Craig Cohon has had an unusual career. The 59-year-old Canadian helped bring Coca-Cola to Russia in the early 1990s and co-owned Cirque du Soleil in the country. He once managed an opera singer and has worked for the World Economic Forum.
Those decades of globetrotting took their toll on the planet. When Cohon decided to calculate his lifetime carbon footprint, factoring in everything from his adult travels to his childhood diet, he pegged it at 8,147 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — 28 times the global average.
“I feel like I am 100% accountable and 100% guilty of my personal damage to the world, and I’m 100% not to blame, because I was unaware at a deep level of the unintended consequences,” Cohon told Bloomberg Green. “But now that I understand it I am doing something about it, personally.”
In April 2022, Cohon reached out to Patch, a carbon credit company, to suss out how he might support enough carbon-removal projects to offset the entirety of his own footprint. The price tag was about $1 million, and Cohon drained his pension fund to cover it. He then decided to hit the road: walking from London to Istanbul to raise awareness of climate change. The 2,620-mile pilgrimage requires Cohon to cover 18 miles each day for 153 days, meeting politicians and ordinary people along the way and inviting business leaders and climate activists to join him. He is expecting to enter Istanbul on June 5, his 60th birthday.
Bloomberg Green spoke to Cohon on the 100th day of his trek, as he walked beside the Danube in Hungary. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You started off by calculating your personal carbon footprint for your whole lifetime. Why did you think it was important to measure it exactly?
I had to understand that number to then activate a change. For me, the number of 8,147 tons, 28 times the normal, was gigantic, and it showed exactly my damage that I have done since 1963, living in the north, being raised in Canada, being privileged, being a businessman.
I was surprised by the amount that started happening after 2000. I was caught up in that mass consumption, mass consumerism, mass travel, mass eating meat, mass buying fashion, mass getting a new iPhone every year.
You worked with Coca Cola, you worked with Cirque du Soleil and did a lot of international business. Did you include the carbon impact of your work?
I thought more personal, versus the impact that I had working at the Coca Cola company or Cirque du Soleil. If I was still in those roles, or at those large companies, I’d be pushing incredibly hard for change. My voice would be much louder. It was loud in 2000 but it’d be much louder now I’m 60 years old.
I feel like I am 100% accountable and 100% guilty of my personal damage to the world, and I’m 100% not to blame, because I was unaware at a deep level of the unintended consequences. But now that I understand it I am doing something about it, personally. I’m not waiting around for politicians or corporate leaders.
This concept of a carbon footprint is relatively controversial. People talk about it being a way for corporations to put all the responsibility back onto the private citizens. How do you think about that critique?
I actually don’t care about the critique. I’m taking personal accountability for my actions, my behavior, my damage, and doing something about it. I’m not asking anyone else to do anything about theirs. I’m just doing it because I felt a deep sense of responsibility and accountability, to rectify something that I have damaged.
I think that there are humans in all these companies. And I believe that they’re starting to shift and the leaders are starting to shift and they really want to make the change.
Do you have confidence that the carbon removals that you’ve paid for will do what you want? It can be hard to make sure that these schemes work properly and actually make a difference to the volume of carbon in the atmosphere.
In the deal with Patch, they take the risk to make sure that those removals are verified and part of the EU regulations or other regulations. If they don’t hit the mark then they don’t charge me for them, so I suspect they [ensure] that it is a high-quality removal.
I’m an optimist — I don’t think everything’s gonna work, for sure. But I’m optimistic that over time we can accelerate removals.
Do you think other business people should be doing what you’re doing?
I think business people who have the financial means to consider it should, number one, reflect on it. Number two, have a conversation with their spouses and children and see if it’s something that is meaningful to them. And if it is meaningful, then go for it.
This isn’t about offsetting your future. This is about removing the past and wiping it clean. We do not put the cost of carbon into our lifestyles and that’s a mistake. It is ridiculous that we’re not costing carbon into products and services.
We have to do that, we have to put the externality into the GAAP accounting principles and I’ve started to do that in my life. I feel really good that my carbon debt is wiped out. I feel really passionate that I’m gonna try to do it moving forward, to live a net-zero life.
Walking allows you to see things really clearly. The pace is the pace that we were built for as a species. We were designed to walk, and when you walk, you have amazing ideas, you think clearly, and so walking to me was a way to get uncomfortable.
I wanted to be uncomfortable physically. I [wanted] to be uncomfortable emotionally and mentally to open me up. I wanted to invite journalists, activists, CEO friends, politicians to join me, to also get a little uncomfortable, because we have pretty comfortable lives and most people don’t.
Climate refugees go from Istanbul to London. I wanted to go from London to Istanbul. I wanted to go through villages and cities. I wanted to go through populism and liberalism. I wanted to talk to a lot of people.
It’s really a way of trying to get our thinking to the next level. Connecting with people that can make a change. Not get stuck in boardrooms, not get stuck in New York or Geneva or London Talking with everyone as equals.
Is this like a religious pilgrimage? Are you allaying your guilt?
I don’t think about it as religious. I think about it as consciousness, and I don’t feel bad. If I was talking to my 20-year-old self I’d say, “It’s okay.” I feel really grateful that I have the ability to hopefully be building a new type of consciousness with some very senior people.
The consciousness we have now, it’s about growth, it’s about success, money. It’s about consumerism. It’s about consumption. This is more about a shift of consciousness so that we can start having empathy for our collective existential threat, which is the climate emergency.
What are you going to do next?
It’s the end of the beginning, for me. My next step is to continue to try to get carbon removal and historic emissions, and that narrative and dialogue and policy, embedded in net-zero strategies and accelerated.
I’m going to have a rest. London to Istanbul is the same as New York to LA, and I’m doing it fast. I’ll be hanging out with my girlfriend and kids, which will be wonderful. I will be flying to Toronto to see my parents because my father was very unwell during the first part of the trip, to give them a big hug.
I will fly less but I will continue to fly. I will absolutely, every single flight, not do offsets, but I will do removals on British Airways, I will do it at the science-based price and I’ll also put activity into sustainable airline fuel. I will continue to advocate for all airlines to move in that direction. We don’t have enough sustainable airline fuel. The capacity isn’t there, and we need to get there.
I’m not going to be a purist. But I am going to be someone that pushes hard as a consumer. I think we have the power, for the products and services that we love, to push organizations to accelerate the shift.
Olivia Rudgard in London at email@example.com