March 15, 2021

Drawdown Labs Interview: Erin Meezan on the Need For Bold Corporate Climate Action

by Aiyana Bodi

The flooring industry isn’t a typical bastion of bold climate action. And Erin Meezan, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer of Interface—the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer—knows it. “It’s not Tesla,” she says. “It’s maybe not the most exciting place to save the world.” Because flooring companies aren’t usually expected to set the bar for innovation, Interface’s climate aspirations are especially compelling. Through its ambitious targets and innovative engagement strategies, Interface is setting a high climate action bar for the corporate world.

Interface began its sustainability journey in 1994, far sooner than most corporations. And while many businesses publicize mediocre climate goals—like reducing “X” amount of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by “Y” date—Interface takes a new approach, moving beyond “doing less harm” to making measurable positive impacts on people and the planet. Interface’s restorative approach to climate change means eliminating its carbon footprint, but also promotes carbon removal and protection of natural carbon sinks as well as engaging employees, other businesses, and policymakers.

Through its first major initiative, dubbed Mission Zero®, Interface dramatically cut impacts on the environment in its operations, raw materials, and products over a span of 25 years: globally, it cut 96% in GHG emissions, 92% of waste to landfills, and 89% of water usage per unit of production. The company charged beyond its goals faster than expected (meeting its Mission Zero targets in 2019, one year ahead of schedule), and in 2015, Interface leaders knew they were ready for the next steps in their sustainability journey. This is the moment, Meezan says, Interface chose to deliberately transform from a company looking to reduce its impact, into a place that works towards the type of future the world deserves. Their goals were framed around the Climate Take Back initiative, a plan to create a “climate fit for life” by reversing global warming, restoring the planet, and making a positive impact.

Part of this plan mandates that the company has a negative carbon footprint. As a bare minimum standard, all of Interface’s products are carbon neutral. In 2020, the company went a step further with the release of a carbon negative carpet tile, a manifestation of their “climate fit for life” initiative in product form. This carpet, made from recycled content and bio-based materials, stores more carbon than it releases and proves businesses in every sector can push their goals beyond do no harm.

“It's possible to offer [these types of] products worldwide...and still make money and still grow,” says Meezan. “If we can do it, our competitors can do it.”

Interface understands the power of people and smart policy, and extends its climate activities to employees and other institutions. On the policy front, Interface is working to expand the Buy Clean program in California, so that government procurement of interior finishings takes into account global warming potential. Hand in hand with advocacy, Interface also works to ensure the proper tools and infrastructure are in place for a policy to be successful, like the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3). This requires constant education and awareness building for state and local governments, customers, and other stakeholders. Sometimes, Meezan says, it’s as simple as getting others to “understand the link between making a carbon commitment and how they can live up to that.” It also means collaborating with other pioneering companies to advocate for change together. In 2018, Interface co-created the Materials Carbon Action Network (materialsCAN), a group of manufacturers pushing for the consideration of embodied carbon in building projects.

Inside company walls, every employee is needed to implement Interface’s mission, and so company leaders use both learning and celebration to weave climate advocacy into employees’ day-to-day lives. There are many internal learning opportunities for staff, including  Carbon 101 classes that cover the basic science of climate change and give employees tools for how to communicate the importance of climate action to customers. “It’s real, deep investment that's perpetual,” Meezan says, emphasizing the need to meet each employee where they are in terms of their climate literacy and providing a suite of ways to get involved. And in fact, as Interface continues to engage its staff across all departments, it finds that employee desire to push the company beyond its goals has grown.   

By approaching climate change with a holistic perspective, Interface sets a corporate example for what’s possible. It shares its knowledge with others through radical transparency—an obligatory part of leading a private sector transformation. Fundamental change lies at the heart of Interface’s mission, with an understanding that meaningful action requires an open, flexible approach to business. Meezan notes that in the century following the American Revolution, businesses were originally given the right to operate because they provided benefits to their communities, and if we are to fully address the climate crisis, we need to return to this narrative in a way that mirrors the broader natural system. “Saying we're here to make money and that's our primary [goal] is not good enough anymore,” Meezan says. “We need to serve a higher purpose.”

This piece is the first in an ongoing series of interviews presented by Drawdown Labs. Sign up to the Project Drawdown newsletter for future updates.

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June 17, 2021
California coast and sunset
The World Needs Better Climate Pledges
by Jonathan Foley
Governments and businesses are looking to lead on climate change, but too many of their commitments are built on flawed “net zero” frameworks and problematic “carbon offsets.” Authentic climate leadership requires more—a transparent and meaningful “Emissions 360” pledge that is focused on bringing real emissions to zero, helping others do the same, and equitably addressing historic climate pollution. The world’s conversations about climate change have fundamentally shifted during the last few years. We have moved beyond old debates around whether climate change is happening (hint: it is) to more constructive discussions about addressing it. That’s excellent news, even if we spent decades getting here. In the sudden rush to address climate change—or at least look like we are—we have seen many companies, industry groups, and countries stake out leadership positions. Many of them have made so-called “net zero” climate pledges, complete with fancy logos and bold-sounding names. Making and fulfilling pledges is a crucial aspect of climate leadership, but it’s only a first step. As my Project Drawdown colleague, Jamie Alexander, points out in a recent Fast Company article: “Corporate emissions reductions pledges — however ambitious they may be for a particular company — completely miss the deeper issues that the climate crisis demands we grapple with, and only play at the edges of the revolutionary change we need.” She calls for companies to adopt more robust climate pledges and targets, as well as push for better climate policy, support stronger climate action in the community, and be transformative climate leaders. And she’s right. Building better pledges is the first step in transforming climate leadership As a cornerstone of climate leadership, the weakness of today’s pledges is particularly troubling. Without clear, robust, and scientifically-sound goals, it is impossible to raise climate action to the level Earth needs. Today it seems “net zero” pledges are all the rage. And in the lead-up to the next big climate conference—the “COP26” meeting in Glasgow—we will see even more politicians, CEOs, and celebrities make net-zero pledges. Unfortunately, net-zero commitments—which once seemed like a good idea—have become so distorted and abused they are now largely meaningless. Sadly, the net-zero concept has been misused by bad or indifferent actors, allowing them to make bold-sounding climate pledges without really reducing emissions at all. Misusing “net zero” Before it was co-opted, the term “net zero” was used by climate scientists to describe scenarios when the entire atmosphere was, on balance, no longer building up greenhouse gases. Not a company or a country. The whole planet. These scenarios describe a time in the future when the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced (by 90% or more), and carbon removal projects are only used for a few remaining emissions. They did not say we should avoid cutting emissions and rely on fictional levels of carbon removal instead. But that’s exactly what many companies are trying to do. A lot of companies have made dubious climate commitments using accounting tricks—usually relying on problematic “carbon offsets” to make the books look better than they are. And what’s worse: Of the Fortune 500 companies that have made public net-zero commitments, only ~20% have robust frameworks, and very few are reporting their progress. Many carbon offsets are problematic Unfortunately, net-zero pledges have become so distorted they allow for any combination of emissions cuts and carbon offsets to reach their goal. In fact, one can claim net-zero emissions by only buying carbon offsets — without actually reducing emissions at all. This is a carbon shell game, not a real commitment to climate action. It’s quite telling that the oil and gas industry is heavily invested in the net-zero concept. They don’t plan to actually reduce the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, of course. Instead, most are buying dubious carbon offsets to cover their operational emissions (but not the emissions from burning the oil and gas they sell) while claiming to be “net zero” climate leaders. It’s complete bullshit, of course, but it makes for good PR. It looks like action, without really acting. And that’s precisely why they’re doing it. Carbon offsets come in two flavors—either (1) paying others to reduce their emissions, who in turn give you imaginary “carbon credits” in exchange, or (2) banking on risky or non-existent carbon removal schemes to effectively “undo” your emissions sometime in the future. The first kind of carbon offsets, where you pay someone else to reduce emissions, is a zero-sum game. In the short run, it can help pump cash into projects that may reduce emissions somewhere—assuming the offsets are genuine. But because the entire world needs to bring emissions to zero, not just a few wealthy companies, we can’t simply pay “someone else” to do it forever. At the end of the day, there’s no one left to pay. The second kind of carbon offsets, which bank on trees, farms, oceans, and machines to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, makes a very risky bet. Yes, forests, soils, and coastal ecosystems can naturally absorb some carbon from the atmosphere, but only to a point. These carbon sinks are not infinite (and are probably smaller than many advocates claim), they take years to build, and they are only effective if we maintain them forever — never allowing them to be cleared, plowed, or burned down. And while carbon removal machines are getting a lot of attention, they are laughably small compared to the job at hand. Even a million-fold scale-up of carbon removal technology would only absorb a tiny percentage of our emissions. Most of all, we need to see that vague promises of future carbon removal are just sneaky ways of allowing emissions to continue unchecked today. It’s no surprise that the biggest proponents of carbon removal technology are oil and gas companies, who have no interest in addressing climate change. It’s just a predatory delay tactic, which their industry has mastered. Climate pledges that play games with net-zero math and rely on make-believe offsets may be good PR, as oil and gas companies have found, but they’re not addressing the real challenges we face. Serious climate commitments recognize that we need to bring emissions to zero, not “Net Zero”, as quickly as we can. We cannot achieve this with imaginary offsets, carbon trading schemes, or vague “pollute now and remove it later” promises. Most pledges ignore the pollution we’ve already emitted Another issue with most net-zero climate pledges is that they only look at future emissions and ignore the pollution they have already released. A robust climate pledge needs to address historical emissions too. After all, most of the greenhouse gases we have emitted are still in the atmosphere—contributing to the continued warming of the planet. We can’t just forgive and forget them. In fact, we must ultimately find ways to remove our share of that pollution. Think “historic zero” instead of “net zero”. If this sounds odd, it shouldn’t. After all, if a factory was dumping toxic sludge into a local lake, government agencies would order them to do two things—stop polluting the lake as quickly as possible and then clean up the pollution they already dumped there. Why is the atmosphere any different? Most pledges only have faraway goals with no accountability Another serious problem with many of today’s climate pledges is that they set very distant goals—like “Net Zero by 2050”—with no near-term accountability. Setting mid-century corporate goals, without any specific benchmarks in the meantime, is ridiculous. Many companies on Earth today won’t even exist in 2050. And it’s almost certain that their current CEOs and board members won’t be around. So, where’s the accountability? A better climate pledge would start with bold, long-term goals. But they would also have more immediate metrics. For example, cutting emissions to zero by 2050 may be an excellent long-term goal, but it should come with intermediate (e.g., cutting emissions in half by 2030) and short-term (e.g., cutting emissions by at least 7% every year) milestones. Moreover, every business should carefully audit and report their progress on climate goals along the way. The results should be reported as seriously as financial statements, with leaders taking real responsibility for them. A new “Emissions 360” climate pledge framework Moving forward, we need better, more transparent climate pledges. They are a necessary foundation for meaningful climate leadership. Here I outline a possible new framework—called the “Emissions 360” approach—that is built on five pillars. (1) Cut your own emissions towards zero, not “net zero,” as quickly as possible. Look hard at your own emissions, and find ways to reduce them as quickly as possible. Pay particular attention to cutting short-lived warming agents like methane and black carbon, which will help slow climate change even more than cutting carbon dioxide. Some of these cuts will be easy and fast. But some emissions are going to take a while to phase out. Keep at it. Steady progress is what matters here. Don’t even think about “offsets”, which can give the illusion of progress without truly reducing emissions. Commit to short-term and long-term goals. Be transparent. Report how you’ve cut emissions and where you’re still struggling each year. (2) Only use carbon removal as a last resort—for truly unavoidable emissions. One of the most significant abuses of net-zero frameworks allows companies to make vague promises of future carbon removal to avoid cutting emissions today. This kind of carbon shell game is designed to delay climate action and can no longer be tolerated. However, there may be a few areas where cutting greenhouse gas emissions will be exceptionally difficult or physically impractical. These truly unavoidable emissions cases might justify some limited carbon removal projects. Carbon neutral (or negative) ways to make jet fuel, cement, and steel come to mind. But that’s about it. Carbon removal should only be used to offset emissions as a last resort, decades from now, after every practical means of cutting them has been exhausted. Promises of future carbon removal can no longer be used as a dodge, avoiding the real work of cutting emissions today. In particular, carbon removal schemes should never be used to justify the continued use of fossil fuels, bad agricultural practices, or wasteful materials. (3) Pay the “Social Cost of Carbon” for your ongoing pollution. As your company works to cut emissions, donate significant sums of money (based on the “Social Cost of Carbon” for your ongoing pollution) to help advance the world’s broader climate efforts. Ideally, these funds would help others (especially disenfranchised and vulnerable communities) reduce their emissions, become more climate resilient, and address long-standing climate justice issues. But, once again, don’t count these donations as “offsets” to your own emissions. They’re not, and they never were. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do. Or count it as a business cost. Either way, I suspect you will be rewarded for a more transparent, honest, and forthright way of addressing your emissions—and for supporting others around the world to address climate change. (4) Don’t stop here: Address your historic emissions too. Strong climate pledges should also commit to removing as much of your historic climate pollution from the atmosphere as possible. In other words, try to reach “historic zero” emissions, reflecting the impact your company has had over time. This will help reduce future climate change and address the long-standing inequities in greenhouse gas emissions seen around the world. Lay out a plan to address these historic emissions with transparent, carefully-managed carbon removal projects. It may be impossible to sequester all of your historical emissions, of course—given the physical and technological limits of carbon removal—but we should do as much as we can. This is one place where well-managed carbon removal projects make sense. Using carbon removal to avoid reducing our ongoing emissions is a mistake, and perpetuates a false image of meaningful climate action. Instead, let’s use this technology (and its limited removal capacity) to address historical emissions, not future ones. (5) Carefully weigh issues of climate justice in everything you do. Climate change presents a lens through which we can see some of the worst injustices of human history. The rich and powerful have benefitted most from the rise of the fossil-fueled economy, while other, disenfranchised communities — especially people of color and those in poorer countries — paid the highest price. And today’s generations still enjoy the spoils of a fossil-powered, high-energy world and a stable planetary environment. But unless we change our ways quickly, future generations might not see either one. Addressing climate change requires more than restoring the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is necessary, but not sufficient. Along the way, we must be careful that climate solutions do not introduce more even more inequities, injustices, and harm to people alive today—particularly the most vulnerable among us—or generations yet to come. This piece was originally published on Dr. Jonathan Foley's medium page June 16, 2021. Foley is a climate and environmental scientist, writer, and speaker. He is also the Executive Director of Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions.  
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May 8, 2021
Opinion: Linking Reproductive Rights and Climate Solutions Is the Only Way Forward
by Kristen P. Patterson
The time is ripe to include women’s reproductive rights as part of our climate solutions toolbox. This Mother’s Day, I’m asking myself tough questions about what it means to be a mom, a woman and a climate advocate in this critical cultural moment. After 20 years of working at the intersection of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and environmental conservation, I find there is still a strong hesitancy among some SRHR and climate advocates to link reproductive rights and climate. With the 26th Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) slated for this November—just as the pandemic has brought our world’s climate and health crises into sharp relief—the time is ripe to include women’s reproductive rights as part of our climate solutions toolbox. Doing more, together, is the best path to a more healthy, equitable climate future for women and girls around the world, particularly the most vulnerable among us. This hesitancy to link reproductive rights and climate dates back a few decades, and relates to a taboo around “population.” Beginning in the 1950s, the United Nations started hosting once-per-decade world population conferences, with a goal of encouraging countries to implement population programs to address rapid population growth that would inhibit economic development. The programs designed to address the “population problem” focused on promoting family planning, with women targeted to use contraception. A few countries, notably China and India, resorted to coercive policies that forced contraceptive use. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, advocates understandably promoted a shift away from family planning as the sole solution to concerns about population.  Advocates also embraced reproductive health as much more than just family planning, to include sexual rights, sexually transmitted infections like HIV, safe motherhood and safe abortion (Newman et al 2014). The era of sexual and reproductive health and rights was born, and to this day, some SRHR advocates believe that any linkages with population or other sectors such as environmental conservation or climate change detract—and distract—from the message of SRHR for all and are tantamount to blaming women in the developing world for climate change. This mentality was on display at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of ICPD, held in Nairobi in 2019, where a fellow advocate who works at the intersection of SRHR and climate told me that she was shocked by the scant attention given to SRHR, population and climate change.  I share the feeling of dismay that our professional community can’t seem to blend these vital, complex and interconnected parts of an equitable and sustainable life on Earth. My passion for working at the nexus of reproductive health and climate solutions springs from my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger after college. I lived alongside Nigeriens for two years in a rural village, Sabon Gida, 500 kilometers east of the capital. I learned Hausa, lived in a mud-brick hut, and became close friends with many of the 800 Hausa and Fulani residents. I focused on agroforestry, and we certainly planted a lot of trees. But my friends and village leaders wanted to do more than restore their natural resources. They were concerned about keeping their children healthy (25 percent of children in Niger died before the age of five in the mid-’90s) and wanted to rehabilitate the main village well which served as the primary local water source for people and livestock. As I worked to respond to their diverse needs and connect them with local resources and extension agents, the seeds were sown for me to become a life-long advocate of holistic approaches to community-led development. In the mid-1990s, we didn’t talk about climate change—but after facing years of desertification along the edge of the Sahara Desert, my friends recognized that they needed to address multiple health and environmental challenges in order to become more resilient to frequent shocks and stresses that are common in Niger, including droughts, locusts, and disease outbreaks like meningitis. Planting trees and restoring depleted soil went hand-in-hand with improving health and access to clean water.  Most of my closest female friends were about 10 years older than me. I was single and childless at age 22, while they had gotten married at age 16 or 17 and had their first child soon after—girls in Niger marry earlier and give birth to their first child at a younger age than anywhere else in the world. As Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate-justice activist wrote recently, “Girls who have been to school grow up to be empowered women. They are not forced into early marriage, and they tend to have healthier, smaller families, reducing emissions well into the future.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single school in Sabon Gida. My friends were strong, smart women, yet all but my friend Mantou lost multiple children to ailments that were preventable or treatable in other countries with more resources than Niger. My friends and other women in Sabon Gida were eager to learn more about what they called maganin hutu in Hausa—“rest medicine.” Ten years later, when I gave birth to my first child, I finally grasped the absolute perfection of the translation of contraception into Hausa. In present-day Niger, demand for and uptake of contraception still faces many cultural hurdles, but during my time in Sabon Gida, many husbands were supportive of their wives using contraception because they could see the benefits of spacing births for both their wives and their children.   Accessing contraception during my years in Niger was hard. Women had to walk on sandy paths (usually carrying their youngest child on their back) nearly four hours roundtrip to the nearest health clinic, which sometimes was out of stock. The consequences of failing to resupply contraception were stark: maternal and child health tragedies were a weekly occurrence in Sabon Gida. An acquaintance on the other side of the village, Salama, died during childbirth. Another woman experienced an obstetric fistula; her baby died, because she was taken to the nearest hospital—65 kilometers away—too late, by donkey cart, after 48 hours in labor. And I still think of Amadou regularly, the son of my two closest friends, Haoua and Gado, who asked me to name him. Amadou died of whooping cough soon after his first birthday because he had missed a round of vaccinations, which required the same punishing walk to the health clinic. My experience of motherhood—though I’m a white woman living in the U.S.—has been deeply influenced by my time in Niger. I carry my friends’ stories and those of other women in Sabon Gida with me still, as if it was yesterday; their influence on my life’s work cannot be understated.  It’s time for the world to recognize that reproductive health is a key component of climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience. In addition to reproductive and primary health care challenges, climate change is now a main character in the lives of every person in Niger. Climate impacts worsen each year, and with the world’s highest fertility rate, Niger’s population has more than doubled from 10 to 23 million in the past 25 years. More than perhaps any other place in the world, Sahelian countries like Niger exhibit the intertwined challenges of SRHR, rapid population growth and climate change. Evidence shows that boosting women’s rights to decide whether and when to have children enhances equity, slows population growth at a global scale, and contributes to climate mitigation. I like to think that bridging sectors and bringing more advocates to the table to support universal reproductive rights and climate action will help save lives. The publication of Project Drawdown’s seminal book in 2017 raised awareness for the first time among thousands of climate advocates of the importance of enhancing equity through education and women’s reproductive health, and the cascading benefits such investments have as climate solutions. As the inaugural director of Drawdown Lift, I’m eager to collaboratively identify, promote and advance interdisciplinary solutions-based approaches that alleviate extreme poverty and address climate change.  The evidence calling for advocates and other stakeholders to let go of the population taboo is growing. Connecting human health, population and climate change is essential—we need advocates who deeply understand that our lives are entwined with nature, and defending both is the way forward. Ensuring that people in places like Niger and across the Sahel have full access to (and knowledge about) reproductive health services and programs that boost their resilience to climate change—as well as quality education—should be non-negotiable. This opinion piece was originally published by Ms. Magazine on May 8, 2021. Hear more on the link between reproductive justice and environmental justice on the recent episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Climate Change Is Real. Now What? (with Osprey Orielle Lake and Nourbese Flint).
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