The Catalytic Impact of Aiming for Zero

There is very little in life where we aim for zero. You generally want numbers to go up in sports, business, and school. Golf and weight loss are two things where you aim for numbers to go down, but zero is never the goal.

Yet, in 2020, there has been a doubling of commitments aiming for zero. The topic? Carbon emissions. As of September, 121 countries, 452 cities, 1,100 businesses, 549 universities, and 45 of the biggest investors have set net zero emission targets. Companies making this commitment include Facebook, Ford, Ericsson, Unilever, Mastercard, General Mills, and Biogen. Nearly half of US states have made this commitment. Japan recently joined countries like Canada, Germany, the UK, Mexico, and France in this effort.

The scientific consensus is that we need to cut carbon emissions 50% by 2030 to avoid climate chaos. But what does a zero target—and participating in the Race to Zero campaign, coordinated by the United Nations—do? What I have seen in our work is three catalytic impacts of setting a net zero target.

First, you have to understand the source of your emissions to know how to get to zero. As the saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Measuring also leads to fascinating discussions about what “counts.” One of my favorite examples of this level of comprehensive thinking is Levi’s, who learned that their biggest impacts were at the top and bottom of their supply chain—growing cotton and the washing of their jeans. They had to align their work accordingly, including campaigns to reduce how often people wash their jeans.

Second, zero targets lead to significant innovation and systems level work. In the beginning, it might be straightforward to cut emissions by 20%. But when you are aiming for reducing ALL of them? Now, you have to work for systems-level change, sometimes collaborating with your fiercest competitors, to make deep structural changes.

Ultimately, the other outcome of setting a zero target is that you will need offsets. Offsets are a controversial topic. But the psychological effect offsets have is that real money starts to flow out the door. This puts a real price, not just a shadow price, on carbon pollution. It might not be the right price (usually too low) but, once leaders see “emissions cost us real money,” it increases the incentive to reduce them. Offset dollars also provide funds to plant trees, replace cookstoves, and drive environmental outcomes usually in developing nations.

As a household, you can do this same exercise pretty easily. Visit one of the carbon calculators and answer the questions. The one I linked to will show not only your carbon footprint, but how many planets we would need if everyone lived like you. Before the pandemic, our score was pretty terrible: 6.9 planets and 7.4 tons of carbon despite having hybrid vehicles, green power, composting, and taking public transportation to work. It was the flying. That one change has dropped our footprint to 1.4 planets and cut our carbon by half.

Our next opportunity is to eat more plants and less meat, something I have now tried to do for all lunches. Dinner is the next frontier, but that will involve getting our chef (Mr. Stevens) on board.

Based on this data, I wanted 2020 to be our first Net Zero year. I visited the Gold Standard marketplace and purchased four tons of offsets, helping to fund a biodigester in Cambodia, healthy homes in Honduras, clean cookstoves in India, and biodiverse forests in Panama. I know we need to continue to make absolute progress, but this is one time where it feels good to achieve zero.

Quote of the Week: What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

Jane Goodall

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