A few years ago, I thought the climate was in bad shape and that we weren’t doing enough, anything really, to change the picture. There were and are serious consequences to be faced by the global community regarding climate, I thought. So, to make a contribution, I did what I do best, I wrote a book about solutions. It was a good exercise too because it calmed my anxiety about the climate future. I have a lot of science, especially chemistry, in my background and it was reassuring to discover that, chemically at least, the climate situation was reversible.
But it’s sobering to note that the ice ages (there was more than one) were reversed too though it took nature millions of years to stabilize things. The last glaciers only receded to the mountains about ten thousand years ago and concomitantly humans came out of the woods to grow food and establish settlements. My research showed that climate change reversibility could take place on a human time scale if we managed it. Time went on and, because we had a disinterested if not hostile administration in Washington, nothing good happened, if anything things became perceptibly worse.
It’s a new day in many ways and I doubt it’s coincidental that Salesforce and Accenture today announced an upgrade to their partnership to help their corporate customers to track environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) data. It all dovetails with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and it uses solutions already in place i.e. Accenture’s Sustainability Services, and Salesforce Sustainability Cloud.
According to the announcement, “Companies will be able to track, measure and act on a range of sustainability initiatives, including reporting on carbon usage, supporting customer engagements, creating positive consumer experiences, meeting regulatory requirements and developing new business models.” Depending on your world view this is either great news or “meh.” Knowing that you can’t manage what you don’t measure though, the announcement leans heavily in the direction of oh-my-goodness-this-is-about-time.
For all of the goodness you can wring out of this announcement we need to be realistic and immediately look at what we have in the arsenal for doing something about what the ESG data eventually tells us and there’s the rub. To date there is no comprehensive approach to capturing, removing and sequestering carbon from the environment. So, companies might be able to throttle the amount of carbon-based fuels they use but that’s not enough.
To make an analogy, the climate glass is already full and slowing the addition of more carbon to the environment simply slows the rate of overflow. To make another comparison, if your water is already polluted, reducing pollution emitted into the water does nothing.
We are still at a point where various corporations are experimenting with solutions that capture, remove and sequester carbon and unfortunately each party is like one of the blind men examining an elephant in the Hindu legend. Some want to build machines to do the job, but the task is so huge it is difficult to see where the energy that runs the machines comes from. That’s because capture does nothing unless you convert carbon dioxide into a molecule that’s stable at ambient temperatures. Some suggest burying the gas underground but gasses don’t obey confinement.
Photosynthesis is the champion process for that purpose. Green plants convert carbon dioxide into plant material, some of which we eat. There’s a movement afoot to use this model rather than energy hungry machines to get the job done and some advocate planting a trillion trees to do the job. That’s about the right quantity too.
If you run the numbers, we need to remove at least three trillion tons of carbon from the environment to take us back to a climate like we had in the 1990’s. That’s not perfect but it’s far better than what we have at the moment. But planting trees has its own issues, for instance, on what land would this happen and how would all these trees get adequate water on a planet that’s rapidly turning to desert?
Couple that with the idea that by mid-century there could be as many as 40 countries without sufficient water to support urban life and agriculture. Some of them already have nuclear weapons. With existing and projected resources, the earth’s carrying capacity is about 10 billion people according to the UN and we currently have about 7.5 billion at the dinner table so every acre and every bit of water will be needed for making food unless something changes.
There are other solutions making the rounds, some more chemically and biologically logical than what’s on offer right now. But the first step in fixing the problem, as always, is quantifying it.
With an understanding of the problem’s magnitude, we can begin in earnest to seek and implement solutions. That’s why the Accenture and Salesforce announcement to track ESG data is so important. It doesn’t solve anything but importantly it makes a down payment on the day we’ll be able to provide workable solutions and it comes not a moment too soon.