Do it, prove it, sell it: my evolving views on carbon accounting

To some who know me, it may come as a shock that I’m moving on from Nori, a start-up I co-founded, that is making it possible to get paid for pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere a.k.a. “carbon removal”. It’s not an easy decision. I’m immensely grateful to all of my team members and the learnings I’ve been afforded on this adventure. To all the people I’ve met over the course of this journey and who know me as a Nori representative, please do not interpret this move as having a lack of faith in Nori. I believe Nori’s approach to building a carbon removal market is best-in-class and will continue to inspire and inform synergistic efforts. I also think that those who might perceive themselves as “competitors” and who silently or actively critique it will find opportunities to collaborate.

I’m proud to leave the company at a time when it’s in a better spot than it’s ever been. I’m thrilled with the newest Norinauts who we’ve been able to bring on since closing our seed round. Nori is poised for growth and to accelerate the velocity of Nori Carbon Removal Tonne (NRT) issuances and sales. We’re also armed with newly-updated company values that make up a weirdly-catchy acronym that might be found on the shelf at an IKEA store: HALAC. Honesty above all else, Assume best intentions, Limit work in progress, Act with the end in mind, Continuously improve. I plan on carrying these values with me, cheering on Nori’s continued growth and success from the outside, and contributing insight to those connected to Nori as time goes on.

Some might be asking why leave then? Part of my rationale can be put in terms of ecological succession. Starting a new endeavor from scratch makes one a pioneer species, someone who comes to new terrain when an idea is in an inchoate form to create fertile ground for other species to show up and thrive. As a pioneer species, then part of my job is to know when to leave to create the space needed for other species to excel. It’s when my potential impact in creating new or modifying existing ecosystems will be greater, through cross-pollination of ideas to spread the genetic pool — hopefully seeding value back into the original ecosystem, ultimately creating a compounding interest, impact, and transmutation from the original idea.

Aspens in the Rockies, creating shade for deciduous trees, embodying succession

Another part is through my course of working at Nori, my beliefs have shifted around what it takes to actually reverse (or at least mitigate) climate change. That is, 1) carbon is but one (albeit extremely important) piece of the solving climate change puzzle and must fit within a broader system, and 2) carbon markets are necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve this end goal.

On the first point, the impact Nori seeks to create — reverse climate change — must fit within a broader context. I’m not saying Nori should work on the broader system (or that it doesn’t already indirectly, through hosting a podcast that fearlessly dives into systemic issues). A narrow lens on carbon removal monetization creates great societal value, and I’m glad to see the team off-to-the-races in building this end-to-end infrastructure. But I must admit that in the limited time I’m on the planet, I feel most compelled to contribute my energy in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller’s vision towards a “world that works for 100% of humanity without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

As my friend Philip Taylor pointed out in a GreenBiz article last year, “we are in a period of carbon exuberance” and I am certainly guilty of once (and to a certain extent, still) having it. That is, in his words, “viewing carbon as the proverbial silver bullet, holding the belief that something is more powerful and better than it actually is to meet the hopes and needs of the world combined with the tendency to solve problems without addressing root cause”. I used to think of addressing climate change as simple as balancing the carbon books. In the spring of 2017, I published an article in Issues in Science and Technology with Dr. Klaus Lackner framing climate change as a waste management problem. In it, we suggested a simplified way to jumpstart an atmospheric carbon clean-up industry by treating paying for carbon removal as the tipping fee to the garbage collector. Make freely dumping CO2 into the atmosphere illegal, let litterers pay for cleaning up their waste to comply, and solutions to reduce and remove it will abound!

If only we could simplify the greatest super-wicked problem of our time as one that’s solvable through pricing externalities and spending trillions of dollars to deploy solutions that reduce and reverse the amount of carbon we emit. Of course, that’s still a critical part of it, but I’ve now come to realize just how reductionist looking at the world with a strict carbon lens is when it neglects nature’s role in the complex equation. From a nature-based solution perspective, looking at carbon alone is at the risk of disregarding nitrogen cycles, water cycles, other nutrient cycles, microbial activity, fungi:bacteria ratios, the proliferation of native (or regionally adaptive) vs. invasive species, biodiversity, pollution management, chemical inputs, changing weather patterns, need for resilience, and more.

Moreover, placing a strict carbon lens on deploying carbon innovations can neglect the system that has gotten us to where we are in the first place. We often grow crops in a certain way because of irrational market demands. Should, for instance, we grow the amount of corn we do and simply transition to “regenerative corn” to incrementally sequester more carbon across broad swaths of monocultures, or look to the needs from what the land once had and the people who steward it to return systems to a natural balance? The answer very well may be “yes, and”. Yet some flavors of carbon exuberance come with the gusto of modern-day colonialism (thank you to Dr. Holly Jean Buck for your critique of this type of “colonial” framing with my colleague Ross on a recent podcast and in an article “Should carbon Removal be Treated as Waste Management? Lessons from the Cultural History of Waste”). I’ve become aware of my own role in whitewashing ostensibly holistic and nature-based “solutions” that exist in some regenerative circles that draw inspiration from indigenous wisdom without putting in the work to understand place, scale, context, that we are part of nature, or the folly of trying to heal the world without healing ourselves and our communities.

Yet I still can’t fully shake my carbon exuberance, with my belief that improving carbon accounting is critical and carbon markets are necessary. To unpack my second point, let me start with a premise: avoiding the worst effects of climate change means that we need to reduce the flow of carbon to and remove carbon from the atmosphere as quickly as possible without causing additional harm. It is a premise held by the vast majority of environmentalists. From a comprehensive perspective, it’s perhaps best articulated to a public audience by Project Drawdown who lists out the various “solutions” on how we can get there. Getting there means doing: doing more of what we know works, and doing more innovating and experimenting with what will work even better.

A recent framework I’ve been using to explain my evolving lens and the way I view the climate innovation space can be put as follows: do it, prove it, sell it. “It” in this case, is the environmental impact abstracted into metric tonnes of carbon retained from reaching the atmosphere or removed from it. While one might be hard-pressed to find an environmentalist who would disagree that we need to do it, as fast as possible, thoughts on what we do and how we do it varies widely. The theory of change behind carbon markets is that people with the capacity to do it would do more if they were incentivized to do it through selling it. To sell it one must prove it. One can prove it but not sell it, such as when corporations are required to report on the climate activities they or their supply chains are taking for voluntary or compliance reasons. And the terms under which one can sell it today are complex and vary greatly depending on the standards set by a protocol or methodology by a carbon market administrator and the demands, or lack thereof, of the entity that buys it. Obviously, this defines the parameters and ultimate performance of how one does it.

But the reality is that there are many age-old and emerging ways of “doing it” that yield returns that don’t require selling it and can be worthwhile to do in and of themselves. Examples range from protecting or reintroducing keystone species resulting in trophic cascades like from wolves, elephants, and whales; cost-saving innovations ranging from the Nest Thermostat to nitrogen fixers; establishing kelp forests to improve fish habitat and harvest a new crop, or scaling software apps that leverage social dynamics and financial platforms, like China’s AliPay Ant Platform that in under 5 years has planted over 100 million trees.

When starting with selling, one faces friction between proving and doing. Reducing friction means solving pain points, music to any entrepreneur’s ears to innovate on new ideas. For Nori, that includes: leveraging carbon quantification tools (CQTs) that reduce monitoring, reporting, and verification costs (MRV) costs and standardize carbon estimations, making it possible to use existing data sets to run through CQTs, removing financial and regulatory additionality tests, creating a system to enable price transparency and the ability for sellers to change prices, using software to increase trust and flexibility, integrating with blockchain technology, and more.

The reality is, however, that not everyone who is doing currently qualifies to sell carbon removal under a Nori (or any other) methodology due to upfront costs, size of the project, terms of the contract, availability of data, or the ability to create a historic baseline. And Nori is years ahead of other efforts trying to issue carbon assets which have created even more restrictive and seemingly arbitrary measures for themselves for one reason or another (previous blog on these complexities and nuances). At worst, there are projects getting set up by other registries whose verification costs are so high, because of the need to prove it, that the project in itself might not even be worth doing. I think it’s perfectly OK that any one carbon credit program doesn’t work for everyone, even in a perfect and frictionless world, so the best they can do is not pretend that they do. We should acknowledge that the value from various MRV programs to sell carbon assets extends beyond just the sale of a carbon credit for those who qualify to the collection of data to contribute to improved carbon accounting to serve a world better trying to understand potential carbon stocks and flows from various interventions. When selling, one must prove that there is no additional harm caused by the doing, a standard that carbon credits are held to by the broader community. This is good, as it creates guardrails for “good” doing, a value that selling can provide. However, the core question in my mind driving where my energy in future efforts goes is how does MRV become a by-product of a functional system rather than the basis of the functional system? The innovation space seeking to advance implementation details when beginning with “do” covers a different terrain than one that begins with “sell”.

I think the “do, prove, sell” framework can work on any climate solution, but let me turn to carbon removal in soils to further unpack my point. There are plenty of opportunities to do, without getting hung up on selling, and that in some cases, selling can make things more complicated than they need to be.

In April 2020, after I presented in a webinar to a few prospective farmers about the Nori pilot program I got a question that I couldn’t quite answer from a Nori perspective (so never did, until this blog post).

“Dear Christophe, This does not really apply to me but I really do not understand why you are hung up on a change of practice to qualify for NRT’s if your market is to store carbon with proven current practices why does prior practice matter? I understand that some of your buyers want to help encourage change, but I would also argue that those who have been doing some of these practices in the past are some of your best allies in instigating change by, example and their leadership in the past by doing what was right before it was ever “cool” or they had any chance to monetize their efforts. I do plan on signing up, but I have a neighbor that has been no-tiling and strip tiling far longer than I who is not because of this reason. His example is the reason that I have tried these practices myself and this is the reason that I feel so strongly about this. I await your response, thank you, Doug”

The folks who Doug is talking about are the do-ers. They “did it” not because they were expecting to sell it, but for many other reasons like reducing erosion, reducing compaction, reducing input costs, improving soil health to maximize return on investment, and increasing resilience to more extreme weather events. Doug’s neighbors may likely be the people who when they hear about carbon credit programs, say, “Oh, well, I’ll just till it black so I can participate.” This attitude toward carbon markets is not uncommon amongst some of the early do-ers which places requirements to prove a concept called “additionality”. While Nori is the most favorable to find some people to qualify relative to other programs, without looking at the system of empowering those who have “done” to do more, and be part of the systemic knowledge-based and cultural shift, then there might be carbon impact and deep knowledge left on the table, or at worst, a perverse incentive to degrade the land simply to regenerate it later to get paid. Indeed, the doers are the best allies who slowly experimented for the motivations of improving the quality of their land. This slow experimentation also allowed for learnings and mistakes, driven by a different set of motivations that emerge when approached with a cash-crop mindset. If they can’t sell it under existing or future programs, then equally important for those in the system to acknowledge is the need to prove it, still benefit, and play a role in contributing to more doing.

Another cadre of do-ers is the farmers who are in the top tier of producing the most nutritious food with systems that are difficult to prove but far exceed conventional agricultural results in terms of carbon sequestration and soil health. These do-ers have a specific understanding of what needs to be done and would fit into Wendell Berry’s definition of “good agriculture” from his 1981 essay Solving for Pattern. It’s all well and good for ecosystem service market credit programs to seek to find ways to allow these folks to participate or motivate more people to do it in this way but the reality is that the value of them doing it is not to sell it. It’s for perhaps the same reasons as Doug’s neighbors, and create a more harmonious way to create balance in the organism of the farm across the crops and animals who grow on it. These do-ers are innovating in better ways to do, unconstrained by needing to report their progress for monitoring plans, and proving — from a reporting standpoint — would miss the true value of doing. The levers to create more doers of this mold might just as well be from consumer demand for more nutritious food where the proof is not in carbon accrued, but human and community health.

A 2019 paper entitled “Quantifying carbon for agricultural soil management: from the current status toward a global soil information system” also helps point to the needed infrastructure for doing that leverages proving, and must extend beyond selling. Along with being an excellent primer for those seeking to understand Soil Carbon Quantification, the paper points to the infrastructure needed to standardize and improve proving. Carbon markets, on their own, when competing against each other, create a “proving silo”. Such a “proving silo” restricts the opportunity for more decision support systems (DSS) to talk to each other, or perhaps fall into a specific context that is a DSS in order to sell more of a certain product, disrupting an important and natural balance. Yet they would all benefit from a standardized and streamlined approach that leverages a Global Information System as illustrated below.

Such a model will not stand-up on its own, not from one carbon market, corporation, government or philanthropic funding, or technology company. It will take a combination of all of it, combined with more intentional capturing of data agnostically to enable more standardized ways for the world to do carbon accounting that reduces the fragmentation through more common ways of validating and calibrating models. Both the software and human technology of collaboration to get closer to this goal is one that immensely interests me, both of which are a level removed from sell, and squarely in the “do” category. There is an urgent need to zoom away from the black box inherently created by a sell-based system — or any approach that a carbon market might advance for some, but not all — to standardize and democratize systems that work for 100% of humanity.

Zooming back out from soils and speaking of primers, the hot off the press Carbon Dioxide Removal Primer provides an excellent guidepost in the complex and nuanced world of what is being done and what can be done as part of a just transition. Similar flows for quantification will be required, as will their place in the broader context of impact.

So what is next for me? In part, stepping back from Nori allows me to slow down and observe the “doing” world, to understand where I can reinsert myself to add value. I’ve learned a thing or two along the Nori journey and I hope to apply it to help more doers do while continuing to learn. My obsession with carbon accounting and entrepreneurial knack hasn’t gone away, so if anything, my reflection here is that a carbon lens on its own is not enough, and there is a ripe innovation space to dig further. I’m not walking away from market-based solutions either, I’m giving myself the freedom to extend my energy beyond just market-based solutions and think about them more systemically. I hope my work will contribute to more consistent carbon accounting that reduces friction and siloes across the industry for more doers, whether a doer decides to become a seller or not. The best way I can do this is to swim further upstream from selling to doing and spin back up Carbon A List, my old consultancy where I’ll take on high-impact environmentally-related projects where I can offer value ranging from start-ups to NGOs to multinational corporations. Along with that comes the resurrection of my newsletter and a strong intention to produce more content that stirs the pot to challenge conventional mindsets inviting more critical thought to the drawdown field. Thanks for reading and getting a slice of my journey.

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