As an active strategic consultant in the sustainability industry, I engage with numerous executives. They are starting to increasingly be aware that climate change is not only real but also that drastic action is required.
Through this experience, I've also found that there are three frequently interchanged terms within sustainability strategy and communications: carbon neutrality, net-zero emissions and climate positivity. It is vital to recognize that these terms represent distinct standards, and each carries different implications concerning compliance with the Paris Agreement's 1.5 degree Celsius global warming threshold.
The BBC reported that we could pass that threshold by 2027, and I believe that to effectively address the urgency of the climate crisis, companies should prioritize adopting the term "climate positivity." The limited time available demands that we do not merely aim for being "less negative" (carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions); instead, organizations should actively contribute to making a positive impact on the climate.
To achieve the ambitious goal of climate positivity, I introduce a crucial concept: radical collaboration. Embracing this approach entails forging unprecedented partnerships and alliances; transcending traditional boundaries; and sharing resources, knowledge and innovative solutions. Through a united effort, businesses can effectively work toward becoming climate-positive and make a substantial difference in combatting climate change.
Are carbon neutrality and net-zero emissions enough?
In July, the Washington Post reported, “It’s not just a record-hot day or two, unprecedented heat waves or abnormally warm ocean waters: All indications are that this will be the hottest single month on Earth on record, and possibly in more than 100,000 years." This tells me that, while action might well be taking place, aspirations and targets are still falling short.
"Carbon neutrality" refers to the state where the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human activities is offset by an equivalent amount being removed. Examining the first word in this term—"carbon"—the emphasis rests on just one greenhouse gas. Since carbon dioxide stands as one of many contributors fueling the climate crisis, this standard might well be a necessary starting point. However, to me, it remains limited in its scope.
On the other hand, the term "net-zero emissions" accounts for all greenhouse gases. This includes methane—the second most common greenhouse gas with a potency around 25 times that of carbon dioxide—and other less abundant but strong culprits, such as nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. As with carbon neutrality, to achieve net-zero status, a business's emissions must be equal to that being removed. But, returning to the difference between the two terms, while the former focuses only on carbon emissions, the latter crucially examines the broader picture.
At the furthest, and most aspirational, end of the scale, we have "climate positivity." This goal provides a pathway to the most optimistic outcome for the planet and its inhabitants. A climate-positive business is one that saves more greenhouse gases than initially produced, which means it essentially gives back more than it has taken. This approach entails actively contributing to environmental restoration, regeneration and carbon removal efforts, rather than solely aiming for a state of balance.
From my perspective, carbon neutrality and net-zero emissions targets, while commendable steps in the right direction, are not sufficient to adequately address the climate crisis. Both carbon neutrality and net-zero emissions focus primarily on balancing or offsetting current emissions. However, merely reaching a state of equilibrium will not reverse the damage already done.
Becoming Climate Positive By Embracing Radical Collaboration
By adhering to various conventional textbook methods, businesses often find themselves engaged in calculating their emissions, establishing long-term targets and seeking specific solutions to gradually reduce their emissions over time. While this approach is not inherently flawed, I believe it can fall short of addressing the magnitude of the issue at hand.
Many companies likely realize that a substantial portion of their carbon footprint is not directly attributable to their immediate operations but rather originates from activities within the broader value chain, occurring either upstream or downstream. Research has indicated that these indirect emissions, commonly referred to as "scope 3" emissions, can make up 70% of the overall carbon footprint of many businesses.
Therefore, I believe addressing them requires collaboration across multiple organizations. However, the only ways we have for organizations to collaborate are based on economic constructs and the assumption of economic goals.
Radical collaboration is a new paradigm for collaboration among organizations that I believe can help companies work toward becoming climate-positive. It is unique in that it is based on a joint commitment to a nonfinancial outcome and a common architecture that enables rapid scaling.
There are three steps to building a radical collaboration:
• Identify the right collaborators and opportunities.
• Gain a joint commitment to a common (nonfinancial) outcome.
• Launch a radical collaboration hub as a mechanism for sustaining the collaboration. The role of the radical collaboration hub is to establish the mechanisms for measuring the achievement of the outcome and tracking progress toward it; facilitate a structured, but creative, collaborative problem-solving and solution development process; and provide governance and maintain transparency around progress and the fulfillment of commitments.
In conclusion, carbon neutrality might well remain a useful starting point for certain businesses as they transition from business as usual to adopt more radical sustainability strategies. However, if we are to realize our ambitions of remaining below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, I believe organizations can start working together in a radically different way and become climate positive.
Originally published in Forbes.