Speed bump - good on a residential street; bad on a highway. Scalpel – good in a hospital; bad in a cookie jar. Golf ball – good on the green; bad ricocheting off a tree and thumping you squarely in your thigh (yep, I’ve done that).
It turns out that something’s location can make a big difference.
Which brings me to carbon. The element, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. Actually, if you had to assign a value to it, I would argue for “good” given that carbon is the building block for all life. When bonded to an oxygen atom on its left and right, carbon still isn’t good or bad. It just becomes carbon dioxide and does the things that carbon dioxide does, like dissolve into water, enable photosynthesis and look super cool when in a solid form (that’s what dry ice is).
It also traps heat radiated from the Earth’s surface, which STILL doesn’t make carbon good or bad. It depends how much we have in the atmosphere. Too little and Earth starts to look like Mercury. Too much and Earth starts to look like Venus. I am confident in saying that both of those would be bad.
If we care about Earth being hospitable to life generally, then carbon’s location matters immensely. Right now, with global warming presenting the challenge of the next several generations, carbon needs to come home. By that, I mean out of the air and back to the earth. It turns out the atmosphere’s “Vacancy” light blinked out a few decades ago.
All of this to say, carbon is not some enemy. It is a misplaced resource. And the opportunity for the business community to value drawdown as an investment, rather than view carbon reduction as a cost, is upon us.
Eventually, whether due to carbon taxes or pure survivalism, business and industry will place a value on a stable climate. Net emissions of greenhouse gases will become unacceptable, and businesses will be encouraged to actively draw carbon out of the atmosphere. When that happens, businesses who are able to utilize carbon dioxide as a raw material will have a significant competitive advantage.
Admittedly, this future for business won’t materialize overnight. Society will see a gradual transition towards it, driven by a variety of catalysts. I’m proud to say that one of those catalysts is the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business.
The Center has adopted “Carbon-Conscious Business” as one of its priorities, and in so doing has positioned itself as a leader on this issue. Through their efforts, I am confident that more and more business leaders will understand both the negative impacts of their organizations and the potential they have to become climate positive.
Fortunately, they won’t be alone in leading in this space. Interface has already publicly declared their intention to create a climate fit for life through their next corporate mission, Climate Take Back. One of the most encouraging aspects of the recently released book Drawdown is the economic case for so many global warming solutions. Moreover, the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge has just recently shifted its theme to climate change, thereby sparking new start-up businesses who will integrate climate action in their very core.
So let’s shift our perspective a bit. We should begin seeing carbon as friend, not foe. We should support businesses who are conscious of their relationship with carbon. And we should do all that we can to bring carbon back home!
John Lanier is Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, and one of Ray's five grandchildren.