Carbon removal and the next frontier of corporate climate action: “Scope 4” emissions (Part 1 of 2)

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on corporate sustainability and carbon removal.

An increasing number of large companies now track and report their direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (known as Scope 1-3 GHG reporting). However, corporate climate action addressing Scope 1-3 emissions will only get us part of the way to delivering on the Paris Agreement pledge of limiting global warming to below 2°C (let alone 1.5°C). Scientists are increasingly clear that we will need to go beyond reducing emissions and also deploy solutions capable of cleaning up the CO2 that remains in the atmosphere from past emissions if we want to make our global climate commitments a reality.

Above: Carbon Engineering has developed a direct air capture pilot project in Squamish, BC capable of “mining the sky” for CO2 that can be converted into renewable synthetic fuels or sequestered underground to produce “negative emissions.”

Above: Carbon Engineering has developed a direct air capture pilot project in Squamish, BC capable of “mining the sky” for CO2 that can be converted into renewable synthetic fuels or sequestered underground to produce “negative emissions.”

Because time travel is not an option, we will need to develop what are known as “carbon removal” solutions that can clean up large volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere. A wide variety of carbon removal solutions have been proposed, ranging from basic tree planting and ecosystem restoration to high-tech devices that hoover up CO2 directly from the atmosphere, as shown in the figure below. While carbon removal solutions face many commercialization hurdles, estimates show a very large technical scale potential for a portfolio of solutions if these challenges are tackled successfully.

Figure: Umbrella of leading carbon removal solution options

To fully incorporate carbon removal into corporate climate action strategies, corporate sustainability leaders will need to start developing a definition for “Scope 4” emissions that shows how much CO2 each company is responsible for cleaning up from the atmosphere. And they will need to get started on this task as soon as possible, as defining Scope 4 emissions in a clear and fair manner will undoubtedly be challenging. For example, leaders tackling Scope 4 emissions will need to grapple with issues like:

  • How much CO2 should we be aiming to remove in the first place, and by when?
  • Do we assign an individual company’s Scope 4 emissions responsibility by historic cumulative emissions, or by some other proportional metric like revenue or current GHG emissions?
  • How do we measure and verify action on Scope 4 emissions to ensure reliability, safety, and ecological sustainability?
  • How do we ensure extra action on Scope 4 emissions isn’t used as an excuse to slow down action on reducing Scope 1-3 emissions?

Above: A poster from the Conservation Research Institute shows that native plants can have deep root systems, helping to lock carbon in soils.

Above: A poster from the Conservation Research Institute shows that native plants can have deep root systems, helping to lock carbon in soils.

There are a number of emerging conversations in the corporate sustainability world where discussion of Scope 4 emissions can naturally fit. For example, companies like Kaiser Permanente have pledged to have a net-negative footprint through the use of renewables and offsets by 2025, and Interface’s “climate take back” initiative aims to “bring carbon home and reverse climate change. ” Efforts like these could serve as a launchpad for broader corporate engagement and coalitions of key stakeholders working to wrap their arms around carbon removal and the Scope 4 emission challenge.

 

Above: moving our climate aspirations beyond carbon neutrality will involve a number of different strategies.

Above: moving our climate aspirations beyond carbon neutrality will involve a number of different strategies.

While the details are fuzzy on how to track and manage Scope 4 emissions today, it is clear that carbon removal represents the next frontier of climate action. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series on corporate sustainability and carbon removal to learn more about what actions corporate sustainability pioneers can take today to get a head start on seizing the carbon removal opportunity.

Want to join the conversation on carbon removal? Make sure to check out the following events: