On the eve of Climate Week New York, John Elkington argues that carbon productivity is key to achieving the breakthrough change required

As a contribution to Climate Week this month, Volans is convening a carefully curated roundtable of CEOs and chief sustainability officers in New York to discuss next steps with our work on the emerging concept of carbon productivity. In the process, we are all having to learn how to “speak carbon”.

I remember being greatly impressed as a child by the fact that the same element that produces the coal burning in the grate also produces diamonds sparkling around celebrity throats. As a result, carbon twinkled briefly in my consciousness, but then winked out when I gave up science at 14 – largely because I refused to cut up animals in biology experiments.

But then carbon resurfaced in the late 1970s, when I was asked to write a short report for the Hudson Institute analysing four key environmental challenges of the 21st century. I gave climate change as the fourth challenge. And I still remember what the Institute’s co-founder, Herman Kahn,said on receipt of the report: Exactly what you would expect from an environmentalist!   

I don’t think he was denying the challenges so much as reflecting on the best way of tackling them. He went on to say that most ordinary mortals – and certainly most environmentalists – heading towards a chasm would automatically stamp on their brakes, trying to steer away. What if, he asked, you stamped your foot on the accelerator instead, and steered straight for the chasm?

Instead of demonising carbon as the main chemical culprit in accelerated climate change, the real challenge is to reimagine our relationship with this magical element

(This, incidentally, was shortly after various attempts by the motorcyclist Evel Knievel to launch himself across immense barriers, including part of the Grand Canyon.)

At the time, I thought he was clinically insane. But now that our planet is showing every sign of running a fever reaction due to a rampant infection by carbon-burning humans, his prescription for breakthrough change feels increasingly prescient.

Instead of demonising carbon as the main chemical culprit in accelerated climate change, the real challenge is to reimagine our relationship with this magical element, the most critical to life on Earth.

Covestro's cardyon uses CO2 in place of polymers in mattresses. (credit: Covestro)

This was a key theme at our Carbon Productivity Basecamp in June, where participants spotlighted a growing spectrum of powerful solutions that could help us not just slow but reverse global warming.

But what is "carbon productivity"? It involves generating radically greater economic, social and environmental value from the carbon we use. Architect Bill McDonough nicely frames the new language of carbon, distinguishing between three types:

·         Living carbon: Organic, flowing in biological cycles, providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow.

·         Durable carbon: Locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibres such as paper and cloth to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused

·         Fugitive carbon: Carbon that has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, waste to energy plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture and urban development

Clearly, our initial focus has to be on fossil fuels, and making better use of the carbon that we can still burn (fugitive carbon, in McDonough’s new language) within the sort of national carbon budgets being pioneered by the UK Committee on Climate Change in the fifth round of its carbon budgeting.

The Carbon Productivity Tool developed by SystemIQ and the Future-Fit Foundation is a crucial first step. It is designed to help businesses measure their carbon productivity, to boost their performance by generating more value from less fossil fuel carbon and to collaborate with other companies across their product value chains. The collaboration with Future-Fit has been critical, increasing the odds that we don’t focus on carbon to the exclusion of other factors required to create the future we want.

The tool enables businesses to compare alternative sources of feedstock and energy inputs, process and performance improvements, and product designs for environmental benefits in both the use and after-use phases. Companies then can identify the best interventions to optimise their carbon productivity.

But, as analysis by Project Drawdown makes abundantly clear, we must also reinvent our relationships with both living and durable forms of carbon. In particular, we must work out how to draw down fugitive carbon from the atmosphere in massive quantities, and how to regenerate living systems that capture and store huge amounts of carbon that otherwise would end up back in the atmosphere.

Covestro's new factory is innovating in carbon productivity.

Crucially, too, we must figure out to make these newly understood aspects of carbon management economically viable at scale. Indeed, if any one element of our Basecamp surprised other people, it was the pace of development in carbon capture and usage. We heard from pioneer carbon-capture-and-use companies such as Covestro, a founding member of our Consortium, and Carbon Clean Solutions. (See also Sourcing the building blocks of a more sustainable world)

A typical audience response was: "I had no idea that we were so far along in terms of capturing carbon from the atmosphere — and not just pumping it into holes in the ground but turning it into useful, commercially viable products."

We must work out how to draw down fugitive carbon from the atmosphere in massive quantities, and how to regenerate living systems that capture and store carbon

On the Covestro front, a novel catalyst is being used to create cardyon, an innovative raw material for the production of high quality, flexible polyurethane foams, the sort of thing that goes into car seats and mattresses. It is produced with up to 20% carbon dioxide, which has bee captured from the atmosphere. The net result: manufacturers increasingly have more sustainable raw materials to help cut their reliance on fossil fuels.

Carbon Clean Solutions, meanwhile, is developing novel process engineering and chemistries to recover carbon dioxide at a cost of around $40 per metric ton, offering 40% savings compares with conventional processes. 

Our Basecamp coincided with a convening in New York to review progress on the Carbon XPRIZE, promoting the development and deployment of breakthrough technologies. The Carbon XPRIZE mandate, to “reimagine CO2”, has been a profound source of inspiration for our own efforts. So we were thrilled to welcome two participants in the New York event — from 9 Billion Lives and building materials giant LaFarge-Holcim — who helped cross-pollinate the events.

Meanwhile, to get a better sense of the landscape of opportunity, we at Volans continue to evolve our Carbon Productivity Map. This spotlights a growing number of key actors in the closely intertwined worlds of climate change and carbon productivity, and key links between them. Wherever we look, brilliant minds are beavering away on ways to better understand, manage and regenerate the planet’s increasingly wobbly carbon cycle. They deserve every form of help we can give them.

John Elkington is co-founder, chairman of Volans and co-author of The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways To Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line with Jochen Zeitz. He tweets as @volansjohn.