How can removing carbon add value to your organization? How can removing carbon add value to your organization?

By EYQ

EYQ is EY’s think tank

By exploring “What’s after what’s next?”, EYQ helps leaders anticipate the forces shaping our future — empowering them to seize the upside of disruption and build a better working world.

7 minute read 22 Jan 2021

Business leaders can flip the script on carbon by capturing it and turning it into a source of commercial and long-term value.

This article is part of the EY Megatrends 2020 and beyond report 

In brief
  • Technologies that capture carbon and turn it into a source of value are accelerating; driven by partnerships, venture financing, and government programs.
  • Carbon removal may be an important new tool for CEOs who want to shift corporate sustainability from a reporting-led function to a value-led focus.
  • Rapidly advancing technologies are driving a new question when it comes to sustainability: is merely becoming carbon neutral enough?

Extreme weather has given no respite to a world struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. From massive fires in California to record flooding in China, hurricanes in the Atlantic, and typhoons in Southeast Asia, climate keeps up a drumbeat of disruption. Perhaps it’s no surprise equal majorities of people globally now view climate change and infectious disease as major threats. Yet even as lockdowns related to COVID-19 resulted in a dip in emissions, atmospheric CO2 concentrations are rising and we haven’t narrowed the projected overshoot of the emissions levels needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A growing group of innovators aims to help address this gap with carbon removal technologies and approaches that flip the script, capturing carbon to turn it into a source of commercial and long-term value. For CEOs who want to shift sustainability in their organizations from a reporting-led function to a more value-led focus, yielding new business opportunities, carbon removal could be an important new lever.

Carbon removal approaches

While renewable energy, electrification and efficiency represent the primary paths to global decarbonization, carbon removal seeks to augment these key levers to not only avoid emissions, but reverse them (see EY’s Megatrends 2020 and beyond report for further perspectives on exponential climate impacts and decarbonization).

Engineered carbon removal, known also as carbontech, extracts greenhouse gasses from industrial processes, or directly from the air, to recycle or sequester them in commercial products, including major emission sources such as fuels, chemicals, materials, and cement. Carbontech opens the possibility that increasing industrial production could help drive CO2 emissions down rather than up. Many of these technologies draw on synthetic biology and the microbiome (the EY Megatrends report discusses how these domains are helping us meet our sustainability challenges).

The existing global market for products using carbon as an input is valued at US$6t, according to the think tank Carbon180. Carbon-negative building materials, plastics, textiles, and carpet tiles—which capture more CO2 than is emitted producing them—are entering this market. Companies have a growing opportunity to incorporate carbon removal into their product strategies, supply chains and operations.

Nature-based carbon removal, such as regenerative agriculture, reforestation and afforestation, seek to harness and restore nature’s ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The carbon sequestered in the soil or trees provides the basis for verified carbon removal credits. Revenue from the credits supports agricultural producers, while carbon removal projects provide additional environmental benefits (e.g., protecting local watersheds) and long-term social value (e.g., protecting traditional cultures and livelihoods). By supporting carbon removal projects, companies can help forge a sustainable legacy in many vulnerable communities they serve and operate in.

Financing carbontech’s growth

Scaling while reducing costs is a key challenge, but a number of large corporations are partnering with carbon removal companies to accelerate development, and carbontech innovators have raised over US$2b in venture financing according to the Circular Carbon Network. One indicator of carbontech scale-up is the US$100m financing round received by the Swiss direct air capture company Climeworks at the end of 2020.

It is likely that financing of carbon removal will be supported by the implementation of national climate plans and green recovery programs. According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2020, 126 countries representing 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions have adopted or announced net-zero goals. The share of covered emissions will rise to 63% if the United States joins this group as expected under the US$2t Biden-Harris climate plan, which includes negative emissions technologies in its proposed investments. Similarly, carbon removal will likely benefit from the €1t to be spent on decarbonization under the European Union’s Green Deal.

Creating value from carbon

Carbon removal is driving a broader question in sustainability thinking: is carbon neutrality an adequate ambition? For heavy emitters, carbon removal provides another tool to accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality. But, for many global companies, the ability to capture and revalue carbon opens a path to going a step further, becoming carbon negative, removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than they are responsible for. Microsoft, Ikea and AstraZeneca are among the companies that have committed to using carbon removal to achieve the ambition of carbon negativity.

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These technologies and approaches also come at a time when the environment increasingly influences the social and governance dimensions of sustainability. The Lancet’s latest Countdown report details the significant global health impact of climate change, such as heat-related mortality, undernutrition, lost productivity, and infectious disease. Companies feel growing pressure from external and internal stakeholders for climate action. As detailed in our 2019 CEO Imperative Study, the CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies believe that large corporations should take the lead in addressing global challenges like climate change, and that there is more business opportunity than risk in taking action.

Carbon removal can contribute to value-led sustainability responses, which can create new revenue and growth opportunities by tapping into trillion-dollar markets for products using carbon as an input. It can also accelerate the achievement of net-zero objectives or facilitate going carbon negative. Support of carbon removal projects can help both the planet and local communities.

As CEOs reframe their organization’s sustainability strategy toward a more value-led approach, they should explore:

  • The innovation, supply chain and customer opportunities presented by carbon removal technologies and approaches.
  • How competitive advantage could be enhanced by engaging with carbon removal innovators to help them scale-up.
  • What carbon removal approaches could be adopted to not only accelerate achievement of their corporate climate commitments but expand them.
  • How carbon removal investments could align with and augment their community sustainability objectives.

Summary

A growing group of carbon removal innovators aim to address the global emissions gap with technologies and approaches that flip the script on carbon, by capturing it and turning it into a source of commercial and long-term value. For CEOs who want to shift sustainability in their organizations from a reporting-led function to a more value-led focus, yielding new business opportunities, carbon removal could be an important new lever.

About this article

By EYQ

EYQ is EY’s think tank

By exploring “What’s after what’s next?”, EYQ helps leaders anticipate the forces shaping our future — empowering them to seize the upside of disruption and build a better working world.