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Leading the Charge to a Carbon-Negative Future

June 6, 2023

dawn above the clouds

In 2019, the United States released around 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels alone. This is less than half the amount released by China, the world’s biggest offender at nearly 10 billion metric tons. These two countries alone account for over 40% of global emissions of CO2. Why are the CO2 contributions of these countries and the rest of the industrialized world such a problem?

CO2, despite being a natural gas that is important to life on our planet, is an enormous contributor to climate change—especially when the rate at which human activity is producing it  is considered. This is because when it enters the atmosphere, it creates a semi-permeable layer which traps radiant energy that would typically pass out into space. Instead of doing so, this radiant energy stays “stuck” within our atmosphere for a long time, causing a globe-warming greenhouse effect that disrupts traditional temperatures and weather patterns, changes climates and adversely impacts the planet and its biodiversity.

According to a report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body that assesses climate change science, CO2 emissions can take millenniums to dissipate. Forty percent will take 100 years, twenty percent will take 1,000 years, and ten percent will take up to 10,000 years to dissipate.

What’s more alarming is that despite CO2’s tendency to egregiously overstay its welcome, it’s not even the worst greenhouse gas that’s hanging around our atmosphere. While it is quite the loiterer, many “short-staying” greenhouse gases, such as methane, wreak far more damage. In fact, methane’s impact is 28 to 34 times more severe than CO2 over a 100-year period. Over a 20-year period—a timeframe widely considered pivotal to combating the worst effects of climate change—methane is 84 times more severe.

If that’s not shocking enough, there’s also this to digest: Half of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions ever generated have occurred in the past 50 years . If we keep to this path, what will the next 50 years look like?

Science and common sense say we must act now and act fast to curtail these emissions and their repercussions, but how do we do that? We must transition into a Carbon-Negative society.


Zero Carbon and Net Zero

To understand what “Carbon-Negative” entails, it’s important to first address two related, but more ubiquitous terms— “Zero Carbon” and “Net Zero”.

Zero Carbon is one of several strategies designed to address climate change. It aims to eliminate the human-induced generation of CO2, methane and other climate-altering gases altogether. This is a complex and bold undertaking which requires partnership and participation between industry, government and people.

To better understand Zero Carbon, it helps to understand a related but different concept: "Net Zero".

Net Zero is an equation which seeks to offset greenhouse gas emissions with other human-initiated activities that remove or divert CO2, methane and the like from the atmosphere. Planting trees that absorb CO2 and release oxygen, for example, is a common strategy for addressing the over-generation of carbon dioxide. In other words, if enough trees are planted, it “cancels out” the CO2 emissions of climate-harming activities, rendering their impact on the planet to net zero.

So, what’s the problem with Net Zero? Math is the problem. In keeping with our carbon dioxide example, according to CO2Meter, a single, 40-year-old hardwood tree can consume a ton of CO2 at maturity. But the numbers cited above—4.7 billion metric tons from the United States alone—are annual figures. To reach the tipping point where Net Zero strategies start to meaningfully reduce current emission levels will require an astronomical, maybe even improbable, number of trees.

According to a 2019 study published in Science, current ecosystems could support an additional 900 million hectares of forest, a space equivalent to roughly 2.2 billion football fields of adjacent trees. At maturity, this seemingly endless forest could absorb more than 200 billion metric tons of CO2, which is 25% of what is euphemistically referred to as “the current carbon pool” in the atmosphere.

In other words, if a mature forest the size of the United States appeared overnight, it would stand to reduce the current global output of carbon dioxide by only one-quarter.

Reaching the tipping point where atmospheric CO2 is being decreased rather than offset is going to be difficult to attain with Net Zero alone. Not only does the number of trees (or number of man-made carbon capture systems) required to combat carbon dioxide pollution boggle the mind, but they only address that single contributor to climate change. Methane, nitrous oxide and other pollutants also have to be taken into account due to their enormous influence.

However, combining Net Zero strategies with Zero Carbon strategies offers a solution to the dilemma. Reducing and eliminating the quantity of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere (the Zero Carbon strategy) allows Net Zero to act as a complement—a filtration system specifically focused on addressing the existing pollutants already in the atmosphere.


What a Sustainable Future Entails

To envision a world where operations, products and services release no emissions into the atmosphere may seem like the stuff of science fiction—especially when the massive obstacles in the way to getting there are considered. But it’s a necessary ambition, one that is not for the faint of heart.

It requires massive changes on nearly every level of society from the pillars of industry to the halls of government to the mass buying power of consumers. As Deloitte Insights says in their May 2021 article Leading in a Low-Carbon Future, “The global economy is being remade, and every business, government, organization and individual has a role to play in accelerating this transition.”

The Deloitte Insights article puts forward the idea that the shift from an industrial economy to a zero-carbon economy will be as transformative as the industrial revolution itself. But this undersells it by a landslide. The truth is that it will be a far more radical transformation.

The original industrial revolution was additive, in that it gave us new things: engines, telephones, lightbulbs. But we’re staring into an environmental abyss, and this time, our survival demands transformation. The shift to a sustainable world is reformative, not additive. It requires that, up and down the line, we change behaviors—that we collectively strike a balance between offsetting the emissions we release and reducing the amount of emissions we produce in the first place. If we can do that, we can then finally pull ourselves up from the precipice upon which we now hang and do the real work. We can chip away at the greenhouse gases that lie beyond the point of simply “breaking even” and pursue a carbon-negative future.


Industry and a Carbon-Negative Future

Although pursuing a carbon-negative future is going to be a team sport, industry will have the most at stake. As government regulations and consumer priorities shift, companies who don’t take a proactive role in improving their emissions are going to find themselves left behind.

According to Deloitte, there are five areas that industry will need to focus on to remain competitive in this emerging world:

    1. Energy Use:
      Reduce reliance on fossil fuels and increase use of renewable energy sources
    2. Mobility:
      Move to electric vehicles and use technology to increase efficiency and agility
    3. Manufacturing:
      Eliminate emissions-heavy systems in favor of renewable, reduce waste in manufacturing and packaging
    4. Land Use:
      Shift to regenerative farming techniques and use supply chain enhancements to reduce waste
    5. Negative Emissions Systems:
      Actively participate in carbon markets and ecosystem restoration and conservation

The world is a lot more transparent than it was when the industrial revolution occurred and there are now nearly infinite ways for consumers to understand what companies are doing (or not doing). The businesses that succeed won’t just be issuing press releases but will instead be performing tangible, measurable, and reportable activities.


Government and a Carbon-Negative Future

For its part, to change the status quo, Government must resume its mantle of bold leadership by creating programs that help reduce and eliminate damaging emissions and fund research that drives clean technologies. Government can also help by using its enormous purchasing power to drive the market toward sustainability.

The United States is doing exactly that through executive orders, one of which directs that greenhouse gas emissions see a 65% reduction by 2030; all government vehicles are electric by 2035; and that the US federal government is carbon-neutral by 2050.

This kind of shift needs to cascade throughout government structures and be adopted by regional and local governments as well. California, already boasting the lowest per capita carbon footprint in the United States, has set a target of 2045 to have 100% of its electricity generated by carbon-neutral sources.

Other states and territories have similar goals, some more aggressive (Connecticut is targeting 2040 for 100% carbon-neutral energy) and other less. All said, 19 states and two territories have plans in place. 


Society and a Carbon-Negative Future

The role of ordinary people in achieving a carbon-negative world cannot be understated.

At the end of the day, companies only produce products that people want to buy. A general awareness of how products are manufactured will go a long way towards avoiding products with a high carbon footprint. But awareness only goes so far without action, and it is up to people to take the action.

According to the EPA , the average American generates just under 5 pounds of municipal solid waste per day. That may or may not sound like a lot, but annualized it comes out to nearly one ton per year, per person, which translates into one ton of additional greenhouse gases annually entering the atmosphere. While approximately one-third of the 292 million tons (2018 figures) were either recycled or composted, it would be a good exercise for every individual to review his or her own waste production and look for alternatives. 


Leading the Charge to a Carbon-Negative Future

Whether you are a corporate leader, a government official, or an ordinary person, you can help lead the charge to a carbon-negative future through three, interconnected pursuits: investing in clean energy, using resources more efficiently and removing greenhouse gases and their generators from the environment.

    1. Investing in Clean Energy
      Support goods, services and systems that do not rely on fossil fuels, but instead use sources of power that produce minimal greenhouse gas emissions, such as nuclear energy or electricity that is generated through renewable means. These renewable sources include wind, solar, hydro, geo-thermal and energy recovery solutions.

      Although the electricity from energy recovery solutions (which include composting, anaerobic digestion and waste-to-energy) doesn’t fit the traditional definition of “renewable energy”, like wind or solar, it does perpetually replenish itself due to society’s constant production of waste. What’s surprising, is waste-to-energy and the like, are actually more environmentally friendly than traditional renewable sources when the benefits of avoided landfill waste and its methane are factored in against the micro-climate drawbacks popular nature-harnessing technologies possess.

      The Take-Away: The energy that powers society must come from clean, renewable sources.

    2. Using Resources Efficiently
      Using resources efficiently spans a wide range of practices, covering everything from intelligent infrastructural design, to refilling a single-use water bottle. On the grander side of that scale, this can include sustainable legislation, like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR); sustainable business structures based in ESG; and sustainable communities, empowered through a combination of green planning and engineering.

      For Legislation: Support policies that drive the use of recycled and/or biodegradable materials, have stronger environmental violation laws and incentivize the reduction of carbon footprints through grants, tax breaks and other offers

      For Business: Invest in newer technologies and systems of operation to optimize both commercial and environmental performances, extend the longevity of products and services, or design them to bring value beyond their intended lifecycle through alternate uses as they are, or through the recycling of their components

      For Communities: Design cities and neighborhoods that prioritize public transit, cyclist and pedestrian accessibility, and green spaces; build or renovate offices, shops and residential homes with better insulation, strategic space utilization and greener materials to use less energy for heating, cooling and lighting

      On the smaller side of that scale—the individual level—share necessary vehicles and equipment when possible and use those with good fuel economies that draw from clean sources. Reduce the waste you generate, reuse and recycle everyday materials in other areas of your life and use goods and services from businesses with strong ESG standings. Collectively, this creates a domino effect that decreases the demand for the emission-heavy process of acquiring virgin sources and increases the demand for more circular, green-minded supply chains.

      The Take-Away: The resources that maintain society should be kept at their highest value at every stage of their use.

    3. Removing Emissions and Their Generators
      Whether an organization is a multi-national corporation, a small municipal office, or a family household, there are ways to engage in greenhouse gas removal and prevention. As previously discussed, trees and other plants are efficient at collecting CO2 and emitting oxygen—plant as many as you can. Carbon capture, and even methane removal technologies are in development and may soon become more widely accessible. Until then, you can “counter” greenhouse gas emissions by investing in organizations and efforts that will further the progress of sustainably (typically known as a carbon offset). Apart from that, doing what you can to reduce greenhouse gas generators can make a significant difference.

      One of the best ways to do that is by sustainably managing materials, the operations linked to them and the byproducts they produce. Reduce the use of products and services that release excessive emissions or harm the environment in other sizable ways. In a similar vein, stop landfilling waste materials. Reuse and recycle, and when absolutely necessary, use thermal processing, such as waste-to-energy, anaerobic digestion or composting. Landfills are super-emitters  of methane and offer a slew of problems, so avoiding them is paramount. Additionally, be proactive in cleaning up existing waste materials at work, at home and in your community. 

      The Take-Away: The byproducts that come from society should be sustainably reduced, countered and removed. 


The Road Ahead

The road to a carbon-negative future will not be an easy one, but it must be one that is quickly and cautiously taken. Although the time to act is short, the good news is, we are not too late—not yet.

With a concerted and coordinated effort between businesses, legislators, communities and more, CO2, methane and the rest of the climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced and eliminated.

We need to invest in cleaner forms of energy, utilize the resources we have available to us to their fullest, and remove excessive greenhouse gas emissions from our atmosphere and their unnatural generators from our environment. Only then, can the world correct its course—only then, will we have a fighting chance against what future looms on the horizon.

A major source of net carbon negative energy

8 acquisitions
For each ton of waste we recover for energy, Covanta saves 1 ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In 2022, we avoided 19 million metric tons of CO2e.

A major source of net carbon negative energy

8 acquisitions
For each ton of waste we recover for energy, Covanta saves 1 ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In 2022, we avoided 19 million metric tons of CO2e.

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