Why businesses must go beyond zero to reverse global warming

More companies are pledging bolder action to not only fight climate change, but to turn the tide on the biggest challenge of the 21st century. What is your organisation doing about it?

Sunrise behind Perth's central business district
Sunrise behind Perth's central business district. Can businesses reverse climate change? Image: doigstar1, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In pronouncing 2018 the Year of Climate Action, the Singapore government could not be sending a clearer or more timely signal. As a fast-paced, resource-intensive society, Singapore’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita far outstrip the average country’s—we rank 26th out of 142 nations. Though small, we pack a punch contributing to what has come to be known as the greatest challenge to our species. If we are to solve the climate problem, we would have to act together—and quickly.

Indeed, we have seen action bubbling up, here and in the region. Earlier this year, the Singapore government announced an impending carbon tax on facilities that surpass 25,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in a year. Civil society groups have also risen to the challenge—the Singapore Youth for Climate Action, for example, have been coordinating community workshops over the past two-and-a-half years.

But there is one wild card, and that is industry. Businesses can both radically scale up positive change and cause significant environmental impact. The manufacturing sector alone, which contributes to 20-25 per cent of Singapore’s economy, is expected to account for a whopping 60 per cent of Singapore’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

To reverse global warming, businesses need to become adept at two things: reducing carbon emissions on a sweeping scale and decreasing the amount of excess carbon already in the atmosphere. Each of these presents a significant opportunity for innovation and growth.

At least one company has had success with the first approach. Ant Financial, the financial technology arm of the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba, released an app in 2016 that aims to make low-carbon lifestyles appealing to the masses. Ant Forest users who make sustainable lifestyle choices get to cash in points for actual trees to be planted on their behalf. The app already engages over 220 million users who have collectively planted more than 10 million trees.

Other businesses are focusing not merely on achieving carbon neutrality, but on strategies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Companies are now developing technology that takes greenhouse gases out of the air and stores the captured carbon in raw materials and useful products—from yarn to fertiliser, fuel to baking soda.

Interface Inc, a flooring manufacturer with its Southeast Asian centre of operations in Singapore, developed and released a carpet tile prototype last year called Proof Positive. It is bio-based (made from renewable plants) and so stores carbon produced during photosynthesis. The production of the tile results in less carbon in the atmosphere: while the average Interface carpet tile has a carbon footprint of seven kilograms of carbon dioxide per square metre, the Proof Positive prototype tile stores two kilograms of carbon dioxide per square metre. If we keep recycling the tiles through our carpet recycling programme, this carbon can be kept out of the atmosphere for decades.

London-headquartered company Carbon Clean Solutions Limited (CCSL) has patented a way to make useful materials out of waste carbon dioxide from power and chemical plants. Its flagship project, the Tuticorin power plant located in Tamil Nadu, India, captures the carbon dioxide released from the factory’s boiler and transforms it into raw material for baking soda.

Businesses are also looking to reverse global warming by tapping—and magnifying—nature’s ability to process and store carbon.

The Bangalore-based company Afforestt helps organisations—including schools, factories and zoos—grow forests in urban contexts, using methods that work with nature (such as mixing soil with microorganisms rather than adding nutrition) to accelerate forest growth.

In partnership with leading biomimicry innovation consultancy Biomimicry 3.8, Interface is piloting an approach that imagines manufacturing of the future. Factory as a Forest envisions a redesign of a factory so that it runs like an ecosystem, managing and sequestering carbon where possible and operating as a functional equivalent to natural habitats.

To reverse global warming, businesses need to become adept at two things: reducing carbon emissions on a sweeping scale and decreasing the amount of excess carbon already in the atmosphere.

For its first pilot project in New South Wales, Australia, Interface’s Minto factory measured the ecosystem services that a nearby forest could provide—then challenged its employees to create ideas the factory could implement to make it perform more like the local ecosystem, such as using wetlands and roof gardens to purify water.

These examples signal an incoming tidal wave of innovative business models geared towards solving the climate challenge at scale. We know this because businesses sharing similar, radical ambitions are banding together. RE100, a coalition of global companies committed to 100 per cent renewable power, is one good example. So is NextWave, a group of businesses working to develop a commercial-scale supply chain out of ocean plastic, reducing ocean pollution—a contributor to global warming—in the process.

What this means is that companies and organisations that want to take action now have the opportunity to not just follow in the footsteps of restorative businesses, but to take off from where those footsteps end and jumpstart bold business models of their own. And once we have that critical mass of businesses setting goals to reverse global warming, we can perhaps begin to create a climate fit for life.

Karen Lee is sustainability lead at Interface Asia. This post was first published on The Business Times and republished with permission.

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