Climate positive products?

October 2019—Imagine buying a sofa from IKEA and reducing greenhouse gases on an absolute basis at the same time. Buy our product and save the planet. Huh? Is this possible? Is it helpful? Let’s unpack this head-scratcher.

What does climate positive mean? Oddly, it’s a synonym for climate negative, but it sounds better. It basically means that the product took more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than it took to make (and sometimes use.) That probably sounds as fanciful as a perpetual motion machine. It only works with the help of carbon offsets.

Creating a climate-positive product typically involves three steps. First, the manufacturer totals up all the greenhouse gas emissions involved in the creation of its product and, in some cases, the emissions associated with the product’s use. Next, the company takes steps to reduce those emissions, perhaps by switching to renewable energy to run a portion of its operation or focusing on low-carbon options for its supply chain. In the final step, the company purchases more carbon credits than it needs to offset the emissions that remain, ensuring that the entire process is carbon negative.

The carbon offset might invest in planting trees or replacing dirty technologies with cleaner ones. These projects have to meet a set of standards, including “additionality;” the project wouldn’t have happened on its own, without this infusion of cash.

There are two good things about this practice and one bad one (but I’m not implying two rights right a wrong.) On the positive side, buying offsets makes the company internalize the costs of climate change associated with their operations. “The polluter pays” is a long-standing principle. In one way or another, those costs are embedded in the price of the item, sending more accurate market signals. The second benefit is that many of the carbon offsets are invested in the developing world or in disadvantaged areas. Some have social/community benefits embedded in the project as well. So they are a way to lift up people who are the most likely to be impacted by climate change.

The downside is best captured in this quotation:

"It gives a weird signal to consumers — don’t worry, just keep consuming the way you are," said Brad Schallert, WWF's deputy director of international climate cooperation. "What we really want to do is change the fundamental product process."

And reduce overall consumption.