It’s easy to despair about climate change. Do we really have solutions that are adequate for the size of the challenge we face? But carbon neutrality is proving to be the business response that works right now and sets in chain the long-term transformation needed.

An immigrant to California, I came armed with a Ph.D. and desire to make the world a better place through developing technically efficient and beautifully designed products. I must live in one of the most desired climates in the world: sunny, dry, consistent weather, in a majestic state with towering redwoods, granite boulders, and thundering waves crashing along the undeveloped Pacific coast.

But any fear of earthquakes has been replaced by being a prisoner to our climate: during the 2018 wildfires we lived in a smoke-filled haze under a glowing red sun; we drove wearing masks to avoid inhaling the particulate matter. And our challenges were minimal compared to the communities in Paradise and Camp whose towns were destroyed by wildfire in eight hours: 90 people died and over 18,000 structures were burnt to the ground.

The IPCC report and the continual news of devastation from extreme weather (tsunamis, wildfires, floods, mud slides, bursting dams) are alarming. Watching Greta Thunberg’s earnest pleas for action can make you feel impotent. How is it that our youngest see things so clearly?

There does however seem to be a growing response from business, and conversations about coming to that response are a driving force behind our long-standing participation in the Climate Leadership Conference. Carbon neutrality is becoming a standard business practice. Microsoft is carbon-neutral, as are MetLife, Lyft, Salesforce, Google, and BCG. And it’s not just for the big corporates or West Coast entrepreneurs. Startups (Diamond Foundry) and small-(Burt’s Bees) and medium-size companies (Fetzer Vineyards) are carbon-neutral, and even countries like Costa Rica, the UK, and Finland have made bold commitments.

These carbon-neutral programs mean organizations are delivering action now. And that speed is critical. While big technological solutions may be on the way, we do not have time to sit and wait. These organizations are measuring the greenhouse gas emissions for operating their business, manufacturing a product, holding an event, or running a country and reducing it to zero. They are doing that by making their businesses more operationally efficient, using renewable energy, and financing external emission reduction projects: carbon offsetting.

As Patrick Flynn, sustainability lead at Salesforce, noted recently “Winning slowly is the same as losing.”

Carbon neutrality is the baseline action for me: it marks the inflection point at which a company stops running “business as usual” and commits to the required low-carbon future. It enables business to account for carbon in its strategic planning, not as a shadow price—a hypothetical—but with a real price. When you measure your emissions and reduce them to zero through external instruments, you have an actual dollar value per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The impact of those external projects is not just about enabling a company to meet its carbon neutral goal. The just transition to a low carbon economy means it’s not only that the wealthy get to live in a clean environment, driving electric vehicles to renewable energy-powered, air-conditioned homes. Climate change is going to impact the most vulnerable people on our planet the hardest, and they are the least equipped to be able to handle it. Three billion people cook over open biomass fires. They should all have access to efficient cookstoves, and carbon finance can support that transition—probably far more cost-effectively than building a resiliency dam in Palo Alto.

Often I hear, “First we’ll get our own house in order, and then we’ll do the remainder, and finally, we’ll offset as a last resort.” This approach misses the fundamental value of carbon offsetting: financing the transition to low-carbon technologies. “Technologies” can mean a ceramic water filter so that homes can avoid waterborne disease without boiling water on open fires, it can be a solar light that is charged at school to encourage children to attend and taken home so they can do their homework, or it can be a program to conserve forests and grasslands that store so much carbon.

And that is one of the major opportunities of the carbon markets: the value to communities, households, and ecosystems through impacts that can be qualified, and increasingly quantified, as positive outcomes towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

I arrived in California over 20 years ago, armed with a scientist’s reductionist approach to solving problems: isolate, hypothesize, test, and analyze. With what we know now, that piecemeal approach to reducing emissions is a completely inadequate response. Carbon neutrality is enabling us to use a systems-thinking approach which can take us a step closer to transformation.

Saskia Feast Ph.D. is a board member of Presidio Graduate School and VP Western Region at Natural Capital Partners. The latest version of Natural Capital Partners’ CarbonNeutral Protocol launched in January 2020.

Natural Capital Partners is the Climate Impact Sponsor for the 2020 Climate Leadership Conference.

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