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Sustainable Futures

What business needs to do about carbon in the post-400 ppm era

I’ve been having a difficult time this last week or so. It seems a little harder to get out of bed in the morning, a little harder to crack a joke in an email. And that seems strange given that the sun finally has come out and we seem to be getting into spring, my favorite time of year. So I was asking myself what was up, and I realized I could actually date-stamp my bad mood to the news a couple of weeks ago that the levels of CO2 in the climate had passed the 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold.

I know this sounds kind of crazy. Nothing really has changed in the world -- it wasn’t like there was a climate agreement that had suddenly had failed, or a cap-and-trade bill was going to be passed and wasn’t, or that anything dramatic changed. Things kept going on as usual, and we passed an invented threshold; one day we weren’t at that level and the next day we were. Business as usual, really.

OK, so let’s first be clear about what actually did happen. On May 9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the average daily emissions had gone over 400 ppm for a 24-hour period. There’s a good explanation here. It’s worth noting that emissions rise and fall over the year and May is typically the high point. This is the average, and while we’ve been over 400 ppm briefly before, this was the first time it averaged that level for more than 24 hours. Emissions will dip back again, and then next May will swing around and in all likelihood we’ll be even higher.

There wasn’t a lot of fanfare in the news; there were articles and a front-page story in The New York Times and a few op-eds. But the general tone was “no surprises here, we said we were on this course and so we are.”

And I think that’s my problem. How have we let this be business as usual? Sure I know this is a threshold that we’ve imposed -- in one sense, the world is in roughly the same amount of peril as it was at 399 ppm. We actually don’t know where the straw lies that will break the climate’s back -- the number we hear the most about is 450 ppm -- but that is largely political expediency in the face of globally rising emissions; these aren’t hard and fast lines.

But what we do know is that the climate doesn’t behave in a linear fashion. There are feedback loops and tipping points that we don’t yet fully understand. So I think what worries me is that in internalizing the idea of emissions rising in what feels like a roughly linear way, we maybe have internalized the idea of the climate changing in an incremental way. And if the problem is incremental then we think the solutions can be, too.

This is horribly oversimplified, but it’s my best explanation for why we continue to celebrate small incremental changes and wins, and ignore the step change that we need to actually move the needle and do something about it.

Some possible good news: U.S. emissions actually are falling. But the bad news is that this is due to the recession and the increase in natural gas in the energy mix -- good news on the emissions front, problematic economically and environmentally, so not sustainable as such. Further bad news, they’re still not falling fast enough to keep us off track to 450 ppm.

Image credit: CC license by otodo/Flickr

So we need to head back to the drawing board and think more seriously about significant change, rather than celebrating incremental improvements. We’ve shared Forum for the Future’s change curve on this blog before, and it’s a good reminder of where we’re trying to get to -- a new sustainable mainstream. But from what I’ve written above I think we all need to do a lot more right at the start of the curve: Experiencing the need to change and the diagnosis so that we start to fully understand how big the change that’s needed really is.

I think that means a few mid-year resolutions for those of us in the GreenBiz community:

  1. Can we start saying the words “climate change” out loud? I know this is politically difficult in many companies. But if we don’t use those words, who will? And if we don’t use those words, where’s the urgency in the changes we need? Maybe we could all try it for a while and report back?
  2. Understand the risk of inaction. We know that money talks, so if we can start focusing on the value-at-risk to the whole business model from climate change, we might get some breakthrough in the finance departments and boardrooms where we’re all struggling. Part of the problem is that we have tended to frame climate change as a concern that business needs to help solve -- if we start helping business realize the fundamental risk that climate change poses to their future success, we might start to get the scale of action we need. We need to tackle the meme that action on climate is bad for business; no action is going to be far, far worse.
  3. Think big. We need to banish the term “low-hanging fruit” from our collective vocabulary. If there’s low-hanging fruit that’s still to pick, then shame on us. Let’s stand back from the tree and get a good look at the stuff at the top. That means businesses mobilizing to reduce not just their own emissions but to work within the broader societal context, too, and using their influence and lobbying power to tackle the problem systemically.

There are good examples of companies ramping up their action and broadening the scope of their carbon reduction strategies to look along their value chain and at the behavior of their consumers. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan takes responsibility for the emissions of consumers, in the U.K., Kingfisher has announced its vision of becoming Net Positive, and there are some pilots of zero carbon stores and factories.

But these examples are few and far between.

So write the number 400 ppm on your office wall, look at it hard, and then ask if what we’re doing is enough yet.

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