.

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