Carbon management: the next Copernican mindset shift?

When one of history’s original disruptors, Copernicus, put the sun at the centre of the solar system, he upset entire systems and paradigms. Sustainability is about to have its own Copernicus moment as more organisations put the carbon cycle at the centre of the sustainable business agenda, says Volans’ John Elkington.

Nicolaus Copernicus in bronze
The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Warsaw. It's time for a paradigm and mindset shift in sustainability. Image: skepticalview, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How glorious to be part of one of the great growth industries of this century, the sustainability solutions sector. Even before the $12 trillion-a-year market forecasts for 2030 produced earlier in the year by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, it was already clear that the current era is likely to prove to be, as a colleague put it recently, one last lash of the dragon’s tail.

But as the fossil-fuelled dragon tries to ward off the mass stranding of its treasured assets, it is also increasingly clear that sustainability itself is ripe for disruption.

In a world fixated on Larry Page or Elon Musk, it’s easy to forget that there have always been disruptors—whether in philosophy, science, technology, economics, politics or war. One who has popped up in recent conversations is Nicolaus Copernicus, who was in peak form 500 years ago.

By putting the Sun at the centre of his heavenly model, he turned the prevailing astronomical paradigm, and established political order, inside out. Now, at a time when most current sustainability models centre around people, markets and capitalism, it is time to put natural cycles—particularly the carbon cycle—at the core of the sustainable business agenda.

Indeed, perhaps the man we should be recalling is not Copernicus, but Tycho Brahe. Living and working around the time of Copernican champion, Galileo, Brahe tried to reconcile clashing ideas by building a model of the solar system allowing key elements of heliocentrism to fit in—while still giving Earth a central, starring role.

So on to the obvious question: Are we latter day Brahes, busily shoehorning the uncomfortable realities of earth system science into our increasingly obsolescent economic and business models?

Uncomfortably, the evidence suggests that many of us are. Most business leaders still see earth system science as remote from their own understanding of—and felt responsibilities for—sustainable business. It’s something they can opt to buy into, or not.

We must embrace and help drive a paradigm shift that will reshape worldviews at a Copernican level. This time, though, it involves helping business understand that its operations are part of, and likely to be profoundly shaped by, the natural world.

But now the sustainability industry is on the threshold of its very own Copernican revolution.

You see positive evidence in emerging frameworks such as the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, which explicitly places business within the wider social and natural contexts. Along similar lines, the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s work on nine ‘Planetary Boundaries’ and the IGBP’s work on the ‘Great Acceleration’ underscore the increasingly urgent need for just such a shift away from “business-at-the-centre-of-everything” models and worldviews.

So, to help spotlight and tackle such top team blind spots, and to map ways forward, we are producing a series of filmed interviews with next-generation innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders.

Dropping down a level, we are also immersed in the Carbon Productivity Consortium, a new open-source initiative designed to support and measure progress in climate-related innovation, commerce and policy, and backed by Covestro, Volans, SYSTEMIQ, the Future-Fit Foundation, Futerra and Innovation Arts.

Originally described in a 2008 McKinsey study, “carbon productivity” was defined as the amount of GDP produced per unit of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. The Consortium is building on this concept, using the natural carbon cycle as a key element of the framing.

We are acutely aware that many different organisations are already beavering away in this space—and are working hard to connect with and learn from them. To get a better sense of who’s who, and doing what where, we are mapping the carbon productivity landscape. Here, too, the aim is to showcase innovators working on potential breakthrough answers to the questions posed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

At the heart of the initiative, SYSTEMIQ and the Future Fit Foundation are co-evolving an open-source tool to measure carbon productivity across sectors. The aim is to provide novel insights into the climate change mitigation levers available to corporate leadership teams, across their extended value chains.

Our collective challenge is to reframe the conversation on carbon, helping leaders see this semi-magical element as a critically important resource, albeit in new applications ranking from nanomaterials to farmland regeneration, not just as a life-on-earth-threatening menace.

Among the pioneers (or heretics, perhaps) we are working with is Paul Hawken, whose book Project Drawdown (published this month) showcases and ranks key technologies and initiatives with the potential to reverse climate change. We will feature his work at a Carbon Productivity Basecamp in London on June 14, along with the strategies of companies like Interface—whose pioneering Climate Take Back initiative promotes radically different ways of managing carbon.

Those who know their history also know that the Copernicus story is far from encouraging in terms of the speed of true paradigm shifts. Nearly 2,000 years after the ancient Greeks observed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, Copernicus still couldn’t get most people—particularly those in power—to grasp the basic facts of heliocentrism, however compelling the evidence.

Now, once again, we must embrace and help drive a paradigm shift that will reshape worldviews at a Copernican level. This time, though, it involves helping business understand that its operations are part of, and likely to be profoundly shaped by, the natural world—not the other way around. Please fasten your seat belts. 

John Elkington is chairman and chief pollinator, Volans. 

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