Friday, May 24, 2024

Beyond Carbon Neutrality: The Next Steps in Corporate Sustainability


The concept of corporate sustainability emerged from the 1987 Brundtland Report by UNWEDC, which emphasized companies that prioritize meeting needs without compromising future needs. The Brundtland Commission presents sustainability as a slogan that pushes the notion that sustainable capitalism leads to sustainable development. To contribute to sustainability, companies must manage their social, economic, and environmental contributions to generate long-term value, benefiting stakeholders and ecological and social environments- satisfying the conditions of holistic sustainability through the triple-bottom-line approach (people, planet, society). There are 3 complex pillars that are essential for companies to be sustainable corporate actors: The environmental, the social, and the economic pillars. 

The environmental pillar focuses on managing and eliminating variables that impact our planet. This implies that under this pillar, ideas such as greenhouse offsets, toxic materials, R3 (reduce, reuse, recycle), and generally their carbon impacts along the supply chain. Promoting product literacy, health, well-being, and safety of stakeholders, are conditions under the social pillar. Finally, the economic pillar looks at the activities/and ways that a business can survive and flourish long enough to have an observable long-term impact. Meeting these three pillars requires the effective management of social, economic, and natural resources.  

Net-zero carbon emissions are achieved by balancing emissions and offsetting through initiatives such as adopting renewable energy, low-carbon materials, carbon sequestration, clean technology, carbon trading, and carbon capture. This approach improves green activities across the supply chain. After the UNCS of 2020 (United Nations Climate Summit), in 2021, around 124 states committed themselves to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050-60 to build on commitments accepted following multilateral engagements such as the 1995 UNCP (United Nations Conference of the Parties), 1977 Kyoto, and 2001 Bon. The concept of carbon neutrality is championed as being the first of many steps towards a sustainable relationship and cohabitation with the environment. Businesses have grown more conscious than ever about integrating sustainable practices into their structures and are working towards carbon neutrality.  

Impossible ambition or enthralling opportunity? Reaching beneath the line- from carbon neutral to carbon-negative. 

Carbon negative refers to a company actively reducing carbon emissions despite emitting far less carbon. This means that although a company is not emitting any carbon, it is actively taking steps towards reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere through fusing holistic sustainability practices into its culture of operations. It could also imply the dramatic positive difference between emission and reduction, for example, Bhutan is the first ever carbon-negative country in the world. Its impressive forest cover absorbs 6 million tons of carbon for all 12 calendar months while Bhutan only emits 1.5 million tons, placing the emissions to reduction levels at different extremes.  

Compared to carbon neutrality, when companies can optimize their operations towards negative emissions, they move beyond managing their carbon emissions and demonstrate elevated resource management and allocation, positioning themselves as a long-term responsible actor, as well as adding value to the environment and its dependents. Being a radical change from the status quo, it can be an effective marker that indicates human development in how we relate to our planet, people, and society. 

There has been contention about whether this is an achievable reality, especially considering that we emit GHGs when we walk and ride bikes. After all, building a bike creates emissions, making it difficult to achieve this goal- there are no existing carbon-free sourcing methods due to the infancy of the sustainability market. Even so, considering the success experienced in Bhutan, adopting technologies and utilities with a low carbon cost can help corporates take their next step in the sustainability journey following the achievement of carbon neutrality. This offers hope for opportunity in carbon-negative objectives. 

Due to the infancy of green innovation, most corporations struggle to afford sustainable technology- as it stands, the sustainable option ends up being the most expensive option for many corporations even while enabling policies, agreements, and investments are increasing in number. Though this is the case, there are less financially demanding options, such as decreasing paper trail and re-selling old hardware. These investments in sustainability initiatives can build a business’s capacity to cost save while gradually reducing carbon emissions. 

Source: Embracing the Green Routine: Transforming Sustainability Into A Daily Lifestyle 

Aside from the above, there are other routes that a responsible corporation takes to go beyond carbon neutrality. These are not limited to integrating supportive measures such as advocacy or thought leadership for reforms in the energy industry, implementing stringent emission reduction mechanisms and structures, partnering with incubation hubs that deal in the innovation of net-zero technological solutions, building on carbon sinks, and investing in carbon farming. 

Technological innovation is crucial for companies to achieve sustainability goals beyond their current objectives. It steers activities orbiting sustainable development such as clean energy integration, automated and conscious production systems through AI and other data systems, and consumption and emission management. To fully unlock science-based management systems in the holistic management of CO2 and GHG emissions, businesses need to seek guidance from industry experts on how to effectively integrate these systems into their operations in a way that respects budgetary requirements and opens up avenues for continued improvement. 

Only through forward-thinking, calculated investments, a desire to make operations more sustainable, and to embrace sustainable thought leadership, can corporate actors fully unlock the opportunities that exist beyond the carbon-neutral mindset. Achieving carbon negative is not easy-  the possibilities in sustainability are endless. That said we should start conversing about a future beyond carbon neutrality- carbon negative/positive. 


Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungai
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via

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