Earth Day 2022: The Response of Businesses

By Robert Atkinson | Project Manager, Associate

In an earlier post this week, we looked at the state and future of CO2 emissions, legislation, international governance, and protecting the most vulnerable. In this post we consider how businesses are responding to Earth’s crisis, and what new technologies are capturing existing CO2, creating an unexpected plethora of vital products.

The past few years have seen the global businesses community expand their role from employment providers to positive environmental and social influencers in the countries, cities, and communities where they operate. Simultaneously, sustainable tools and organizations have emerged to help businesses progress into responsible investors in the planet. They provide expertise to help businesses future-proof their organizations, equipping them for rapid climate adaptations that the 21st century will require and encouraging like-minded industry practices.

Take B Corporation (B Labs), a non-profit network providing third-party certification, requiring companies to meet social, sustainability, and environmental performance standards. A points-based certification, it measures the positive impact of a company in areas of governance, employee engagement, community, and the environment, as well as the product or service the company provides. According to their website, businesses must make a "legal commitment" to change their corporate governance to include all stakeholders (versus shareholders). Those same organizations must also "exhibit transparency by allowing information about their performance...to be publicly available on their B Corp profile." 

Popular with companies using their business relationships as a force for good, a B Labs certification influences positive environmental and social behavior within their participants' respective industries. As of March 2022, there are 4,856 certified B corporations across 79 countries and 153 industries, including Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s, and the Body Shop.

On another scale, the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) has proved popular with larger multinational companies with a specific focus on setting CO2 emissions reduction targets, especially those in the highest-emitting sectors such as aviation, fashion, and power providers. SBTi helps them on a clearly-defined path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by transforming their business practices, properties, and energy sources. The impact also extends to their suppliers, creating a network of verifiable emissions reduction, thereby helping to prevent some of the worst causes of climate change and assuring future business growth. Targets are considered science-based if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—limiting global warming to well-below 35.6℉ (2°C) above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 34.7℉ (1.5°C). 

Since its launch in 2015, 2,000 businesses around the world have now signed on to SBTi, including the likes of Amazon, Armani, Diageo, IKEA Foundation, Netflix, UPS, and (proudly) IA Interior Architects. SBTi acknowledges differences between business areas and has created sector-specific pathways for adherence. IA is submitting its real estate impact, travel, commute behaviors, and waste programs, referencing the energy usage and source at each IA studio. We have gathered this data about our current footprint and behaviors firmwide to establish IA’s current carbon footprint baseline and annually reduce its impact on the planet towards a net-zero future. By signing onto SBTi we commit to reducing our footprint in these categories and reporting our reductions annually. Our reductions are measurable, and the process is rigorous.

In October 2021, the SBTi developed and released the world's first net-zero standard, providing the framework and tools for companies to set science-based net-zero targets, define short-term milestones, ensure effective board-level governance and link executive compensation to the company's adopted milestones. Within this short period of time, SBTi has established itself as the primary mechanism for transitioning organizations to low- or zero-carbon emissions status. This is due not only to its rigorous analysis of companies’ annual carbon footprints but to the level of trust it engenders within and between companies. When companies select partners, business operators, and suppliers, SBTi has become a powerful tool and a positive agent for environmental change among the largest emitting sectors.

Recently, the architecture and design industry, real estate investors, developers, and corporate occupiers have also sharpened their focus on environmental sustainability and social purpose. In Europe the largest commercial real estate companies, including CBRE, JLL, and Lend Lease, have already signed up for SBTi and its net-zero targets. This will play a considerable role in decarbonizing the built environment as real estate and construction are responsible for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions. The challenge is that, currently, less than 20% of companies have climate mitigation plans for their real estate portfolio. So far, the focus has been on new high-tech buildings and fit-outs, with over 42% of investors now having green lease clauses in place and an additional 37% looking to adopt them by 2025. However, most of the building stock that exists today will still be here in the proposed net-zero future of 2050, so there is an equal need to repurpose spaces, retrofit older buildings, and refurbish in line with circular economy principles.

The Role of Technology and Innovators

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that approximately 10 gigatonnes of net CO2 need to be removed per year by 2050 to keep the rise of global temperatures under 34.7℉ or 35.6℉ (1.5℃ or 2℃). Meeting this challenge will require a range of carbon removal solutions (some still to be developed) to be tested through demonstration and deployment that complements work already underway. 

The work of carbon reduction would not be complete without innovators finding a purpose for all the excess carbon already in our atmosphere. There are a host of companies that see this problem as a unique 21st-century opportunity to create new industries and products, as well as organizations that want to encourage and nurture innovators in that direction.

Take the X-prize Carbon Removal program currently headed by Elon Musk—the largest incentivized prize in history, it is a $100 million carbon removal competition aimed to help inspire and scale efficient solutions to remove 10 gigatons of carbon per year by 2050 from the Earth’s carbon balance.

The four-year global competition, founded in 2021, invites innovators and teams from anywhere on the planet to create and demonstrate solutions that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans and sequester it durably and sustainably. The grand prize will be awarded to any innovators, companies, or student teams that demonstrate a working solution at a scale of at least 1000 tons removed per year, model their costs at a scale of 1 million tons per year, and show a pathway to achieving a scale of gigatons per year in the future.

Any carbon-negative solution is eligible: nature-based, direct air capture, oceans, mineralization, or anything else that achieves net negative emissions and sequesters CO2 durably. In November 2021, the first $5 million of the student XPRIZE prize was awarded to 23 student-led teams across the globe, with 18 of those teams receiving $250,000 to jumpstart their carbon removal projects. The real test will emerge towards the end of 2022, when the projects must pass their first critical model phase and demonstrate a capacity for scalability.

On the other side of the innovation spectrum are entrepreneurs developing products for use from collected carbon. Until recently, this agenda was extremely underinvested, which resulted in a lack of data about start-ups, investors, and market trends in the field, discouraging early-stage start-ups and restricting the growth of innovative solutions.

Enter the Circular Carbon Network (CCN), a platform to build and nurture companies looking to manage waste CO2 by converting a portion of that waste into a valuable, sustainable resource for society. The CCN brings together a global community of innovators, capital providers, corporations, and other leaders to catalyze more investment and commercial activity in circular carbon climate, carbontech, and carbon removal solutions.

CCN monitors the market, identifies investment and commercialization opportunities, and marries that to its database of member products. From a purely commercial perspective, one can see the opportunity excess CO2 poses. Although essentially a waste product, as a chemical compound, it is a base gas for making fuels, food, fertilizers, chemicals, polymers, and building materials. As such, it has the potential to be a $1 trillion annual market. From an environmental perspective, with 750 billion tons needing to be removed from the atmosphere by 2100 to avoid dangerous climate change, it is one of the most purposeful innovation and investment opportunities.

The projects are as diverse as the industries they are looking to impact. Twelve, for instance, a California-based company pilots equipment that transforms CO2 into synthesis gas (syngas), a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, the world’s first carbon-neutral, fossil-free jet fuel, with oxygen being the only by-product. This same technology is also being used to create consumer products and components from car interiors for Mercedes-Benz to laundry detergent ingredients with Tide and sunglass lenses with Pangaea. 

Other direct air capture technologies include companies like Climeworks, which provides outdoor filters designed to capture atmospheric carbon in the air and bind the CO2 into a concentrated gas. This can be recycled for use in industrial processes such as carbonization in the food and beverage industry. Powered solely by renewable energy or energy from waste, these CO2 collectors are stackable, an important feature because they can be placed outdoors in limited spaces such as disused industrial sites and commercial building rooftops.

Dealing with food waste and chemical runoff generates 8% of all global emissions and pollutes waterways. This problem is being investigated by companies like Terramera, who use a combination of science, natural processes, and artificial intelligence to develop what they call "intelligent agriculture" and "green chemistry" solutions. Their regenerative agricultural solution pulls carbon from the air and organically sequesters it in the soil, improving the health of the soil and nourishing the plants that grow there. Along the way, it also reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers. 

For architects and contractors, reducing the dependency on CO2-intensive methods is a major priority, with none more urgent than concrete and cement. Companies like Carboncure use technology that introduces recycled CO2 into fresh concrete through a mineralization process, which reduces a building’s carbon footprint and costs without a loss in performance. Low carbon cement solutions are also under development since cement releases up to 8% of global CO2 as a chemical by-product and through fuel use in its high-temperature processes. Tackling the two problems separately, the construction industry is also exploring fossil fuel alternatives to power the high-temperature kilns used to produce cement. 

These examples show that there is no one solution to achieve zero-carbon emissions; transformation will need to occur across all the visible industries (and a number that are yet to emerge). The largest emitters—energy and fuel production, transportation, construction, industry, agriculture, and land use as well as waste—will see the most dramatic change. The accumulated changes will fundamentally transform the world economy, requiring wider participation by international governments, institutions, societies, and industry against the backdrop of many economic and political challenges.

Final Thoughts

We are a resilient species, having weathered many internal and external challenges to progress to where we are today. Within this young century, we have already endured international terrorism, war, economic depressions, a global health crisis, and environmental catastrophes. Collaboration, cooperation, and faith in one another to work together on shared goals have seen us through these adversities. 

It is up to us to look at the future more broadly and meet the climate challenge head-on with creativity, knowledge, experience, entrepreneurship, passion, commitment, and courage.

Robert Atkinson

Project Manager/Associate

Based in IA’s London office, Rob Atkinson is a sustainability/wellness subject matter expert and frequent blog contributor. With over 20 years of design industry experience, he has worked on projects in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.