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Why carbon removal is the next frontier in corporate climate action

To limit global warming, we need to do more than reduce emissions. Kaiser Permanente, Interface and other pioneers are already on the case.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on corporate sustainability and carbon removal.

An increasing number of large companies track and report their direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — also known as Scope 1-3 GHG reporting. However, corporate climate action addressing Scope 1-3 emissions will get us only part of the way to delivering on the Paris Agreement pledge of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 C.

Scientists are increasingly clear that we will need to go beyond reducing emissions and also deploy solutions capable of cleaning up the CO2 that remains in the atmosphere from past emissions if we want to make our global climate commitments a reality. 

Because time travel is not an option, we will need to develop what are known as "carbon removal" solutions that can clean up large volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere. A wide variety of carbon removal solutions have been proposed, ranging from basic tree planting and ecosystem restoration to high-tech devices that hoover up CO2 directly from the atmosphere, as shown in the figure below. While carbon removal solutions face many commercialization hurdles, estimates show a very large technical scale potential for a portfolio of solutions if these challenges are tackled successfully.

To fully incorporate carbon removal into corporate climate action strategies, corporate sustainability leaders will need to start developing a definition for "Scope 4" emissions that shows how much CO2 each company is responsible for cleaning up from the atmosphere.

And they will need to get started on this task as soon as possible, as defining Scope 4 emissions in a clear and fair manner undoubtedly will be challenging. For example, leaders tackling Scope 4 emissions will need to grapple with issues such as:

  • How much CO2 should we be aiming to remove in the first place, and by when?
  • Do we assign an individual company’s Scope 4 emissions responsibility by historic cumulative emissions, or by some other proportional metric such as revenue or current GHG emissions?
  • How do we measure and verify action on Scope 4 emissions to ensure reliability, safety and ecological sustainability?
  • How do we ensure extra action on Scope 4 emissions isn’t used as an excuse to slow down action on reducing Scope 1-3 emissions?

There are a number of emerging conversations in the corporate sustainability world where discussion of Scope 4 emissions naturally can fit. For example, companies such as Kaiser Permanente have pledged to have a net-negative footprint through the use of renewables and offsets by 2025, and Interface’s "climate take back" initiative aims to "bring carbon home and reverse climate change." Efforts such as these could serve as a launchpad for broader corporate engagement and coalitions of key stakeholders working to wrap their arms around carbon removal and the Scope 4 emission challenge. 

While the details are fuzzy on how to track and manage Scope 4 emissions today, it is clear that carbon removal represents the next frontier of climate action.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn more about what actions corporate sustainability pioneers can take today to get a head start on seizing the carbon removal opportunity.

Want to join the conversation on carbon removal? Catch "Mining the Sky" at VERGE 16 in Santa Clara, California. Registration for the free livestream is available here. The conversation continues in October at SxSW Eco in Austin, Texas, and at  "Creating an Ecosystem for a Carbon Balanced Planet" in San Francisco.

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