Sustainability champions, don’t let uncertainty be the enemy of impact in ag carbon markets

April 14, 2022

Ag carbon markets have the potential to combat climate change. Unlocking this potential is a unique opportunity for sustainability champions inside food and agribusiness corporations. But it’s not an easy one. We need sustainability professionals to accept that there’s uncertainty, move beyond fear, and act with conviction.

I regularly see this play out with senior management of food and agribusiness corporations. They’re facing unprecedented pressure to report on and reduce the emissions within their operations (scope 1 and 2) and value chains (scope 3). And they don’t know how to do it, so they turn to their sustainability human.

It’s been a slog for sustainability so far

The challenge is that, for years, one-person sustainability “departments” have been under-resourced (“there’s no business case”) and generally ignored (“our customers and suppliers will never care about that”).

I’ve been there. I’ve developed frameworks to nudge executives toward small changes that won’t cost anything, but won’t meaningfully reduce emissions either. I’ve made the business case for a relatively inconsequential change because I knew it would be easy to stomach and hoped it might increase the appetite for more change.

Each time, I told myself it was a step in the right direction. And it was. But it wasn’t enough.  

Despite the common lack of buy-in for sustainability inside corporates, many sustainability professionals have made progress. They’ve tackled low-hanging fruit projects to align sustainability with BAU, run competitions and events to win over hearts and minds, and built secret armies of internal champions over lunches and coffees. And they’ve done this thankless work while each IPCC report increases their climate anxiety.

With ag carbon markets, the dynamics are shifting

Today, executives are asking their sustainability colleagues for recommendations on how to reduce Scope 3 emissions. This is both frustrating (“where have you been?!”) and exciting, as these companies have a large footprint with lots of opportunities for improvement.

It’s also scary: the pressure’s on and there aren’t any clear-cut answers.  

While there’s plenty of hype about premiums and new revenue streams, it’s a messy space. There are open questions about permanence, additionality, double-counting, quality, and more. Measurement and modeling technologies are advancing quickly, and the startups commercializing them are learning as well. Disclosure regulations are changing and new government incentive programs are emerging. All while the underlying science remains complex and ever-evolving.  

We are far from having all the kinks worked out.

Acting with conviction is hard with so much uncertainty

This leaves sustainability champions, and the food and agribusinesses they work for, in a tough spot. I see a spectrum of options, none of which are great yet.  

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I completely understand the temptation for sustainability professionals inside large, risk-averse companies to stick to the first three, given the uncertainty around the science and impact on the bottom line of the last two.

For perhaps the first time, they’re being given resources and asked to make recommendations that finally have the potential of being heard.

But when it’s impossible to say for certain what will work, how do you build the conviction to act?

We must not let uncertainty be the enemy of impact

The challenges we face as companies, industries, and society are too great for shortcuts, complacency, or (worst of all) inaction.

I know that taking action in ag carbon markets feels risky. I know that none of the paths ahead look certain. We need sustainability professionals to act with conviction anyways.

And as they do, whether it’s running pilots or partnering with others to mount an intervention, to know that they’re moving in the right direction. To know that what they’re doing really matters, even when it fails, as they will learn, iterate, and improve.

Ag carbon markets are creating an opportunity for sustainability professionals to change the perception of their role and the scope of their impact. And today more than ever we need them to be brave and act with conviction.

Key takeaways

  • Despite the common lack of buy-in for sustainability inside corporates, many sustainability professionals have made progress
  • While taking action in feels risky, we need sustainability professionals to act with conviction
  • Tenacious Ventures is working to unlock this vision, and looking for true believers to invest