CNI Origin Story - Carbon Neutral Indiana

CNI Origin Story

We founded CNI in April, 2020, but it grew out of over a year of full time research, hundreds of interviews with people working on climate throughout Indiana, and a massive group chat with 50+ friends.

The story begins in the summer of 2018.

Daniel Poynter learned of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are 17 goals all nations are trying to achieve by 2030. The list includes goals like no poverty, zero hunger, and clean water. He wrote each SDG on a sheet of paper and taped it to his office wall. Then, whenever he learned of a relevant book, entrepreneur, documentary, or other resource he wrote it on the corresponding sheet.

It became a mess. There was too much information. So he instead focused on SDGs #4 Quality Education and #13 Climate Action.

But even that was overwhelming.

Then, in the fall of 2018, he learned of Project Drawdown. A few hundred researchers, mostly with PhDs, listed 100 climate solutions like solar and wind power, improved building insulation, and reducing food waste. Then they modeled their economic and climate impacts. Finally, they ranked them in order of efficacy. The list shows us how to reduce the most greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a roadmap for humanity -- for presidents and prime ministers, mayors, CEOs, activists, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and anyone else creating the future.

Project Drawdown clicked into place deep in Daniel’s mind, and it became the framework by which he organized all climate-related information.

What’s beautiful about it is that it’s based on research and the results are unintuitive. Climate solutions that get all the oxygen in the room -- like recycling -- are actually relatively ineffective as climate solutions. It shows how we can shift climate investment and achieve a much greater positive impact.

In early 2019 Daniel dove into climate research full time, using his life savings for a modest lifestyle in an Indianapolis apartment. He wondered, “Who is implementing Project Drawdown solutions in Indiana?” So he made a Google spreadsheet and identified 300 entities. Then he started interviewing them. He set up hundreds of Google alerts to be notified anytime one of the solutions was mentioned in Indiana media. And he created the IndianaDrawdown.org website to capture, organize, and share this research.

Daniel also began interviewing anyone working on climate -- even tangentially -- in Indiana. Eventually he spoke with 200+ such people.

Everyone was asking him, “What can I do to reduce my carbon footprint? How can I help the movement?” So he wondered how to translate the knowledge he was creating into action. “We can’t make yet another app,” he thought. “It’d get lost in the millions of other apps.”

His mind went back to childhood, to the Christmas season. He loved the Christmas advent calendar. Every day the family opened a tiny box, took out a treat, and learned a lesson.

“What if we created a refrigerator magnet inspired by the advent calendar? Everyone interacts with their refrigerator many times a day. Yet almost no one is using that “attention real estate” (as opposed to the crowded app ecosystem). It could list activities for families to help them reduce their carbon footprints. Those activities could be inspired by Drawdown. And we could design it to be fun for kids so they beg their parents to do the next action.”

Daniel invested a few months, and a few thousand dollars, into piloting This Family Cares.

That first version didn’t take off like he was hoping, but he learned major lessons that informed CNI. First, unless a philanthropist is writing checks, projects have to be financially viable. Second, create a prototype that enables testing if the market wants it or not, without risking so much time and money upfront. He set the This Family Cares project aside and kept researching Project Drawdown.

That Drawdown research grew and grew over six months, but Daniel was running out of savings. 

Around then he had coffee with a professor based in Indiana. “You know what,” they said. “If you sketch out a vision for how you’d spend the next few years if funded, I can pass it along to a major foundation I know. All you need is what’s called a ‘fiscal sponsor.’ This is a non-profit that will accept the grant, vouch for you, keep a percentage, and pay you a living wage.”

So Daniel began speaking with three major environmental nonprofits in Indiana. After six months of discussions, they each said no to the arrangement.

He was incredibly frustrated. Daniel wasn’t asking them for money. He would bring them the money. He was asking for partnership. “The climate crisis is the greatest challenge of our generation,” he thought. “Why is it so difficult to earn a living wage working on it?”

As they say, it’s darkest before dawn.

Nothing could shake Daniel’s fascination with Project Drawdown and its top climate solution. It was so unintuitive:

Refrigerant management!

Refrigerators and air conditioners have chemicals in them that are 1,000 - 7,000 worse than CO2. So Daniel began researching opportunities to manage refrigerants better in Indiana.

It turns out that grocery stores leak  25% of these chemicals annually. And it also turns out the EPA has a free program -- GreenChill -- that helps grocery stores reduce that leakage down to 15%. Of the 700 grocery stores in Indiana only one was enrolled -- a Meijer near Purdue University.

So Daniel thought, “We need to pay college students to enroll all of these grocery stores in the GreenChill program. But who would pay them? I haven’t even found anyone to fund my work so far. Well, what if I could convince a hundred of my friends to pay a monthly fee to clean up their carbon footprint? Every ton of refrigerant we prevent from going into the atmosphere is equivalent to thousands of tons of CO2. This would be a high leverage investment of those funds for good.”

They also say necessity is the mother of invention. Running out of money, with no lifeline from established environmental organizations, Daniel’s thinking sharpened.

He hit upon the idea of the carbon market intuitively:

1. Convert all greenhouse gases into the common currency of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). For example, one ton of R-22, the most common refrigerant, is equivalent to 1,810 tons of CO2. And one ton of methane is like 34 tons of C02.

2. Invest in the most effective projects available. For example, scrutinize the Project Drawdown list for ways to reduce emissions. Forget sexy campus recycling programs. Go for boring but high impact projects like reducing refrigerant leakage.

3. Hold investments accountable based on how many tons of CO2e they prevent, destroy, or soak up. Environmentalism is too important to be controlled by sexy marketing. Make environmentalism more about accomplishing results and less about glossy sustainability reports or insider politics.

This was the light at the end of the tunnel! It turns out, brilliant people already discovered these ideas and elaborated them to a sophisticated degree.

In June 2019 he asked the Indiana Forest Alliance the following question by tweet. He would learn there are no verified forest carbon projects in Indiana... yet. Why? It's more complicated than planting trees in your back yard. They require tremendous investment to get started.

Running out of money and sinking further into debt, Daniel researched carbon offsets with the gusto and intensity of a Navy Seal.

Then, around Thanksgiving 2019, he printed every whitepaper on the subject he could find (here is one of the best ones). Put them in binders. Then began studying, highlighting, and taking notes. He invested over 100 hours into this research, sharing over 100 pages of notes in Google Docs (one of those documents). On Nov 18, 2019 he also created a massive group chat -- 50+ friends in Facebook Messenger -- to bring life to these ideas.

The discussion exploded. Instead of posting an article about climate and getting a comment or two, there was real engagement! Everyone was sharing and discussing carbon offset research. We were learning together, throughout the day, for months!

After interviewing so many people, and going down so many research rabbit holes, what were the patterns?  

All of this helped us identify major gaps in Indiana’s attempts to reduce emissions. Earth Charter Indiana is a non-profit that engages youth to lobby town and city governments to adopt climate resilience plans. Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light (HIPL) helps faith communities reduce their carbon footprints. No initiative in Indiana helped households, businesses, or academic institutions measure, offset, or reduce their carbon emissions. And perhaps most dispiritingly, Indiana was only receiving 2-5% of the climate philanthropy it should per capita. That’s why it was so difficult to earn a living wage working on the greatest challenge of our generation. That’s why so many brilliant people left Indiana.

Then in April 2020, after nine months of building the relationship, Indiana Forest Alliance agreed to be a fiscal sponsor. All they required was a small fee. We were off to the races!

Since then, we’ve grown more quickly than many for-profit companies with millions of dollars in funding.

The former Executive Director of one of those environmental nonprofits -- that’s received almost $1M in funding -- said that the past several years felt like, "pushing a rope up a hill." We've been working hard, for sure, but it doesn't feel Sisyphean like that. That's because we've discovered a different strategy. Instead of draining energy, our strategy is a flywheel that, once spinning, creates energy, enthusiasm, momentum, and a sense of inevitability.

 

Post Script

 

Since its founding in April 2020, Carbon Neutral Indiana published periodic updates. Here are two of them:


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