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Carbon Neutral Indiana (CNI) is a state chapter of a wider grassroots movement. It's a nonprofit social enterprise startup. We’re demonstrating a self-financing, inclusive, and scalable mass movement. We help households clean up their carbon footprints and shift culture so that it’s normal to be carbon neutral.
The IPCC warns the entire world must be carbon neutral by 2050:
Indiana is one of ten states that produce half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the country:
This represents an enormous opportunity. Yale researchers found over 50% of Indiana citizens are worried about climate, and University of Chicago researchers found 23% are willing to contribute $40/mo to the cause.
Everyday people want to help with the climate crisis. They just don’t know how. Currently, they have two bad options:
- Do nothing. They think it’s too big of a problem for an individual. This makes them feel overwhelmed, guilty, helpless, anxious, and despair.
- Try random ways to help. There’s conflicting information so they’re unsure what’s effective, they don’t have a strategy so they feel confused, and they are frustrated that donations to most nonprofits lack transparency or measurable impact.
Enter Carbon Neutral Indiana (CNI). We help these people in three ways:
- Measure their carbon footprint
- Collect a monthly subscription that pays to clean up their footprint
- Help them reduce their direct emissions over time
To measure their footprint, we conduct a fifteen minute phone call and use a carbon calculator developed by researchers at UC Berkeley.
The monthly subscription generates earned income for CNI. We keep 40% as a gross margin to educate more households. The other 60% goes to purchase verified, wholesale, negative emissions. It costs about the price of Netflix per person. So far, we’ve invested in forest protection, landfill methane capture, and nitrous oxide abatement. There are over 200 project types, however, including feeding cows garlic to reduce methane and shifting to regenerative farming practices to capture carbon in the soil.
This model started in Indiana as Carbon Neutral Indiana (CNI). Within four months, Bill McKibben wrote this in The New Yorker:"[It] is inspiring to see local startups, such as Carbon Neutral Indiana, figuring out how to communicate with homeowners and small businesses about their carbon footprint."
Within the first year, CNI achieved the following:
- Helped 200+ people measure their carbon footprints, most for the first time
- Helped 160+ households and businesses become carbon neutral
- Cleaned up 5,000+ tons of CO2e (annualized), like taking 1,000 cars off the road forever
- Prevented over $1,100,000 in social damages (annualized)
- Bootstrapped to about $100,000 revenue, 80% of which is earned income (recurring monthly)
- Distributed 100 yard signs, seen by 200,000 drivers daily
- Helped facilitate bipartisan carbon market legislation in Indiana
- Hosted a summer leadership program for 15 college students
- Highlighted by NationBuilder, a tool for mass movements, along with Nobel Prize winner
We accomplished these outcomes during the pandemic, in a conservative state, with about $5,000 in donations, and an all-volunteer team. But this is just the beginning.
If 23% are willing to contribute $40/mo to climate, that represents about 29.5M households becoming carbon neutral. That’ll be like taking 299M cars off the road or shutting down 260 coal power plants.
This vision is reasonable. The question is how fast we’ll get there. On a gruesome note, as the climate crisis worsens even more Americans will be eager to make it right. And finally, 52% of Americans recycle. Can’t carbon neutrality be at least as common as recycling is today? We can imagine that easily.
"Natural climate solutions can provide around one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to achieve the 1.5ºC target of the UN Climate Paris agreement."
Their US State Mapper tool shows how much carbon the Midwest can sequester with forests, grasslands, and wetlands. They provide data for 11 different natural climate solutions, but even if we look at just three of those solutions — avoided grassland conversion, reforestation, and avoided forest conversion — then we can see the Midwest can sequester 11,190,000 tons CO2e on 1,990,000 acres at a cost of $10/ton. That will be like taking 2.4M cars off the road forever or shutting down three coal power plants.
But who will pay landowners to sequester that carbon? We can accomplish this when just 0.1% of the 27.5M households in the Midwest become carbon neutral. In other words, 32,000 households will pay landowners to “clean up their carbon trash.”
Our main metric of positive impact is tons of CO2e, but there are others as well. For example, creating climate jobs. In order to service this many households, we’ll need to hire at least 50-100 employees. Their job will be measuring footprints, connecting people with vendors like solar installers who can reduce their direct emissions, and educating them about ways to become active citizens on climate issues. These will be excellent entry level jobs, at living wages, for young people who want to dedicate their careers to climate.
But this is just 0.1% of the Midwest! When 1% of the Midwest is carbon neutral it’ll be like taking 24M cars off the road forever or shutting down thirty coal power plants. Since each ton causes $220 in damages, that will prevent $20.8B in damages.
In a general sense, our strategy is to start small, achieve successes, and grow momentum. That’s how we can ignite a mass movement. As a startup organization, we bring fresh perspective, speed, and agility to the environmental community.
More specifically, we see climate action in three categories: 1) shifting culture 2) promoting carbon markets and 3) reducing direct emissions. We focus on #1, which drives #2, which drives #3.
Strategy 1: Shift Culture
Most people believe the principle do no harm. Unfortunately, most don’t know how harmful their carbon footprints are. The social cost of carbon puts a number on it. Researchers at Stanford University found that each ton causes $220 in damages. That means the average household is shifting about $8,000 in costs onto others, usually the most vulnerable. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
We’re finding this message resonates — if people hear it. So we educate them. Once they’re carbon neutral they’re proud to be part of the solution. 60% put up a yard sign. Over 200,000 people drive by those signs every day. That’s how we’re starting to shift norms.
We know we can do it, because it’s been done before. In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was normal to litter or smoke in buildings. And we don’t have to shift norms alone. In just the past few years, 21% of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies committed to meet net zero targets. It’s an enormous trend we’re simply bringing to households.
It’s true that just 100 companies produce 71% of global emissions — so we need regulation — but it’s also true individuals have a role to play. It’s not either systems change or individual action. We need both at the same time.
Strategy 2: Promote Carbon Markets
Mark Carney has the rare distinction of serving as the Governor of the Bank for two countries. He served Canada from 2008 until 2013 and served England from 2013 to 2020. Now he’s the UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance. He launched The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, which was funded in part by Bloomberg Philanthropies:
"[Voluntary carbon offsets enable people and organizations to] neutralize emissions not yet eliminated by financing the avoidance/reduction of emissions from other sources, or the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and thus meaningfully contribute in the transition to global net-zero… Voluntary carbon markets need to grow by more than 15-fold by 2030 in order to support the investment required to deliver the 1.5-degree pathway."
And Bill Gates wrote in the Foreword:
"A robust voluntary carbon market is one important tool… to address climate change and reach net-zero emissions by 2050."
There are over 200 types of projects in the voluntary carbon market, but they are all scrutinized to be additional, verifiable, and permanent. There’s a public audit trail for transparency. When mistakes are discovered, international bodies update the procedures.
The result? Project developers compete with one another to provide the least cost, highest quality negative emission. Projects have different co-benefits — biodiversity, storm water retention, jobs — but the main benefit is reducing emissions in the most cost effective way.
For example, The Oxford Offsetting Principles points out that not all tons are created equally. Right now, it’s good to invest in projects that avoid emissions (e.g. avoided deforestation). Over time, however, we need to shift to projects that remove emissions. First with short-lived storage (e.g. soil carbon) and then with long-lived storage (e.g. carbon mineralization). We’re updating our portfolio based on international best practices such as these.
Strategy 3: Reduce Direct Emissions
The first strategy, changing culture, provides a stable foundation for permanent behavior change. The second, promoting carbon markets, funnels resources into effective climate solutions. While those two strategies are critical, they are abstract. This final strategy, reducing direct emissions, is the most salient strategy and what the person on the street thinks of as unarguable progress.
When a household invests in negative emissions, they are reducing emissions. If those offsets are legitimate, a ton reduced in Kansas is equivalent to a ton reduced in that household’s backyard. What matters is investing limited resources for the biggest possible climate impact.
International experts agree that we can’t stop there. Households and organizations also need to reduce emissions they cause directly — such as burning natural gas to heat their water. In this context, becoming carbon neutral is not to be achieved once and forgotten about. It’s a state they maintain over time. Once a household becomes carbon neutral, we can help them reduce their direct emissions by connecting them to local partners who specialize in certain solutions (e.g. solar, building insulation, electric water heaters, etc.).
We can play to our greatest strength — marketing carbon neutrality for the common good. This third strategy is where we can best collaborate with other organizations. Potential partnerships are endless.
This organization grew out of conversations with hundreds of people over a year and a half. Here is the core team.
Daniel Poynter - studied philosophy and religion, was named a MacArthur Foundation Young Innovator, was invited to speak at academic institutions throughout the world, advised over 100 social enterprises, and was a professional software engineer before founding CNI. He’s volunteered for Citizens Climate Lobby and proposed to his wife at the Extinction Rebellion climate protest in London.
Chris Powers - is applying science and technology to social and environmental problems. He is a chemical engineer and a corporate leader by training and has worked with dozens of innovative environmental nonprofits and startup companies from around the world. To learn more visit http://chrispowers.me.
Anne Laker - is a writer & consultant with 29 years’ experience in building & strengthening non-profit cultural and environmental enterprises with grant writing, audience-driven communications and program planning. She provides strategic services for good causes through her company Laker Verbal LLC.
Andy Fry - is a multi-disciplinary artist, designer, and entrepreneur who specializes in collaborative design, often for non-profits and start-up businesses. His interest in protecting the climate is a result of a life-long interest in science and ethics, which has forged an understanding that all life is connected.
Indiana Forest Alliance is the fiscal sponsor of state chapters like CNI. We’re grateful for the partnership of their staff and board.
It began with the first state chapter, Carbon Neutral Indiana (CNI), which was formed in April, 2020. Daniel Poynter signed the paperwork, but he merely facilitated a vast network of contributors. And it wasn’t created in a moment of inspiration. Instead it grew out of unglamorous research, experimentation, frustration, and perseverance. The driving question was: “How can we contribute the most possible to reversing the climate crisis?”
The short version is below. See the full origin story.
1. Over a year of full time research. Much of this research was about Project Drawdown. Daniel discovered it in the fall of 2018. Drawdown is a list of 100 climate solutions like renewable energy, electric vehicles, and reducing food waste. The list, however, is sorted by how effective those solutions are at reducing emissions. Daniel wondered, “Who is implementing these solutions in Indiana?” In spring 2019 he began identifying 300 entities, interviewing them, and sharing this research at IndianaDrawdown.org.
2. A “failed” experiment. Because of this research many people were asking Daniel “How can I help the climate movement?” So he created the experiment ThisFamilyCares.org. It was a refrigerator magnet with Drawdown solutions. It educated families about the most effective ways to reduce their carbon footprints. He invested a few months, and a few thousand dollars, into piloting the project, but it didn’t take off like he hoped. It did teach him lessons he’d use later when creating Carbon Neutral Indiana.
3. Interviews with over 200 people working on climate -- many in Indiana. Daniel also met with people throughout the state to learn who was doing what regarding climate and what the gaps were (see full list in the Appendix). No one was engaging households, businesses, or academic institutions to measure or reduce their carbon emissions. He also discovered that national climate philanthropy was only investing 2-5% what it should be into Indiana climate groups. In other words, Indiana was severely underfunded. That’s why so many brilliant people leave Indiana.
4. A massive group chat with 50+ friends. Around Thanksgiving 2019, Daniel began researching carbon markets. He appreciated its pay for performance model as well as its transparency and innovation. A so-called ‘project developer’ could implement any of over a hundred methods to reduce or sequester greenhouse gases. Then others could pay that project developer for a job well done. Daniel created a chatroom to share his research and added many of the people who had been following his learning journey. Finally, after nine months of building the relationship, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Indiana Forest Alliance agreed to host Carbon Neutral Indiana as a project.