Many private companies are making pledges to reach net-zero carbon emissions in the coming decades. But much fewer are taking it a step further — going carbon-negative by paying back the carbon emitted during a company’s lifetime.
The most high-profile company to pledge to counteract their historic emissions was Microsoft last year.
Another company pledging to address legacy emissions is the multibillion-dollar Danish company Velux, one of the world’s premier skylight makers with an extensive market in the US.
The company decided it wanted to counteract all the planet-warming pollution it has created since its founding in 1941.
“We came up with the idea of repaying completely our own historical carbon emissions so that by 2041, when we're 100 years old, we will have taken out of the atmosphere as much CO2 as we have put into it directly in that 100-year period."
“We came up with the idea of repaying completely our own historical carbon emissions so that by 2041 when we're 100 years old, we will have taken out of the atmosphere as much CO2 as we have put into it directly in that 100-year period,” said Chief Executive Officer David Briggs.
Courtesy of Velux
But first, they needed to figure out exactly how much carbon pollution they’ve emitted over the years, starting from when they were a small Copenhagen workshop using hand tools in the 1940s.
“We spent a lot of time figuring out, how do we calculate that? How the hell do we know how much CO2 we produced in 1964?” Briggs said, “So, we developed a huge methodology to do that.”
They came up with a number: 5.6 million tons of carbon.
Then came the hard part, Briggs said: How to remove and store that same amount of pollution from the atmosphere. That’s the work that begins now with the help of The Worldwide Fund for Nature in Denmark.
“We were engaging with Velux because we think that there's some potential to raise funds for forest conservation projects,” said Sofie Tind Nielsen, senior forest adviser at WWF Denmark.
Using money from Velux, Tind Nielsen and her team are planning forest conservation projects in Uganda and Myanmar, places they have identified as being biodiversity hot spots that have high rates of deforestation.
Tind Nielsen says to help meet Velux’s carbon goals, they will plan a conservation project like they normally would and then calculate the carbon benefit, making sure everything adds up to 5.6 million tons in the end.
Their Southeast Asian project will take place in the Dawna Tenasserim Landscape in southeast Myanmar, an area with many Indigenous communities and the highest population of tigers in Asia.
“What gets me up in the morning to go to work is how we can make Myanmar a conservation success story."
Courtesy of WWF Denmark
“What gets me up in the morning to go to work is how we can make Myanmar a conservation success story,” said Gaurav Gupta, who is helping plan the projects for WWF Myanmar.
Stopping deforestation in this region is a complicated task, Gupta said. It starts by understanding what Indigenous communities need and how they value the forests that surround them.
“The first thing we do is inclusive land-use mapping and land-use planning,” he said.
Gupta says the current plan with the Velux money is to help communities advocate for their land rights, plant nurseries and patrol their forests to reduce illegal logging.
They will also use the funds to help people find markets for things that don’t require forest cutting, such as a root vegetable called elephant foot yam.
Gupta says to save and store carbon, you have to start by understanding people who live alongside the forest.
“We are looking at landscape-level conservation,” he said. “This is just one block in the puzzle that we are putting together to address deforestation at the landscape level.”
The work has been put on pause due to political instability in Myanmar, but Gupta says they’re hoping to resume soon.
The project is still in its infancy, and Velux CEO Briggs admits it might be a niche solution.
“I totally get that not every company can do what we are doing,” Briggs said.
Velux has a relatively small carbon footprint, to begin with, and has the money to do this.
This kind of project also faces some of the same problems as offset programs, where companies counteract their carbon emissions by paying for carbon storage somewhere else.
It will be hard to know, for example, if forests protected by Velux might have avoided deforestation anyway, without their money. But the focus on historic emissions does help avoid some pitfalls.
“If all you're doing is paying for offsetting your historic emissions, there's no downside. It's better to try than to do nothing, because you're not emitting more because of that."
“If all you're doing is paying for offsetting your historic emissions, there's no downside. It's better to try than to do nothing because you're not emitting more because of that,” said Tim Searchinger, an offsets expert at Princeton University and the World Resources Institute.
In addition to tackling its historical emissions, Velux plans to reduce its future emissions by 50% over the next decade.
On top of being a good corporate responsibility strategy, plans like this one could also be a new way to fund conservation projects, said Marco Lambertini, director-general of WWF.
“One of the exciting things today is that there are new methodologies that allow for a much more rigorous and credible carbon accounting, both in terms of calculating the emissions of companies, as well as calculating the compensation by protecting habitats like forests."
“One of the exciting things today is that there are new methodologies that allow for a much more rigorous and credible carbon accounting, both in terms of calculating the emissions of companies, as well as calculating the compensation by protecting habitats like forests,” Lambertini said.
Landscape-level conservation can play a big role in limiting warming and avoiding the worst effects of climate change, he said.
“With this project, we want to demonstrate that this is actually super effective in the menu of tools to fight climate change.”