Imaginings of the commons

Is the idea of reversing climate change like trying to run before one can walk? Volans’ Lorraine Smith highlights the organisations setting out to alter the course of climate change, and explains why reversal is the only way forward.

tree as seen through a crystal ball
Being willing to imagine reversing global warming sometimes causes consternation, incredulity and even outright dismissal, but a handful of organisations are already working towards this. Image: H is for Home, CC BY-NC 2.0

Achieving success could be described as a combination of imagining what’s desirable and then creating the conditions to make it so.

There is plenty of scholarship to support the belief that we are more likely to achieve a goal if we can imagine success. Yet even the ambitious imagineers among us sometimes get frustrated by the gap between the possible and our current track.

Case in point: being willing to imagine reversing global warming sometimes causes consternation, incredulity and even outright dismissal. Too ambitious! Not reasonable! Fair cries for imaginative moderation. If only not achieving the goal was a remotely workable option. But it isn’t.

And so, I am always heartened when I come across actions that validate envisioning us getting this right. It is possible, and we can do it, and some people are actively closing the gap between imagination and reality, right now. If the first step is shifting the mindset to permit imagining a reversal pathway – rather than simply reducing emissions, incrementally slowing the pace of increased warming – then we can take a cue from the increasing number of leaders who are saying “reversal”.

And if the next step is to set in motion the activities and mechanisms that make the reversal of global warming at least more likely if not assured, then once again we can see a growing number of steps being taken which have the potential to grow to a tipping point if sufficiently energised.

Talking reversal

I am not going to lie. When I first heard Paul Hawken, leader of Project Drawdown, call for us to be clear on the goal — reverse global warming — I flinched. Reverse global warming? We hardly agree on slowing it down! But the more I thought about it, the more I realised the merit of this point: slowing down towards a cliff is not a desirable goal. Changing direction is.

I’ve mentioned this before. Yet it’s still a rarity for companies to come right out and say that reversing global warming is a goal they embrace, although we are seeing increasing activity in this regard. A highly vocal advocate has been flooring company Interface with their Climate Take Back campaign which poses the question: “If humanity has changed the climate by mistake, can we change it with intent?”

And in a report released in 2017 by Citibank — one of the world’s largest banks — the company highlights that investing in climate solutions is an enormous financial opportunity. CEO Michael Corbat’s letter sets the tone from the top: “[…] investments are urgently needed to effectively reverse our planet’s warming trend and build a resilient, sustainable economy.”

When the CEO of a global bank can state an intention to contribute to reversing global warming while noting the opportunity, there is no excuse for anyone to remain entrenched in an “emissions reduction” mindset. 

Toddling reversal

Although it is an encouraging — and necessary — development to see these mentions of reversal, it is only relevant if people are walking the talk. And, given the scope and urgency of the problem, ideally we’ll not only have more walkers soon, we’ll have a few serious sprinters in the mix, too.

Alas, we’re more likely still at the toddling stage, but if this is what it takes to develop the muscles and will to make real strides forward, so be it. And there are strong signals of strides to come.

For instance, a relatively new organisation, Nori has the mission of “reversing climate change” which they intend to at least contribute to through a voluntary carbon market to be launched later this year. They recently hosted the aptly named Reversapalooza Summit in Seattle where around 100 people with diverse specialties gathered to explore a new kind of carbon market.

Present at the event were people with backgrounds in blockchain and cryptocurrency, regenerative agriculture, conventional agriculture, carbon sequestration, carbon offsets, technological innovation, economics and sustainability — all of which will be critical to getting the mechanisms right for this market to succeed where others have failed.

Nori is one of a small but growing suite of actors striving to make it as easy as possible to earn a profit by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, an indisputable requirement of any reversal pathway. Although Nori’s market is focused on soil carbon, Reversapalooza explored many different technological pathways that offer solutions. For example, the Summit audience heard from Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, who highlighted the enormous opportunity of using carbon as a feedstock.

This aligned well with what Volans and our collaborators heard at our Carbon Productivity Base Camp event in June 2017, where Interface talked about its “Proof Positive” carpet tile, and Covestro talked about using CO2 as feedstock in some of its polymer materials. These are still a small part of the companies’ overall business, but they raise the bar on what’s possible.

In keeping with that theme, earlier in the month I had a chance to join the celebration of the finalists of the NRG-Cosia Carbon xPrize in New York. The Prize challenged innovation teams “to reimagine what we can do with CO2 emissions by incentivising and accelerating the development of technologies that convert CO2 into valuable products”. The 10 finalists from around the world take diverse approaches to turning CO2 emissions into a variety of products, including concrete, liquid fuels, plastics and carbon fiber, illustrating a range of commercial opportunities that are poised to grow.

If the first step is shifting the mindset to permit imagining a reversal pathway – rather than simply reducing emissions, incrementally slowing the pace of increased warming – then we can take a cue from the increasing number of leaders who are saying “reversal”.

Consumer brands are also paying attention to the possibilities taking hold within their supply chains. For example, founder of Newlight Technologies, Mark Herrema, was also featured on a Nori Podcast during which he talked about the £10 billion production license with IKEA for Newlight’s AirCarbon thermoplastics in IKEA’s home furnishings.

These are still early days in terms of giving ourselves permission to imagine reversing global warming, and then positioning ourselves to define and achieve success. But just as toddlers are terribly clumsy walkers and not typically great sprinters, we can nonetheless easily imagine that a little one taking his first steps will get more agile as the years accrue. Likewise, we have the power to imagine our own collective potential if we so choose.

Speaking of Ikea, when I was a kid growing up in Canada the company had a great ad campaign with the slogan, “Ikea: Swedish for common sense.” I’d like to imagine that soon we will realise reversing global warming isn’t a crazy notion. Instead, we’ll take it for granted, as tomorrow’s self-evident common sense.

Reversing global warming: Human for common sense.

It has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

Lorraine Smith is an Associate Director at Volans. This article has been republished with permission. 

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