Increasing carbon and methane concentrations in the atmosphere are bad news, but so are other problems such as acidification of the oceans and discarded plastics. Practically, environmentally minded businesses aim to reduce their carbon footprint and eliminate negative externalities, such as waste and pollution.
As much as “innovation” is a buzzword that tends to compel idealistic visions of new businesses, riches, and opportunities it is the more systematic approaches to business models and their value chain that yield novel new solutions. Heron invented a steam engine in the common era first century , but it was not until 1690 that the novelty of capturing and focusing the power of steam was applied to supplant base human power. As a result, we have the distinction between pure or abstract science and the applied. It would be erroneous, or motivated thinking, to simply conclude that innovation comes as a result of “businesses innovating” as though it were something that simply materializes out of thin air. However, business does play a contributing and applied role in utilizing the pure and abstract.
Sustainability recently published an excellent report, Model Behavior, analyzing various business models that move humankind’s organizations and processes in the direction of reducing harmful impacts. The report is particularly good for the fact that it is very well written for most anyone to read. While much of the report is reflective of the abstract theory and writings of academics, I found much of the report reflective of Jeremy Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution, yet focused on the descriptive practices of current businesses. Furthermore, the usefulness of the report lies in concisely serving as a guide to focus organizational resources in their sustainability efforts.
Humankind’s modern challenge is to align our use and consumption of natural resources with the capacity of the biosphere to regenerate and process the waste from our activities.
It is fact that any human activity is bound to have some harmful effect on the atmospheric commons. Our very act of breathing produces carbon dioxide and seemingly our most pressing environmental challenge is to mitigate the concentrations of harmful gases. Therefore, ethically we cannot take a deontological view of the atmosphere, that it has value and is thus always wrong to inflict harm or we are left with a situation of our mere existence is ‘not-good.’ It follows that stewardship of the atmosphere is a sort of external based virtue. To reduce the level of harm that we do to the environment is praiseworthy, and reducing impact is a principle that remains at the heart of sustainability innovation. Economic gains are certainly worthy of consideration to help evaluate amongst a field of alternatives, however these are contingent concerns that rest upon a suitable environment for our continued activities.
The overriding concern is thus qualitative in nature… yet we continually strive to express the qualitative in a quantitative manner.
However, the metrics of sustainable business are not objectively focused on just emissions. Sustainable business scores a “win” when it reduces an organization’s impact, and it is great to read stories of reformed processes or products that improve upon the status quo.
However, sometimes the lead gets buried…
A recent story by Sustainable Brands, authored by Jennifer Elks, illustrates a novel way that the start up firm, Newlight, is reducing methane and carbon pollution by repurposing waste into a product named AirCarbon. The story does an excellent job of drawing attention to a new process that removes more carbon than is used to produce the output by capturing methane from dairy operations. However, the article is keen to note that this new ‘carbon negative’ process is not going to make a significant dent in global emissions and implies little for capturing carbon dioxide emissions. As a result the coal industry will find little comfort from Newlight, but the dairy industry is another story.
So how significant is the capture and use of methane? In a single day, according to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, 10,000 dairy cows produce 33,092 pounds of methane.
Methane is 9% of the overall US greenhouse gas emissions (US EPA). However, methane is over 20x more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Therefore there is a significant amplifying effect… reduce 1 pound of methane is akin to a 20 pound carbon dioxide reduction.
Additionally, methane remains in the atmosphere for at least 12 years before the natural processes of the atmospheric commons can neutralize it’s harmful effects.
This is great news… but… two leads are buried in this story.
First and foremost, AirCarbon works via an “efficient bio-catalyst” process. Suggesting that a focus on bio-mimicry is the underlying key to their products. Much as bio-mimicry was a focus of a key chapter in Natural Capitalism, the efficient processes of nature are likely to serve as guiding principles to drive new applications to humankind as we continue to try to align our activities with the biosphere.
Secondly, While Newlight demurs claims that their product is going to solve climate change, AirCarbon may yet serve to address another environmental harm… plastic waste. Petroleum based plastics, which are the overwhelming majority in use, serve as a small component of the fossil fuel market, yet do contribute to the profits of many firms. If AirCarbon serves as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative… we have a real win-win.
Additionally, noting that AirCarbon can serve short term needs in a biodegradable form, as well as a more robust non-biodegradable form illustrates the wide array of applications that it can replace traditional petroleum plastics. As a result, AirCarbon may be a significantly disruptive product… it remains to be seen if the company can scale or license the technology significantly to meet the needs of the market.
If more products are made from carbon-negative plastics and are biodegradable in nature, then AirCarbon may go a long way towards curtailing the waste plastics that are amassing in our oceans. For anyone not familiar with the size and scope of the problem of plastic in the oceans… the cross currents of the Pacific have amassed a Texas sized dead zone of pollution, now referred to as the Great Pacific garbage patch.
In summary, while negating all of our impact on the biosphere is not feasible, an accounting of moral credits is one way to understand how we can measure our efforts of sustainability that advances towards two different ends. Sustainability is advanced if the organization mitigates its polluting activities, and the principle aim remains that of ‘zero-impact’ as the externally rooted virtue to pursue. AirCarbon achieves two sorts of moral credits:
1) A carbon-negative product that reduces methane emissions.
2) Offering a disruptive advancement that serves to offer cheap biodegradable plastics that may curtail any further accumulation in the oceans.
While it still remains that the pollution in the ocean must be addressed… And it remains that society should go to greater lengths to ensure plastic never makes it to our waterways… but we have to start somewhere and the environmentally minded should view this story and firm, Newlight, as praiseworthy.
That is a win-win!