Imagine a major fire breaking out, in pre-pandemic days, in a crowded shopping mall. How would the shoppers around you react? Would they rush in a panicked, disorderly crowd toward the stairs, elbows out, desperate to get to safety? Or would they look around and help others, putting their own lives at risk to ensure that everyone had a chance to escape?
Most people would expect the panicked reaction. And they’d be wrong, according to Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian and philosopher, whose first book, Utopia for Realists (2016), argued for a universal basic income, a shorter working week, and open borders. (He also received lots of attention for an appearance at Davos in 2019, when he spoke forcefully against tax avoidance.) In his new book, Humankind, he writes that it is “a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic.” This myth even has a name: veneer theory. It is a deeply pessimistic idea, which says that we live in a fragile coexistence with one another that collapses under pressure. Like all myths, this one has little basis in fact, but it remains extremely powerful, providing many of the assumptions that underpin modern education, economics, and law. In Humankind, a valiant attempt to restore our faith in others, Bregman explains why veneer theory is so ubiquitous, and he argues precisely the opposite: that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.”
Bregman believes that this decency is the most fundamental part of our humanity. Back when Homo sapiens were only one of several species of hominid, our supremacy was far from guaranteed. Neanderthals had larger brains and were building musical instruments and cooking food earlier than we were. But we were friendlier, and our ability to work together enabled Homo sapiens to survive the last ice age and evolve into humankind. However, alongside our social nature was another, more problematic attribute: We feel more affinity for those who seem most like ourselves. Scientists do not know why, but some degree of xenophobia is contained in our DNA.
For the first part of our history, sociability remained our defining characteristic. Egalitarian societies shared everything, which lowered the threat level posed by strangers. Our lack of desire for personal power was so extreme that “our ancestors were allergic to inequality,” Bregman writes. The major turning point came when the ice melted, approximately 15,000 years ago. Food became more plentiful, and the hunter-gatherers settled down, formed settlements, and accumulated possessions worth defending. We also had fewer chance encounters with strangers. Bregman takes the view — shared by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, more recently, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who scored a runaway hit with his book Sapiens (2011) — that this was a regrettable moment for humanity. We remained as social as ever, but our xenophobia was brought to the fore.
From here, it’s easy to draw a straight line from the desire to defend possessions to the establishment of cities, the deepening of inequality, and several centuries of war. But Bregman sees our development differently. He has assembled a sheaf of firsthand evidence to show that we are — and always have been — reluctant fighters. Although not minimizing the crimes committed by humans, he disputes any sense that we reveled in them or sought them out. He cites examples of American servicemen in World War II, who, despite being in a life-and-death situation, could not bear to fire their weapons. Similarly, studies have found that an overwhelming majority of the muskets recovered from the battlefield at Gettysburg in the American Civil War were still loaded, indicating a widespread aversion to discharging them.
One of the great pleasures of Humankind is Bregman’s effective dismantling of many of the popular pillars of our modern, cynical view of humanity. The field of social psychology sprung up after World War II in an attempt to discover how humanity was capable of such atrocities. Bregman holds little store by any of it. His debunks Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the Stanford Prison Experiment, which divided participants into prisoners and guards and supposedly saw the latter inflict psychological punishment on the former, by revealing Zimbardo’s collusion with his guards to achieve his desired results. He also takes down Stanley Milgram, whose shock machine experiment saw hundreds of men seemingly willing to electrocute a stranger to obey an authority figure. In fact, most were racked with guilt and were only able to persist because they believed that they were helping to advance scientific understanding. As for the infamous murder of New Yorker Kitty Genovese, whose 1964 stabbing was reportedly witnessed by 38 idle bystanders, it turns out there were only three eyewitness, and two of them came to her aid.
As for the infamous murder of New Yorker Kitty Genovese, whose 1964 stabbing was reportedly witnessed by 38 idle bystanders, it turns out there were only three eyewitness, and two of them came to her aid.
Perhaps Bregman’s most unsparing critique is that of the geographer Jared Diamond, whose 2005 book, Collapse, argued that the Polynesian settlers on Easter Island sabotaged their own society through a civil war. Bregman argues that all of the evidence that Diamond assembled was false. By returning to notebooks of 18th-century Dutch explorers, Bregman argues that there was no evidence that the population was starving; he concludes that the obsidian arrowheads that littered the island were not weapons of war but were used to eat bananas. The population declined not because they murdered one another, as Diamond argued, but because Peruvian slavers carried them off.
And that is the rub with Humankind. It motors along with the ease of a Malcolm Gladwell book, and Bregman has the same ability to process reams of academic research and offer up its conclusions for a mass audience. It is comforting, especially in times as perilous as these, to hear that we are more helpful and peaceable than we are usually portrayed; that the Easter Islanders did not murder one another into extinction. But the Islanders’ actual fate, rounded up and sent to their deaths on another continent by another group of humans, was, ultimately, just as destructive. Bregman has made an admirable attempt at reviving the reputation of humanity, against a formidable tide of evidence. But history — and the present — shows that our deep-seated suspicion of those around us proves very difficult to shift.
Mike Jakeman is a freelance journalist and has previously worked for PwC and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
With the help of science, we’ve come to understand our impact on the planet that is our home. With each item we produce, building we construct, forest we cut down, acre we plow, and journey we make — enabled by resources we derive from our planet’s prehistoric past — we do small amounts of harm to the fragile balance of nature that sustains life. As we’ve replicated our capabilities and developed our ability to scale, those tiny harms have multiplied to the point that the cumulative damage now threatens our planetary life-support system.
Efforts to address this situation have so far consisted of denial, modest efficiency improvements, recycling, and, in some cases, the substitution of products less harmful than their predecessors. But these well-intentioned actions are not nearly enough to stop, let alone reverse, the effects of global climate change. What we need is a way to rewind the ecological tape — a regenerative approach — and the leadership to make it happen.
We need a way to rewind the ecological tape — a regenerative approach — and the leadership to make it happen.
Imagine an economy based on this principle of regeneration, an economy that uses our highly productive capabilities to not just reduce but actually undo environmental harm, all while continuing to provide the products and services on which we’ve come to depend. And what if making some relatively simple changes to how we use existing tools — along with employing important new ones, and at little to no additional cost — were to enable this shift?
This scenario isn’t just possible; it’s already happening. The real question is: Can it happen at the scale needed before we reach an environmental tipping point? And what will it take to prompt such significant action? The financial opportunities embedded in such a change might just convince alert business leaders to transform, especially as the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 prompts businesses to look for alternative revenue streams and growth strategies. A recent report from the nongovernmental organization Carbon180 assessesPDF the total annual market opportunity in simply replacing existing materials with those that are derived from captured carbon dioxide (and are therefore regenerative) at US$5.91 trillion globally, and $1 trillion in the U.S. alone. Although these numbers should be viewed as an upper bound, they demand attention. And they represent only part of the regenerative picture.
A best-selling 2017 environmental book, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, presents cost-effective climate actions that businesses can take. The word drawdown refers to the point in time when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak and begin to decline, and it will be achieved through a combination of reducing sources (emitters) and increasing sinks (absorbers). Regenerative solutions fall into the latter category. And according to a recent update from Project Drawdown, a nonprofit run by the same team of scientists and economists who worked on the book, that “increasing sinks” category constitutes anywhere from 16 to 44 percent of the total contribution to the goal of drawdown. Implementing all the regenerative solutions that the book recommends could potentially remove from the atmosphere between 73 billion and 127 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.
Making the changes recommended will be a monumental undertaking and investment, but will bear huge dividends in years to come. And companies that commit now to regenerative solutions will create a clear path forward in the fight against climate change.
Katharine Wilkinson, the vice president of communication and engagement for Project Drawdown and lead writer for the book, told me, “It wouldn’t surprise me if the discourse starts to shift toward not just responsibility for the emissions you’re creating today, but a need to actually [take] back the carbon you produced over the life of the business. That’s what the next generation of pioneering leadership would look like from the corporate world.” And in fact, in January 2020, Microsoft became the most recent company to make just such a commitment, joining others, such as IKEA and Intuit, that had made similar pledges in recent years.
Below are four of the most promising regenerative solutions outlined in the Drawdown book. Two require changes in how we look at agriculture. The other two involve rethinking how products are made.
What’s dirt got to do with it?
When people think about what causes climate change, they tend to think of burning fossil fuels. But that’s only one of several key triggers. A tremendous amount of carbon has shifted from our soil into the atmosphere as a result of the way agriculture has been practiced for centuries.
Every time a plow breaks the surface of the ground, carbon dioxide is released. Why? Because microorganisms that live in the soil die. Those microorganisms play a huge role in maintaining carbon balance. They work to synthesize carbon into organic material and they respirate carbon dioxide, similarly to how plants both take in and let out carbon dioxide. But when soil is plowed, microorganisms die and cease doing the intake. Only the carbon output associated with their death remains. Topping that off, nitrogen fertilizers, when applied in excess, give off nitrous oxide, an even more potent greenhouse gas, as they decompose. Modern agricultural practices, including monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop in a single area) and the extermination of competitors and pests, have steadily reduced biodiversity and ignored the vital role it plays in maintaining carbon balance. The resulting destruction has become a major contributor to climate change. Worldwide, soils have sent about 147 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere since the dawn of agriculture (equivalent to 536 billion tons of carbon dioxide). That’s between 20 and 40 percent of the native organic carbon that exists in cultivated land, overall.
A number of organizations, such as the Soil Health Institute, have been leading the way toward regenerative agriculture, defined as farming practices that pull carbon out of the atmosphere while restoring degraded land, reducing chemical use and runoff, and increasing biodiversity, both above and below ground.
Cereal giant General Mills recently committed to advancing regenerative agriculture with a focus on soil health. It vows that by 2030 it will use such techniques on 1 million acres of North American farmland that supply oats and other grains to its factories. That, according to now-retired chief sustainability officer Jerry Lynch, represents roughly a quarter of the company’s total North American land footprint. The path to this commitment, said Lynch, began in Paris in 2015, when General Mills brought a contingent of farmers to the United Nations climate talks, and invited them to share their perspective on climate change. “Many of them talked about the power of building healthy soil,” Lynch told me in an interview.
Lynch spent the next nine months with experts at the Nature Conservancy, the Soil Health Institute, and the Soil Health Partnership developing a road map for the company’s farmers. “This is really a way,” said Lynch, “for policymakers and anyone interested in agriculture to think about the power of soil to help improve farming and reduce [accumulated] GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.”
By following the Soil Health Institute’s recommended practices — which include reducing tilling, increasing crop diversity, keeping the soil covered year-round, using cover crops in winter to maintain living roots in the ground, and reintegrating livestock into the landscape — farmers can improve the soil health at the farms supplying General Mills. This means greater fertility, increased carbon sequestration (of carbon from the atmosphere), strengthened water-holding capacity (drought resistance), more resilience to extreme weather (risk management), better water quality, reduced runoff, less need for pesticides and herbicides, better biodiversity above and below the soil, and — perhaps most surprising — improved profitability for farmers. Conventional agriculture has maintained a narrow focus on maximizing yield, but regenerative agriculture emphasizes efficiency, which, by working with rather than against nature, ends up reducing reliance on expensive chemical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. This often results in slightly reduced yield, but higher profit per acre.
“I’d been involved in sustainability at General Mills for 10 years,” said Lynch, “and I hadn’t seen any one thing that created so many wins at the same time.… And that’s exciting.”
That excitement has translated into more than $5.5 million in investment for activities such as research, training, support for participating farmers, underwriting of pilot programs, and partnerships with startups. During the transition to these new methods, farmers could see a temporary decline in revenue, an issue exacerbated by revenue disruptions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, so this support could prove vital. As the company’s regenerative agriculture program rolls ahead, General Mills is carefully monitoring three outcomes: soil health, biodiversity, and economic resilience for farmers.
According to the analysis provided in Drawdown, regenerative agriculture will reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 22.3 billion tons by 2050, at an estimated cost of $79 billion for full implementation, and result in an ultimate net savings in excess of $2.5 trillion between 2020 and 2050.
Send in the cows
Regenerative agriculture doesn’t end with improving crop practices. A specific type of cattle ranching, called rotational grazingPDF, can provide similar benefits.
The rotational grazing idea was brought to the U.S. by Zimbabwean ecologist and cattle rancher Allan Savory in 1979. Savory’s decades-long fight against desertification, or the degradation of fertile land into desert, has been based on years of observation and experimentation. He came to appreciate the importance of the interactions between grazing animals and healthy grasslands — grasslands that take carbon out of the air through photosynthesis and bring it underground through their roots, where bacteria then bind it to the soil.
The major grasslands of the world, which once covered two-thirds of the Earth’s land, are tremendous carbon sinks that work symbiotically with large grazing animals, such as buffalo in North America and wildebeest in Africa. The presence of these large ruminant animals greatly enhances the growth rate of grasslands, which is why the practice of rotational grazing can be considered regenerative. Manure and plant litter fertilize the soil, the mechanical action of the hooves on the earth helps work in the seed, and the animals eating and stepping on the plants prune grasses to allow the following year’s growth to flourish.
Grasslands still cover nearly a quarter of all land. But overgrazing as a result of modern agricultural practices, along with drought and other factors, has led to desertification and the continued disappearance of these grassland carbon sinks. The key to the ecosystem’s success in modern times, Savory said, is the “holistic management” method, which keeps cattle concentrated in tight groups and moves the groups after the cattle have eaten about half the grass in the pasture (as their wild predecessors would have done on their own) in order to avoid overgrazing. This method can be applied to any animal that feeds on grass, including goats, sheep, bison, and numerous other wild grazing animals. That list includes goats, sheep, bison, and numerous other wild grazing animals.
Today, the Savory Institute oversees a global network of 41 Savory Hubs, representing almost 22 million grassland acres (approximately equivalent to West Virginia in area), and that’s only 0.3 percent of the total global grazing land committed by companies and farms to large-scale regeneration through holistic management.
Oklahoma rancher Bill Payne set up his own operation, Destiny Ranch, in central Oklahoma, during a long drought period. At first, he said, he couldn’t get grass to grow more than three or four inches tall. After 11 long, patient years of carefully applying rotational grazing methods, he said the grass is now so tall that when the cattle enter a fresh paddock, they disappear into growth above their heads. Meanwhile, his neighbors using conventional methods still struggle. In the period from 2007 to 2014, he reports that the pounds of beef he produced per acre grew by 40 percent and his soil health improved dramatically.
According to Drawdown, rotational grazing, or managed grazing, will remove 16.34 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050, at a cost of $50.5 billion to adopt, with an ultimate benefit of $735.3 billion in the period between 2020 and 2050. Peter Byck, director of the documentary film Soil Carbon Cowboys and professor at Arizona State University, said that if all grazing land on the planet stored one ton of carbon per hectare, we could sequester 7 billion tons, which is most of what we emit globally each year.
A material world
These agricultural methods will surely play a key role in drawing down atmospheric carbon. But alone, they won’t do enough soon enough. Farmers are limited both by the rate at which plants can grow and by the amount of available land. Another path to reducing atmospheric carbon is to use it to make various industrial materials. Direct air capture technology exists today that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and pumps it underground. The costs of this technology continue to fall. According to Peter Eisenberger, chief technology officer of Global Thermostat, a carbon dioxide removal startup, prices as low as $50 per ton are already within reach. Capturing that carbon and pumping it underground offers great benefits to the environment. Some organizations are taking it a step further by turning the carbon into useful, durable materials.
The Carbon180 report that assesses the market opportunity in replacing existing materials with those derived from captured carbon dioxide shows that products with the most financial potential are fuels (65 percent of the total market opportunity), building materials (23 percent), and plastics (7 percent), with chemicals and consumer goods making up smaller shares. Here is some of the promising work already being done with materials.
Fuels. Making fuels from captured carbon is not ideal from an environmental perspective, because the carbon will return to the atmosphere once the fuel is burned. However, in contrast with the burning of conventional fuels, burning these fuels won’t be adding any new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which makes them carbon neutral in principle, rather than regenerative. But these products are enablers for carbon-negative products, because revenues from these fuels make it possible for the carbon capture technology to continue to mature rather than wither. And as a result, there will be ample opportunity for companies to use the better developed technology to create truly carbon-negative products.
The fuels are produced in two ways. One uses an industrial process to break carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, then adds hydrogen to make hydrocarbons. Companies such as Carbon Engineering and Opus 12 are pursuing this approach. The second method uses microorganisms, such as algae, to digest carbon dioxide in order to produce an oil that can be purified into fuel. Companies such as Algenol and Solazyme are pursuing this approach.
British Columbia–based Carbon Engineering received an equity investment in 2020 from Chevron Technology Ventures to assist in commercializing its “Air to Fuels” process, which uses carbon extracted through Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture system. The resulting fuel meets the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard, a win for both Chevron and Carbon Engineering. As more vehicle fleets convert to electric power, the carbon dioxide–to-fuel application will remain for niche segments — such as aviation, perhaps — after having served as a bridge to advance the underlying technology so it can be used to make carbon-negative products.
Concrete. Concrete is the second-most-used material in the world (after water), so the $1 trillion global industry represents an enormous opportunity for emissions reduction and carbon capture. Some 10 billion tons of concrete are produced each year in a carbon-intensive process that accounts for roughly 8 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Most of those emissions come from the production of cement, one of concrete’s primary ingredients.
Several regenerative approaches are being pursued for this material. One of the most promising is the use of carbon dioxide instead of water to cure the concrete. Through this method, carbon dioxide is absorbed and locked into the concrete for long-term storage, essentially turning into rock. Concrete made this way also cures faster and is stronger.
Solidia Technologies is a company that makes both cement and concrete in a highly sustainable manner that is partly regenerative. According to Solidia, the process uses a combination of reducing cement levels, capturing emissions, and absorbing carbon dioxide into the cement. Irving Materials’ CarbonCure uses a similar process to make its carbon dioxide–absorbing ready-mix cement in a package that can be bolted on to an existing production process. Atlanta-based Thomas Concrete grew its business using that cement, while absorbing 30,000 tonsPDF of carbon emissions. Construction of one large building alone in downtown Atlanta that used this technology absorbed 750 tons. Producers are seeing a growing demand for low-carbon buildings.
Back in 2016, Concrete Products magazine noted that “green-minded design was estimated to comprise over 50 percent of the construction market” in the previous year.
Today, the carbon dioxide being used in these processes is collected primarily from natural gas plants, meaning it’s not exactly regenerative, because it’s keeping carbon out of the atmosphere rather than taking back what’s already there. But in the future, these companies will increasingly use direct air capture to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere, as the cost of doing this becomes more competitive. The beauty of direct air capture is that because carbon is in the air everywhere, the machines can be installed at a manufacturer’s site, and piped directly into the process, eliminating any need for transport.
The direct air capture industry is taking off. According to Global Thermostat CEO Graciela Chichilnisky, the company recently entered into a partnership with ExxonMobil and is already extracting at least 50,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year, and is expecting to take out 200,000 tons more in the next two years. Meanwhile, Carbon Engineering is laying out plans for a plant that can remove 500,000 tons per year.
Wood. Another important building material is, of course, wood, which draws carbon from the air as it grows. New engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber (extremely strong beams made much like plywood, only thicker) can take the place of steel and concrete. This allows for buildings made entirely of wood to be taller than what had previously been possible. A study performed in 2016 found that structural shells built with cross-laminated timber could be produced at costs as much as 22 percent lowerPDF than those of traditional materials. The lower cost is particularly advantageous for buildings of five stories and higher, and such construction provides the environmental benefits of storing carbon pulled from the air in the bones of our buildings. A typical wood-frame house using the engineered material, the sustainability news site TreeHugger reports, will store 10 tons of carbon. Top companies offering cross-laminated timber products include KLH Massivholz GmbH, Stora Enso, and Binderholz, all European, as well as Structurlam, Sterling, and DR Johnson in the United States.
Plastic. Plastic products are mostly considered an all-out assault on the environment, but it is the ubiquity of inexpensive disposable items that causes the most harm. Durable goods made of plastic lock in carbon. So, although something needs to be done about single-use plastic items, such as packaging and throwaway utensils, getting rid of plastic altogether might just be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Today, a few plastics are being made from carbon dioxide.
Two companies, U.K.-based Econic Technologies and Covestro (formerly Bayer MaterialScience), turn carbon dioxide into polyols, a major component of polyurethane. This material is used by Econic to make car bumpers, building insulation, finishes and coatings, sneakers, and pillows, and by Covestro to make mattresses.
Another startup, RenewCO2, was founded by a group of scientists from Rutgers University who developed a set of electro-catalysts that can convert water and carbon dioxide into plastics with more than 99 percent efficiency.
Besides companies producing negative carbon emissions, the regenerative economy includes companies that make products by removing other forms of waste from the environment. This area of the regenerative economy runs alongside what is now being called the circular economy, which reclaims products at the end of their life, thereby challenging the very idea of waste. The distinction is that whereas the latter is focused on prevention, or the avoidance of waste entering the environment, the former is aimed at removing waste that’s already in the environment. Products created from waste retrieved from oceans, landfills, the atmosphere, and other locations can be considered regenerative.
Carbon Upcycling Technologies of Calgary does a little bit of both. Its process fixes carbon emissions into solid products such as concrete, coatings, and solar cells. (The emissions could be taken from the atmosphere, but they’re currently not, so this process isn’t fully regenerative, by my definition.) The process requires a second feedstock, such as fly ash — a significant source of waste from coal — to which the carbon dioxide chemically binds, producing a nanomaterial that is one one-thousandth the width of a human hair. (Removing that fly ash from the environment does meet my definition of regenerative.) The process the company uses is less energy-intensive than those for producing other hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide. It has scaled its production 1,000-fold since its pilot and is selling its AC-100 concrete corrosion coatings for below-grade use in three states. The company also is a finalist for the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZEPDF.
Another company, UBQ, is making thermoplastics — polymers that soften when heated and harden when cooled — from municipal solid waste. Like the processes used by Carbon Upcycling Technologies, UBQ’s process is both circular and regenerative and addresses both municipal waste management and climate challenges. The waste utilization is regenerative, and because such a large portion of the municipal solid waste used includes organic matter, which would produce the potent greenhouse gas methane if allowed to decompose, diverting it is also good for the environment. Quantis, a provider of sustainability metrics, said the company’s material is “the most climate-positive thermoplastic available.”
Mango Materials, a San Francisco–based startup incorporated in 2010, has won numerous awards, including the 2018 SEAL Award (honoring sustainability, environmental achievement, and leadership) and the Excellence in the Field of Technology Research award at CleanEquity Monaco, for its innovative process that produces polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), a form of bioplastic that uses methane gas as its primary feedstock. In 2019, the company was chosen by Biofuels Digest as one of the Next 50 Companies to Disrupt the World. The company’s production plant is co-located with a methane producer so that the feedstock is directly pumped in instead of being vented to the atmosphere. (Extracting it from landfills or directly from the air would be regenerative by my definition, but the technology is still important, because it can also be used to recapture rather than divert emissions.) From the point of capture, the conversion of methane to plastic undergoes a hardy microbial process, in which bacteria are used to convert the methane into a biopolymer. Looking ahead to future production sites, CEO Molly Morse said that finding a source won’t be a problem, as methane can be readily obtained from wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and agricultural facilities.
The PHA, which is being used to make biopolyester for apparel and molded cases for cosmetics, has the added advantage of being biodegradable, which means that if it enters the ocean or other waters, it will dissolve completely. So the material, instead of being recycled, can go into a landfill, where it will produce methane that can be captured and then used to make more of it. Said Morse, “If you have this potent GHG (methane) that’s going to be vented but instead of venting it, it’s going to be sequestered in a product, you’ve got an enormously beneficial process.”
Another startup in this space that has also won numerous awards, including the BloombergNEF New Energy Pioneer award, is Newlight Technologies. Newlight’s AirCarbon plastic is being used to make a variety of regenerative consumer products, including clothing and furniture, from methane. Again, this is not a purely regenerative example, but the technology can be applied to recaptured methane as well as diverted methane.
Then there’s Interface, a carpet manufacturer that continues to increase the amount of carbon-negative content in its products as part of its carbon takeback program. One of Interface’s primary suppliers of nylon fiber, Aquafil Global, has a business model that’s both circular and regenerative.
The company began its journey by recycling fishing nets retrieved from the ocean. According to the organization World Animal Protection, each year some 700,000 tons of fishing gear — the vast majority of which is fishing nets — is lost or abandoned in the ocean. This was very much on the mind of Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil Global, when he started down the path to chemical depolymerization of nylon. Bonazzi told me that he was inspired by the biomimicry movement, in which imitating natural systems helps to solve complex human problems, and he pledged to purchase only recycled nylon to make his nylon rather than creating new resin from oil. When he couldn’t find enough recycled nylon, he set out on a path to make it himself. Aquafil’s product, Econyl, is made through a form of chemical recycling, which, unlike traditional recycling, breaks nylon waste down to its original molecules, allowing it to perform exactly as virgin nylon and to be reused over and over.
Econyl is now being supplied to a number of specialty brands, such as Prada, which aims to stop using conventional nonbiodegradable nylon and use only “re-nylon” by 2021. And the company has expanded from fishing nets to carpeting, which requires even more material and therefore produces even more waste. Aquafil set up a carpet recycling facility in Phoenix to process the massive amounts of recycled carpet coming out of California as the result of the California Carpeting Stewardship Law. The plant opened a year ago, the first of six that will be built in the United States. Bonazzi told me that the company’s recycled nylon is generally no more expensive than conventional nylon, depending on the current oil price.
Some other companies that pull waste from the environment to make products are Dakine, 8hz, and Solgaard, which makes backpacks and luggage from water bottles and ocean plastics. Synova Power creates clean electricity from gasified municipal solid waste. The list goes on: Knowaste makes roofing tiles from disposable diapers; MacRebur makes asphalt from plastic waste.
Why and how should businesses lead the change?
“I think we’re seeing [that] the bar for action in business is going to be moving from doing less harm to actually becoming a transformative force for good,” said Drawdown’s Wilkinson. The global climate crisis presents an opportunity for businesses to provide moral leadership when governments are shrinking from their duties. However, business leadership of a change like this is unprecedented. After all, the books still need to be balanced and the bills need to be paid, and transitioning the global economy away from the fossil fuels that allowed it to grow as large as it has is going to cost a lot of money. But in the long run, it might well be the smartest move ever made and help businesses actually become more profitable. Still, in the short term, businesses need compelling reasons if they are to lead this change, and they need a solid idea of how to do it.
The full answer to “why” they should lead is probably suitable for a book, but the short answers are that (1) businesses need a stable environment in which to operate, and (2) consumers and shareholders are increasingly demanding transparency and accountability from the businesses they transact with, including a demonstration of social and environmental responsibility. The list of companies that have received that message and are acting on it is large and growing. Others will require additional incentives or inducements to act.
The “how” might prove to be more interesting. A transition away from fossil fuels would be extensive enough to require reinvention of many of the major systems on which we depend and radical changes to how business is conducted. Many innovators and entrepreneurs brandishing new business models have jumped into that breach between our current state and possible future state.
Consider the Plastic Bank. The Canadian company is, according to founder David Katz, “the world’s largest chain of stores for the ultra-poor.” Everything in the “store,” including school tuition and medical insurance, is available to be purchased using plastic garbage. People in disadvantaged communities pick up that garbage from beaches and neighborhoods, then bring it into centers where it is weighed and sorted. The value of the material is transferred into an online account for the collectors, who previously had little or no source of income, not to mention equity. The Plastic Bank then sells the plastic to brands such as Marks & Spencer or Henkel, which have commissioned this “social plastic” for use in their products. As a result of these companies’ commitments to reusing plastic, consumers have an opportunity to choose recycled products and, in so doing, become “plastic neutral.” The Plastic Bank’s elevation of social plastic to a form of currency addresses the plastic waste problem and poverty at the same time.
The same principle can be applied to companies removing carbon from the air. But to push responsible investing even further, just as the Plastic Bank has done for plastic, an entirely new, business-led mechanism could direct funds to ventures that are removing carbon from the atmosphere, regardless of where the funds come from (government programs, companies looking to lower their carbon footprint or improve their brand’s “carbon cred,” or nonprofits or philanthropists looking to do the most good with their accumulated assets).
Seattle-based Nori has developed a mechanism that uses blockchain technology to support a private commodity market for carbon removal. Christophe Jospe, Nori’s chief development officer, explained that paying directly for carbon removal can be far more effective than, say, a carbon tax, which is designed to work indirectly, by penalizing those that emit carbon. Even if it did work, a tax would be preventive at a time when we urgently need a cure.
Jospe told me climate change is solvable if the right incentives are put in place to remove the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “What Nori is doing is building the financial infrastructure for, hopefully, removing over 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide.… We’re trying to boil it down to the most important thing, which is how do you estimate and quantify carbon dioxide removal so that people who are doing that can monetize it.”
Nori launched its marketplace in October 2019, and the first area it addresses is soil carbon sequestration in the United States. The company is partnering with COMET-Farm, which is a greenhouse gas accounting platform developed for the USDA. Payments are now being made to farmers whose operations have been verified in the form of “carbon removal certificates” (CRCs) for every ton of carbon removed. These can be sold only once and are retired with a NORI token, a form of cryptocurrency. The CRCs can then be put up for auction, as other commodities are, and will find their own price based on supply and demand. The proceeds, some combination of tokens and cash, will go to those doing the removal, in this case the farmers, with Nori collecting fees for facilitating the process.
“Instead of making it more expensive to emit carbon, let’s make it more valuable for people to remove carbon,” said Nori CEO Paul Gambill. Of course, we could do both. Nori’s business model works either with or without a carbon tax. If there is a tax, companies could buy CRCs as a way of reducing their exposure.
“What’s critical,” said Jospe, “is transparency and confidence in what’s being sold and how it’s being quantified.”
Other entities are also looking to establish a private market for carbon removal. One is the Ecosystem Services Market, a spinoff of the Noble Research Institute working in conjunction with the Soil Health Institute. As the name suggests, the Ecosystem Services Market’s charter is broader than Nori’s, but also focused on agriculture. The goal, according to executive director Debbie Reed, is to “build a full-spectrum marketplace for ecosystems services from agricultural production.” A study the organization commissioned valued the current annual demand in the U.S. for these services at $14 billion. In addition to soil carbon sequestration, the Ecosystem Services Market also looks at water quality and water consumption. The marketplace sees its mission as transitional, lasting no more than 20 years and helping to motivate farmers and ranchers to move toward more eco-friendly practices by paying them for doing so. The marketplace will funnel resources back to producers to help shoulder the cost of transitioning, particularly in the initial period of reduced productivity before improved profitability kicks in.
Initial demand for the marketplace is coming primarily from companies that have set voluntary targets for indirect emissions. These targets are often met by making supply chain changes, as General Mills has done (along with other food and beverage companies, oil and gas companies, and municipalities). Transportation companies such as Delta Air Lines and Lyft use these targets to offset their direct emissions. Reed said the market for indirect emissions was estimated to be $5.2 billion as of year-end 2017, though the number will be higher now, because many additional food and beverage companies have begun reporting on indirect emissions since then.
A movement for the future
A business-led movement to restore the Earth’s natural capital is clearly underway, with massive potential to make a positive, and profitable, impact. Aquafil’s Bonazzi offers some perspective on why anyone who cares about our collective future should support this movement. When I asked him why he chose the term regeneration to describe his radical new recycling process that turns discarded carpeting and recovered fishing nets into virgin nylon, he quipped that it was a little more user-friendly than “chemical depolymerization.” Then he added, “regeneration is also another word for rebirth.”
Indeed, it is. That’s something to keep in mind as we consider whether to move our businesses, consumption patterns, food choices, and perhaps nearly everything else we can, in that direction. Regeneration is exactly what both our ailing planet and our flagging economy need.
RP Siegel has been writing about sustainability, technology, the environment, and business since 2004. He has an M.S. in mechanical engineering and spent 20 years working in corporate R&D.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a column for strategy+business that explored the idea that economies might break out of growth-dependent frameworks. I put the onus on businesses, especially those in mature economies that were already in a slowdown before the novel coronavirus hit, to find viable alternatives. Now, facing a pandemic-induced recession, we must confront — sooner than many of us were prepared to — the possibility of a post-growth economy.
Reinforcing my call for businesses to lead us into a new paradigm is the fact that, according to recent research, people in many countries believe their employers are better prepared than governments to navigate the uncharted territory we are in today. With the COVID-19 outbreak unfolding rapidly, companies have quickly implemented policies around flextime, travel, and health, and have improvised operations to support local communities. In other words, as economic growth stalls, we are beginning to see business forge a new social contract with society based on principles of sharing and distribution. And I think this new model could outlast the crisis. Here’s why.
New worker protections are addressing inequality. COVID-19 has made it almost impossible to ignore the long-standing crisis of inequality in our society. The pandemic is exposing a divide in the workforce, for instance: Well-compensated, knowledge economy workers with employer-sponsored healthcare plans have, for the most part, transitioned to working remotely (with notable exceptions, such as doctors and nurses), while those in low-paying jobs that can’t be done remotely are, generally, facing risks such as income loss or elevated exposure to the virus.
As economic growth stalls, we are beginning to see business forge a new social contract with society based on principles of sharing and distribution.
Many regard technology as a driver of this divide. Some reports suggest that although automation is creating new opportunities for well-educated professionals, it’s automating away low-skill work in productive industries and pushing many people into sectors such as retail and home-health services, where pay and benefits are scarce.
Leading tech companies are sending out a powerful signal at this time by being among the first to address this gap. As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, many tech companies have announced full-time pay for hourly wage workers, such as security, food service, and cleaning staff, who are facing reduced hours. New protections are also coming to the gig economy through funds that various businesses are establishing to compensate sick and quarantined workers.
Other businesses are also stepping up in ways that could set a precedent. For example, in the U.S., where mental health services often comes with high out-of-pocket costs, Starbucks is offering healthcare benefits to workers struggling with anxiety, stress, and illness through a catastrophe pay program and free counseling sessions. The need for worker protections like these is not going to fade away anytime soon. The International Labour Organization is expecting worldwide job losses along the lines of 25 million as a result of COVID-19.
Coronavirus is localizing business operations. The coronavirus is spreading globally, but the effects are playing out locally as restaurants, museums, theaters, stores, gyms, churches, and other gathering places close. As a result, many businesses are doing what they can to prevent their home cities from becoming ghost towns. Italian fashion and luxury brands, for example, are funding hospitals and community organizations in Milan, the capital of the Lombardy region that has been severely hit by the coronavirus. Salesforce is giving financial aid to help small businesses around its headquarters in San Francisco. And leading banks in Canada, Australia, and the U.K. have announced mortgage relief for homeowners facing hardship.
As global companies pivot supply chains that have been disrupted by COVID-19, they will likely look for solutions close to their headquarters that meet their own business needs but also help shore up local economies. Policy could help push in this direction, too. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, for instance, sets a high bar for regional production and wages to support the growth of good jobs. Another factor in localizing: Technology is shortening supply chains. For example, the coronavirus is fast-tracking 3D printing as companies test it to supply hospital ventilators in large numbers. A shift to large-scale 3D printing has potential to replace imports with locally printed goods (pdf).
Will this focus on local economies also lead to cleaner and greener business operations? That’s an intriguing thought. The cleaner air over China and Italy during coronavirus shutdowns is causing some to ask if this crisis will show us a way to live with a smaller environmental footprint. It just might.
Open collaboration and open sourcing are getting a boost. Localization is a not a retreat from global citizenship. If anything, the coronavirus is a reminder that we are all connected and in this together. The China-based Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation have started sending test kits and masks to countries that are now racing to flatten the curve. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is allocating US$20 million to strengthen coronavirus surveillance and treatment in South Asia and Africa, which are behind the global curve for infections.
Businesses, too, have quickly transitioned to sharing knowledge and resources. Publications are removing paywalls to make coronavirus information widely accessible, video conferencing services have become discounted or free, and massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are turning into a template for education. Could these actions by companies point to new ways of working together in which solving common problems takes precedence over short-term growth objectives? It’s too soon to say, but with large companies showing the way, there’s reason to think so. Open source platforms from companies such as Pfizer, for accelerating the development of antiviral therapies, Alibaba, for data sharing, and HP, for 3D-printing medical gear, are a few examples.
The coronavirus crisis has the potential to show how sharing data can work for the benefit of citizens. Telemedicine, for example, is valuable not only for being able to treat patients, but also because the data it generates can show patterns, such as the trajectory of the pandemic. It’s just as important, however, to address privacy and cybersecurity concerns with transparency so people feel it’s safe to “opt in” to sharing their information.
Prepare for reconstruction. The world is racing to contain COVID-19 and its economic fallout at the same time. Typical policy tools such as cutting taxes and easing borrowing rates will simply not get businesses to resume operations, employees to return to work, or consumers to shop. That’s why drastically different measures, costing trillions of dollars, are rolling out. Their goal is not to stimulate growth at any cost, but to meet a broader range of objectives such as improving public health, worker protections, and local resilience.
Fortunately, some companies and policymakers, already attuned to the limits of growth, have been proposing and testing alternative approaches. They are suddenly in a stronger position to influence policy and shape the new contract that’s forming between society and business.
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