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Communicating Climate Tech

By Hanna Ojanen and Iris Cuppen

Working with Carbo Culture on the overhaul of their brand identity and website, we were set to make sure they’d stand out in the nascent carbon removal industry. As we went along, some key questions arose about the challenges of communicating climate tech more broadly.

In what ways is the communication of novel climate solutions similar to, or different from, positioning solutions in the broader tech and innovation fields? And how does the temporality, complexity and urgency of the climate crisis impact the languages and narratives used? Iris Cuppen, Strategic Advisor at BB, checked in with Hanna Ojanen, Public Policy Lead at Carbo Culture, to get her thoughts on the subject.


When communicating what Carbo Culture is, and what it stands for, we constantly had to balance the broader scientific and political discourse around carbon removal as a necessary climate solution, with the practical impact of the products and underlying technologies you offer as a business. As someone who sits at that intersection, how would you define the communications space within carbon removal at the moment? Who do you think people are listening to, or what’s setting the tone?


I think, in a way, what's keeping things in check is the science focus — and the whole industry is seeing that. There are lots of scientists being very public about how they view this industry. What's the actual science of the durability of the carbon? What's the actual science of the positive co-benefits, for instance, or the negative side-effects of these solutions? I think this is a very science-led conversation. The IPCC and other scientists were the first group to study carbon removal as a valid solution. And they're still pushing the conversation, keeping it in tandem with the reality of the solutions.


That’s interesting when you consider climate tech as within, or at least overlapping with, the broader tech and innovation spaces. With the latter, a lot of what’s sold or brought to market comes with a communication style that's focused on extrapolating what could be, in order to attract the necessary investors and business. How do you navigate that? What role does that kind of hyping and speculation have in the context of sustainability and climate tech?


It’s kind of nice to have the mandate of the IPCC when dealing with some of that hype — if you can call it that. Carbon removal is something I still feel comfortable with because it's not only grown out of the attention economy, it's also very much part of the policy debate.
Of course, it becomes a bit difficult when we see these net-zero claims or targets from companies and governments without any sort of realistic strategy. So there's definitely hype, and not only on the provider side of carbon removal, but also on the buyer side — saying that, “Oh, yes, I’m going to be carbon neutral” or “We're going to reach net zero by 2030”. It kind of makes me doubt those claims sometimes, because there’s no realistic pathway, and it seems like a phrase that everyone wants to use without actually acknowledging the work that needs to go into making the goal a reality. There’s a difference between naming a feasible solution and acting upon it. We see these grand net-zero claims from companies and governments going out into the world without a realistic strategy for implementation. For us, it's important to cover both.


In the broader tech and innovation space, an often-used narrative is that whatever’s being offered is some kind of “game-changer”. New breakthroughs keep on piling up, and everyone’s competing to be the first to reach public availability. Once the IPCC announces that carbon removal is going to be a feasible solution, I can imagine there’s suddenly a lot of interest from competitors, which requires you to be somewhat protective of your inventions. At the same time, tackling climate change can only happen collectively. How do you balance that?


From a company mission perspective, it will take a long time before the market becomes that saturated — the amount of carbon that needs to be removed is simply too huge. We decided to go full in on biochar, as we have a lot of experience in that field, but of course there are other methods. To tackle climate change, we need a lot more companies in the space. That’s why the IPCC is also pointing towards a myriad of solutions, including existing methods like afforestation and reforestation, instead of saying, “Oh, now we have this next new shiny thing. Let's put all our eggs in that basket”.
From a personal perspective, we need all solutions. We already have trees and plants that remove carbon through photosynthesis, but we're not going to have enough waste biomass on the planet to remove all the carbon that we need. Often, though, there’s an anthropocentric idea that we need to engineer a machine to remove all this carbon when, in fact, we already have these plants that nature has engineered over billions of years.


It’s kind of like we have a picture of innovation in our heads that has to include newness or a sense of technological development, even though it might be more about the distribution of how we use these tools that could actually make a change — which changes the kind of story that you tell around the technology.
Which brings me to the question of time horizons. A long-standing problem with our collective approach to the climate crisis is the fact that we don’t see the immediate results of the actions we take. The consequences of climate-friendly, or-unfriendly, actions are often abstract and not super tangible. How do you think about what climate tech can offer within a problem that has such a long time horizon?


Time is of the essence, so we're generally promoting the idea of “acting now”, while trying to draw as much attention as possible to the science behind carbon removal and showing it to be a feasible method.
We’re just around the corner from 2030, and if we’re to keep global warming below 1.5°C, the Paris Agreement says that emissions need to be cut by 45% by this date, so there’s no time to lose — reduction is simply not going to be enough. Meanwhile, there's a larger discussion about how long the biochar we produce can safely store carbon in the soil. First, there was this 100-year mark, which the science has shown to be feasible. Slowly, more zeroes were added, scaling it from 500 years to 1,000 years, to 10,000 years. In this discussion, we almost forget that a decade is an incredibly long time. Why talk about all these extra years if we can already start doing something now? We need to embrace a more iterative approach.


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