Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

Positively climate-positive

Amidst all the dreary, discouraging and increasingly disturbing news about climate change — and what is, even in aggregate, ultimately inadequate action from the private sector — it’s such a pleasure to be able to share some good news. To take a moment to celebrate the progress that’s happening, and at least one positive trend of movement in the right direction.

The opportunity to become net-positive is precisely what Tom Chi, ex-Google X co-founder, told me about in an interview leading up to his top-rated keynote at VERGE 19. “What that looks like,” Chi said, “is ensuring that every single year humanity is on the planet, nature is healthier because we're here.” Of course, the same is true for businesses, too.

That’s why the recent announcements from Starbucks and Microsoft are so significant. Both commitments, albeit different, are unified by a common orientation to draw down and give back more than they take. Here, for those of you who haven’t dug deep just yet, is a high-level summary of the new path on which each company is embarking — and why your company ought to consider taking a page from each of their books.

Starbucks just committed to becoming resource positive. In other words, to store more carbon than it emits, to eliminate waste and to provide more freshwater than it extracts. That’s a big friggin’ deal, especially for a company that reports adding a new location every six hours, on top of its 32,000 sites across 82 countries.

Clearly, Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson, gets it. He gets that today’s ecological crises require transformative action from the private sector — not just to ensure continuity and profitability of the company, but also a livable planet for all. That’s why, as seen in the open letter published Tuesday, Starbucks is commiting to pursue “a bold, multi-decade aspiration to become resource positive and give more than we take from the planet.”

As you’ll see in Johnson’s letter, and my colleague Elsa Wenzel’s in-depth coverage of the announcement, the plan includes both short- and long-term commitments — ones that are time-bound and for which the solutions are known, and others that aren’t aligned with timescales or solution sets just yet. 

By 2030, Starbucks is now committed to slashing in half its carbon emissions; landfill waste, from both stores and manufacturing facilities; as well as the water it uses across coffee production and operations. All laudable goals, though far from net-positive. 

The bigger, albeit broader set of goals are where the potential for true, resource-positivity comes in (you can read more in Wenzel’s piece about each and the progress thus far). The strategies focus on five main facets of Starbucks’ business, ranging from a move towards plant-based menus and ultimately ditching single-use packaging for good, to investing in regenerative agriculture, reforestation, conservation and replenishment in its supply chain.

Then, there’s Microsoft, which just committed to becoming carbon negative within the next 10 years. That’s one heck of an ambitious goal and timeline — and it doesn’t stop there. Microsoft also announced a stretch goal to remove all of the legacy carbon it has emitted since the company was founded back in 1975, as well as the creation of a $1 billion investment fund to accelerate carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies.

I’m not going to lie: This gets me going big time. As someone who was actively involved with Project Drawdown since its inception, my heart has been aching in anticipation of the day that companies start to embrace the opportunities in drawdown, at scale. There’s a longing to see more Fortune 100 companies join those such as Interface, IKEA, Stripe and Intuit in committing their ingenuity and resources towards ensuring global greenhouse gas emissions peak and begin to decline on an annual basis. 

Let’s get one thing straight about Microsoft’s commitment. Call it what you will: “carbon negative” and “climate positive” both refer to removing more carbon from the atmosphere than is emitted — be it a material, such as cement; a product, such as what these Carbon X Prize finalists are inventing; or an entire company, such as Microsoft. 

What’s important to understand is the significant difference between being carbon neutral, which typically refers to the offsetting of emissions with credits, and being carbon negative, which involves a material reduction of excess emissions from the atmosphere. The latter is so critical for climate progress that last year we launched an entire conference, VERGE Carbon, dedicated to accelerating the markets for technological and nature-based solutions — which together are poised to address the 1 trillion excess tons of atmospheric CO2 we need to sequester in order to get us back to pre-industrial levels.

That’s why it’s so exciting that Microsoft plans to embrace both. It’s getting going first with nature-based solutions, given that they’ve been refined by 3.5 billion years of R&D and are proven to be market-ready. In parallel, the $1 billion investment fund is going to help scale carbon removal technologies, with a focus on those that can drive meaningful decarbonization, help Microsoft address its “unpaid climate debt” and future emissions, while considering climate equity in both established and emerging economies.

For deeper insights, I urge you to read my colleague Heather Clancy’s coverage, which includes more details about the company’s plans to move towards all clean energy, electrified fleets and in some cases truly regenerative campuses.

"I like to explain regenerative business as the process of increasing the capacity of every system you touch," says my friend and colleague Amanda Joy Ravenhill, co-founder of Project Drawdown and now Executive Director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Let’s hope these recent announcements aren’t just due to something they’re drinking in the water up in Puget Sound, and instead a harbinger of what’s to come — the ushering of a new era in which corporate sustainability leadership is no longer just about minimizing, or even eliminating, a company’s negative impact, but also maximizing the positive one. 

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"As we approach the 50th anniversary of Starbucks in 2021, we look ahead with a heightened sense of urgency and conviction that we must challenge ourselves, think bigger and do much more in partnership with others to take care of the planet we share."

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Kevin Johnson, Starbucks CEO