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How one company is ‘pulling the plug’ on the ‘bathtub’ of climate change

October 27, 2020, 2:05 PM UTC

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If the Earth’s atmosphere is a bathtub, it’s getting close to full. The analogy is one that Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering, uses to explain what he believes are the best strategies to fight climate change.

A bathtub, Oldham explains, can only hold so much water before it overflows—and it’s too late to turn off the faucets all the way. But if you slow the stream of water and, at the same time, open the bathtub’s drain, you can still stop the tub from reaching its limit.

“The bathtub is going to continue to fill,” Oldham said at the Fortune Global Forum on Monday. “If we had the ability to pull the plug at the same time as we turn down the taps, the water level in the bathtub—the CO2 in the atmosphere—would drain much faster.”

That is Carbon Engineering’s mission: a “direct air capture” technology that aims to extract carbon dioxide from air before returning the rest of it to the environment—like a form of tech-enabled photosynthesis.

Oldham spoke alongside Roberto Marques, executive chairman and group CEO of the personal care business Natura & Co. At Natura, which is behind the brands Natura, The Body Shop, and Aesop, Marques is taking a more common approach to climate change—what Oldham, in his analogy, would call slowing or turning off the faucet. The company has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Protecting the Amazon rainforest is a big piece of the Brazil-based company’s sustainability pledge. Its 2030 net-zero commitment is two decades more ambitious than the UN’s own net-zero emissions by 2050 pledge.