From Awareness to Action: The Six Building Blocks for Purchasing Carbon Removal

CDR REPORT

Executive Summary

Despite the critical importance of near-term demand for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) reaching climate-relevant scales, the market currently exhibits limited activity, with only a few organizations having procured CDR. This report focuses on these early adopters and delves into their motivations, internal drivers, and decision-making processes. It draws from interviews with 14 corporate sustainability leads who had successfully guided (pre-)purchases of durable carbon dioxide removal (CDR) credits in their organizations. It is geared towards current and future sustainability leads and stakeholders looking to drive CDR initiatives within their organizations. Analyzing the recounts of these early adopters, this report aims to stimulate the engagement of more voluntary CDR buyers to close the ambition gap between net-zero commitments and the demand for CDR required to keep up with science-based targets. Building on the insights from the interviews, the report dives into six building blocks essential to guiding an organization’s efforts toward its first purchases of durable CDR credits – referred to as the ‘CDR strategy’ (see Figure 1). The first building block of a CDR strategy is the creation of awareness for the necessity and urgency of CDR, which puts the topic on the organization’s map – this can happen anywhere, anytime, and is typically initiated by the sustainability lead or the CEO. This initiation is followed by five additional building blocks contributing to the CDR strategy by addressing risks, exploring business opportunities, sourcing a budget, onboarding business units, and obtaining CEO approval. The results from our interviews emphasize that there is no prescribed order for addressing these five building blocks after creating awareness; rather, they can be approached in various sequences and with differing foci. Ultimately, the specific path an organization takes and the timeframe for implementing the plan towards first CDR procurements are shaped by its internal structures, culture, as well as the targeted CDR strategy and portfolio.Several essential and overarching aspects are evident across the building blocks of the CDR strategy: Building and sharing knowledge within the organization is critical for navigating the complex CDR ecosystem and getting the key stakeholders on board. In addition, sustainability leads must develop and effectively communicate a compelling business case that aligns with the organization’s core business and strategic objectives. Lastly, crafting the building blocks requires early and ongoing collaboration across various business units and key stakeholders, emphasizing the importance of a collective effort and strong leadership to develop and roll out the CDR strategy effectively.
Figure 1: Six building blocks essential for developing a CDR strategy.
All quotes presented are from interviewed sustainability leads who guided CDR credit purchases for their organization.

Introduction

The world must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5°C. However, even with significant reduction efforts, certain emissions remain difficult and expensive to avoid. For these hard-to-abate emissions, as well as legacy emissions from the past, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is needed on a gigaton scale1. At current trajectories, CDR deployment will fall significantly short of the climate-relevant scale required, highlighting the pressing need to increase demand to support the scale-up of novel and existing CDR methods (see Figure 2)2.
Figure 2: Illustrative pathway showing the role of CDR in reducing net emissions levels in the near term, counterbalancing hard-to-abate emissions to reach net zero in 2050, and achieving and sustaining negative emissions in the long term3
Closing the CDR ambition gap requires proactive engagement from organizationsThree-quarters of countries globally have announced or are considering net-zero targets, covering around 90% of global emissions4. In addition, over half of the world’s largest publicly listed companies have committed to achieving net-zero emissions, with most target years ranging between 2030 and 20505. The rising number of corporate net-zero commitments highlights a growing awareness of the urgent need to address climate change. Beyond the net-zero targets, these commitments ideally involve pathways and measures for reducing emissions, often including an implicit or explicit CDR component. While not all organizations will require CDR to achieve their net-zero targets, most anticipate having remaining emissions that are either too costly or technically challenging to reduce. These hard-to-abate emissions will, therefore, need to be balanced through CDR. Additionally, some organizations plan to compensate for historical emissions or aim to go net-negative beyond their net-zero commitment, which can only be realized through CDR.Currently, a vast majority of organizations prioritize emission reduction efforts, aligning their strategies with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi)6. However, the lack of incentives to purchase CDR credits today can delay the necessary market scale-up, leading to a critical gap where future global demand for CDR reaches gigaton levels. Yet, supply remains drastically insufficient to meet these needs. To bridge this gap, more voluntary buyers must enter the market and engage in near-term procurements, as these are critical for CDR startups to develop their technologies and survive until the market has matured7. Today’s procurements also help to drive down future costs, thus making credits more accessible to a broader market in the future.
We delve into success stories from 14 corporate sustainability leadsDespite the lack of incentives, several organizations have already started to develop their CDR strategies and conducted their first CDR credit purchases. While various reports and early adopter case studies outline approaches to navigate the external challenges of this process8 9, a lack of visibility and understanding regarding internal processes driving these early adopters remains. The BMW Foundation’s first CDR report10 examined the barriers and opportunities encountered by organizations at the onset of their CDR journeys. Drawing on these insights, we explore motivations, internal drivers, and decision-making processes in organizations that have already purchased CDR – from when CDR first got on the organization’s map to the completion of the first CDR credit purchase.For this analysis, we conducted qualitative interviews with 14 corporate sustainability leads who have guided initial (pre-)purchases11 of durable CDR credits in publicly listed companies. The organizations in our sample have employee counts ranging from approximately 1,000 to 100,000, generating profits ranging from several hundred million to billion euros. They represent a mix of business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) enterprises, offering various products and services. As for their purchases of durable CDR credits, in the context of this report, we define durable CDR as having a durability of over a hundred years and a low risk of reversal12. This excludes conventional land-based methods, such as afforestation and reforestation. Durable CDR is increasingly recognized as the most scientifically sound method for balancing emissions to substantiate a credible net-zero claim.13 For details on the methodology, see the section ‘Methods: Sample and interviews' from the PDF.In the following sections, we first present specific challenges encountered by organizations considering CDR procurement (see section ‘Understanding the unique case for CDR buyers’). Drawing on the insights from our sample, we then delve into six building blocks that our research has identified as essential for developing a CDR strategy and implementing initial credit purchases. Creating awareness to initiate the topic typically serves as the foundational building block of a CDR strategy (see section ‘Getting CDR on the organization’s map can happen anywhere, anytime’). This is complemented by five additional building blocks that collectively shape the CDR strategy (see section ‘Navigating the building blocks to develop a CDR strategy’). The report includes anonymous quotes from interviewees, providing personal testimonies that offer firsthand perspectives and experiences from the early adopters themselves.
11 Pre-purchases are purchases of credits that have not yet been issued, meaning that an investment in an early-stage project is made with the promise of credit issuance in the future.

12 In line with cdr.fyi, the data platform used to source organizations that have already purchased CDR.
13 Axelsson, K., Wagner, A., Johnstone, I., Allen, M., Caldecott, B., Eyre, N., Fankhauser, S., Hale, T., Hepburn, C., Hickey, C., Khosla, R., Lezak, S., Mitchell-Larson, E., Malhi, Y., Seddon, N., Smith, A., & Smith, S. M. (2024). Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting (revised 2024), Oxford: Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford. https://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/research/oxford-offsetting-principles).

Understanding the Unique Case of CDR Buyers

To fully appreciate the early adopters’ success stories, it is critical to understand the challenges that organizations considering CDR procurement face14 15 16. Initially, there is a lack of awareness on two levels: First, organizations may overlook that their net-zero target likely implies the necessity for CDR to balance hard-to-abate emissions; second, they might not be aware that there is an urgency to act now to ensure the CDR market can scale up in time. Further, the CDR ecosystem is not only nascent but also complex. Potential buyers encounter a variety of CDR methods with substantially different quality parameters, risk profiles, and environmental and social impacts. Without internal resources or expertise, assessing and comparing different methods and suppliers proves difficult and is resource-intensive. In addition, the nascent CDR market lacks a consistent price discovery mechanism to indicate quality. This has resulted in wide price fluctuations, complicating the decision-making process for prospective buyers. Despite promising efforts from numerous existing initiatives to address these challenges by establishing clearer frameworks and consistent quality thresholds, a clear consensus has not been reached, leaving the ultimate responsibility on buyers to evaluate quality themselves. In addition to these challenges, there is still a lack of regulatory requirements and incentives for organizations to be pushed or pulled toward action. Currently, no clear, fundamental need for CDR on a corporate level exists. Anticipating falling prices for CDR credits and market maturation over time, many organizations may feel inclined to follow a ‘wait and see’ approach. Also, even if organizations decide to act on balancing their emissions, the substantial price difference between CDR credits and credits obtained through emission reduction or avoidance projects can result in continued inactivity in the CDR market. Given these challenges, it is understandable that only a handful of early adopters have purchased CDR. In this report, we delve into the motivations and decision-making processes that drove early adopters to act now – despite the circumstances and rather than assuming a ‘wait and see’ approach.
Collector containers unit at the Climeworks AG Mammoth carbon removal plant in Hellisheioi, Iceland.

Getting CDR on the organization's map, anywhere, anytime

With most corporate net-zero targets in the distant future and regulatory requirements for CDR credit purchases absent, the question arises as to how CDR gets on an organization’s map in the first place. Our sample indicates that creating awareness serves as a natural starting point and a first building block for developing a CDR strategy.
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Organizations need to understand the urgency and build a sense of responsibility

Key takeaways

  • Awareness must be raised to understand the necessity and urgency for CDR, coupled with a sense of responsibility to lead by example and act now.
  • CDR is commonly put on an organization’s map by the sustainability lead (bottom-up) or the CEO (top-down), driven by their intrinsic motivation and a sense of responsible leadership.
  • Internal or external triggers can effectively prompt initiators to engage with CDR.

An organization’s commitment to a net-zero target serves as a prerequisite and foundation for developing a strategy for CDR procurement. However, transitioning from a mere commitment to fully understanding and implementing the necessary CDR actions requires awareness. More than merely recognizing the necessity for CDR to achieve net zero, organizations ought to sense the urgency of immediate action to scale the market effectively. This scaling is not just crucial for the overall market but also essential for firms themselves, ensuring that sufficient supply is available when it becomes critically needed in the future. Ultimately, organizations that feel a genuine sense of responsibility are keener to take proactive steps to engage with CDR today and start to explore business opportunities.
“We understand the importance of purchasing credits now to help the ecosystem scale. That was a big driver.”
“The more support we gain for this ecosystem, the easier it will be for all of us to achieve our net-zero targets. It is a collective effort to accelerate CDR. More organizations need to get involved and play their part in this endeavor.”
Creating such awareness requires an initiator who dedicates themselves to putting CDR on the organization’s map. The initiator proactively builds knowledge and instills a sense of necessity and urgency for CDR among other key organizational stakeholders. The sustainability team often takes up this role, typically under the leadership of the sustainability lead or CEOs with backgrounds in science, technology, or sustainability. Still, our interviews have revealed that anyone with a strong motivation and interest in the topic can introduce CDR to their organization.

Case Examples

When the organization’s sustainability team started to assess avoidance projects in the context of their net-zero strategy, the CEO, who regularly exchanged with their peers and read many reports on climate change, turned down the proposal and proactively put CDR on the organization’s map. As they explored the CDR market, the sustainability team encountered a notable gap between their need for CDR and the corresponding available credits. Recognizing that the limited demand hindered project development and financing, the CEO decided to commit to material annual credit pre-purchases to accelerate the market and secure credits as well as supplier relationships early on.
With the hiring of an Environmental Manager, CDR was put on the organization’s map. With their background and expertise in CDR, the Environmental Manager started driving the topic first within their business unit and, later on, pushing it throughout the entire organization. They began by educating key stakeholders, starting with their supervisor, followed by the CEO and remaining C-level executives. Their rationale revolved around positioning the organization as a sustainability leader and nudging other organizations to follow their example to help the ecosystem scale and enable supply to reach the necessary level as the net-zero target years approach.
In most cases, initiators are prompted to create awareness through a trigger. This typically includes revising a net-zero strategy, participating in industry events, engaging in peer discussions, reviewing practitioner reports, or observing competitors and early adopters already actively involved in CDR. The process of creating awareness – the initial building block – may already include or overlap with the subsequent building blocks and marks the start of developing a CDR strategy.

“When we committed to net zero, there were no clear plans for CDR. Without proactive individuals within the organization who believe in the importance of CDR, our actions may have been delayed by several years.”

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Navigating the building blocks to develop a CDR strategy

Once awareness regarding the necessity and urgency of CDR is firmly established within an organization, the next step is to develop the five essential building blocks of the CDR strategy. Typically, the sustainability lead, assuming ownership of the initiative, drives this process.
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Building internal competencies is essential to mitigate risks

Key takeaways

  • Identifying, understanding, and mitigating risks requires fundamental knowledge of CDR; overall, organizations prefer to build the necessary competencies internally rather than rely on external support.
  • Some organizations deepen their knowledge and mitigate risks by making direct purchases from only a few suppliers, whereas others prefer portfolio purchases as part of a coalition, such as buyers’ clubs or advance market commitments.
  • Organizations prioritize quality over quantity and perceive pilot-scale purchases as the most effective risk mitigation tool.

Interviewees highlight the importance of identifying, understanding, and mitigating the risks associated with CDR credits. This necessitates building internal competencies, which can be challenging given the current lack of expertise on CDR. The sustainability lead often plays a pivotal role in building up the necessary knowledge, as they need to demonstrate credibility, anticipate concerns, and effectively communicate with internal stakeholders while developing the CDR strategy.Initially, building knowledge typically involves consulting industry reports, examining case studies from early adopters such as Microsoft and Shopify17 18, or leveraging the expertise of in-house professionals who might already be familiar with individual aspects of the CDR ecosystem. External consulting services are rarely engaged, reflecting a strategic choice to develop in-house expertise. This tendency acknowledges the emerging importance of the subject as well as the limited depth of external consultants’ knowledge in this nascent ecosystem.
“One of the main challenges lies in the fact that CDR is still a relatively new ecosystem. As a result, experts are scarce both within our organization and externally.”
To enhance the internal expertise needed to understand and mitigate supplier- or technology-specific risks, some organizations from our sample opted for direct purchases from a few suppliers. Direct engagement can provide an opportunity to conduct thorough due diligence and allow for a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the CDR method. Furthermore, direct purchases can foster close relationships between the buyer and supplier, leading to greater trust and a more collaborative approach to mitigating challenges. In this regard, on-site visits to suppliers have proven to be an effective tool to facilitate stakeholder understanding. Organizations seeking external support to address risks might consider buying through marketplaces that offer additional guidance and assurance regarding credit certification. Other organizations from our sample chose to join buyers’ clubs or advance market commitments, such as the World Economic Forum’s First Movers Coalition, the NextGen CDR Facility, or Stripe’s Frontier. These typically engage in portfolio purchases from multiple suppliers. Membership in such coalitions fosters a community of practice where organizations can share experiences, strategies, and lessons learned. This collaborative environment is particularly beneficial for organizations new to the CDR journey, allowing them to draw on the knowledge of more seasoned members. Additionally, portfolio purchases through these coalitions offer several risk mitigation advantages: they allow for risk diversification across multiple suppliers and technologies, facilitate the pooling and sharing of resources for market screening and due diligence, and increase negotiating power due to the collective purchase volume.

Case Examples

The organization’s sustainability lead recognized early on their preference for direct purchasing over joining a buyers’ club or an advance market commitment. A primary reason for this choice was a concern over losing control over decision-making processes and becoming dependent on the actions and preferences of other coalition members. Additionally, the sustainability team was keen to concentrate on a single supplier. This focus not only simplifies relationship-building but also enhances their ability to understand the underlying technology deeply.“We wanted to understand how the solution works and do it ourselves. In our view, joining a buyers’ club would have complicated things and led to unnecessary workload to understand the full setup.”
The organization saw significant advantages in the collaborative approach and resource pooling offered by joining a coalition. The sustainability lead emphasized the substantial benefits of having access to a dedicated and shared scientific team responsible for vetting suppliers. Additionally, by aligning with other large organizations, they gained better market access and reputational safeguards, enhancing their standing and influence. Lastly, the organization recognized the catalytic potential of creating a more robust demand signal through collective action.“It’s been fantastic collaborating with other organizations. We gain access to and knowledge about technologies that would otherwise be beyond our reach as a single organization. Joining an external coalition has greatly supported us in shaping our strategy.”
Regardless of the approach – whether opting for direct purchases from a single supplier or engaging in portfolio purchases through a coalition – early adopters typically prioritize quality over quantity. Starting with pilot-scale purchases rather than immediately aiming for large volumes of CDR credits significantly reduces costs and risks. This strategy allows them to gain insights into technologies and suppliers, thus enhancing internal competencies and market knowledge. The high costs of high-quality CDR credits naturally limit the volume of credits organizations are likely to purchase, further reinforcing the rationale behind this strategy.
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Organizations identify strategic opportunities to engage in CDR

Key takeaways

  • Organizations see CDR procurement mainly as an opportunity to position themselves as sustainability leaders, strengthen their brand, and attract like-minded stakeholders.
  • In addition, some organizations perceive that early CDR market engagement allows them to secure high-quality credits and build supplier relationships, potentially gaining a competitive edge in the future.
  • Other organizations explore growth opportunities by developing CDR-related products or providing (existing) services to the CDR ecosystem.

As with many sustainability initiatives, purchasing CDR credits does not yield direct financial returns. Nevertheless, our sample reveals that organizations still manage to incorporate business opportunities into their CDR strategies. Primarily, organizations see CDR as an opportunity to position themselves as a sustainability leader and pioneer: As an early adopter, an organization can differentiate itself from competitors by strengthening its brand and attracting environmentally conscious customers, investors, and employees. This holds particular significance in the nascent stages of the CDR market where only a limited number of organizations have thus far purchased CDR credits.
“The main message was: ‘This is a huge strategic opportunity’. We do not want to be the last ones to enter this but want to ride the wave early on and anchor it in our strategy.”
In addition, organizations perceive a competitive advantage in securing high-quality credits and establishing relationships with suppliers early on. Interviewees suggest that organizations that delay CDR procurements today might face challenges securing enough credits to meet specific quality requirements tomorrow. This is attributed to the anticipated rising demand for CDR credits, particularly in key target years such as 2030, 2040, and 2050, and foreseen regulatory requirements for CDR procurement.
“Our CEO was convinced that this sustainable push will not be weakened. And if it will become compulsory in the future, it is better to take a leadership role rather than waiting for the regulations to tell us what to do.”
“Procuring CDR is a strategic move that goes beyond typical business decisions and investments. We need to act now to succeed in 2040, which requires a very long-term perspective on our business.”
Lastly, depending on the organization’s existing business model, opportunities for business growth and diversification can be explored. Two main approaches can be observed: First, an organization may see a chance to broaden its existing offering. This could involve introducing CDR-specific products or services, such as incorporating CDR suppliers or technologies into its investment portfolio or advising its customers on developing their own CDR strategies. Second, an organization could enhance its market presence by extending its existing products or services, like software technology or insurance expertise, to new customers within the CDR ecosystem.

“Each business has a unique role to play. We operate in diverse sectors with different products and customers. It is about determining how CDR fits into our business approach. Once you establish this connection within your organization, you have a dual business case: one focused on corporate social responsibility and another with potential for future profitability.”

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Securing a budget for first but also future CDR credit purchases is key

Key takeaways

  • For most organizations, first credit purchases are about initiating action and starting small rather than securing sufficient credits to reach net zero immediately.
  • Setting an internal price on carbon emissions is a key driver to secure a longer-term dedicated CDR budget.

  • Less commonly, budgets can be supplemented or sourced through incentive tax refunds or funds reserved for broader sustainability initiatives.

Initially, organizations from our sample typically purchase smaller quantities of CDR credits rather than acquiring enough to balance all their emissions. This approach is driven not only by a risk mitigation strategy but also by budget constraints.Even though initial procurement costs may be perceived as relatively low compared to the organization’s total revenues or overall sustainability expenses, they are still substantial. These costs cannot typically be sourced from existing sustainability budgets; sustainability leads likely require the formal approval of a dedicated CDR budget. In some cases, CDR credit purchases are further funded through sustainability investment funds. Regardless of the initial budget size, organizations from our sample typically consider the long-term perspective. As most entities will need to purchase larger amounts of credits and develop their CDR strategy with multi-year commitments, a longer-term dedicated budget becomes essential. Establishing an internal carbon price often serves as a crucial lever for this. Ideally, the mechanism is set up so that the internal carbon price gradually increases. This provides stronger financial incentives for the organization to reduce its emissions and ensures that sufficient budget remains available, as the funds generated from a static carbon tax would decline as in-house emissions decrease.
“Funding for CDR credit purchases needs to be sourced from existing resources, which can represent a considerable expense, even for organizations with relatively low emissions. Typically, sustainability budgets are limited, meaning that often only small amounts can be allocated to CDR initiatives.”
“We were aware that existing funding sources did not suffice, which prompted us to establish an internal carbon pricing mechanism and, subsequently, an internal carbon fund. This was essential to secure the budget.”
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Involving business units early on accelerates the journey to action

Key takeaways

  • Developing a CDR strategy is a collaborative effort and requires the involvement of various business units and key stakeholders within the organization.
  • Involving key stakeholders early on can evade potential barriers in rolling out credit purchases.
  • The sustainability lead’s responsibility is to continuously educate involved stakeholders, spark enthusiasm, and effectively create momentum.

Our sample highlights that developing a CDR strategy requires active participation and onboarding of business units within the organization, which is critical to incorporating the strategy’s building blocks for CDR procurement. While the specific internal processes and engagement may vary based on the organizational structure, the involved business units typically include:
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Finance plays a central role in sourcing the budget through comprehensive financial planning. It may also perform financial analyses as part of the due diligence process with suppliers, ensuring that procurement aligns with the organization’s fiscal policies. In the financial services sector, this responsibility often extends to the investment team, which handles financial transactions.
Legal mainly addresses risks by identifying and mitigating legal challenges and ensuring compliance with regulatory frameworks. Additionally, it leads negotiations of supplier contracts, focusing specifically on long-term liabilities and provisions for non-delivery.
Procurement is involved in sourcing suppliers, negotiating contracts, and managing supplier relationships to ensure the procurement of CDR at optimal costs and quality. Through these activities, procurement mitigates risks associated with supplier reliability and contract compliance.
Communications engages with predominantly external but also internal stakeholders to communicate the CDR strategy and credit purchases. It is, therefore, essential in further anchoring awareness within the organization and effectively communicating (parts of) the CDR strategy externally, thereby ensuring clarity and alignment within and outside the organization.
C-level plays an important role in officially anchoring CDR on the organizational agenda and approving financial and personal resources for developing the CDR strategy as well as the budget and, in some cases, the credit purchase. Further, the C-level plays an integral role in laying out the future vision for the CDR strategy.
“What truly ignites our team’s enthusiasm is the potential to catalyze and expand CDR as a whole.”
“The communication team found motivation in the challenge of effectively presenting a complicated topic with nuances, understanding the accomplishment in doing so well.”
Active involvement of these key stakeholders is crucial in any strategic initiative; however, it is particularly vital when navigating the unique case of CDR procurement. The complexity and novelty of the CDR ecosystem necessitate a more rigorous approach to risk assessment and a deeper understanding of often unfamiliar contexts. From the sustainability lead’s perspective, it is essential to cultivate relationships, forge alliances with key individuals, and involve relevant business units from the start. Early, extensive, continuous knowledge sharing and communication are critical to ensure internal alignment and shared understanding.
“Initially, it’s about finding allies. You need to identify individuals, build trust, and leverage your network across departments. Our starting point relied heavily on collaboration with diverse individuals from various functions.”
“Transparency and collaboration are key. It is about staying engaged and open rather than disappearing behind closed doors and only emerging periodically with updates. Continuous engagement and visibility are crucial components of effective change management.”
“What served as a driver for the legal team was the excitement around doing something that had never been done before. They saw that crafting the first CDR credit purchase agreement in the country would be noteworthy to their careers.”
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The CEO often proves to be a key enabler early on

Key takeaways

  • Early engagement and buy-in from the C-level, notably the CEO, is crucial to facilitating the overall development and implementation of the CDR strategy.

  • Through further education and a solid business case, the sustainability lead can obtain final CEO approval for the budget and implementation of CDR credit purchases.

  • Existing forums for regularly exchanging information with C-level executives and discussing sustainability topics offer a particularly important platform for creating awareness of CDR and fostering an understanding of its necessity.

Like most strategic initiatives within an organization, developing a CDR strategy hinges on two critical decision points. First, securing early buy-in from the CEO is essential. This not only signals the CEO’s active endorsement of the CDR strategy but also facilitates the allocation of necessary resources for its development. Second, the approval process for the actual CDR credit purchase is vital. This process can vary significantly depending on the organizational context, often occurring at different times and involving different decision points.The 14 narratives of successful corporate CDR procurements show: Securing early buy-in from the CEO can require extensive knowledge-building and sharing to begin with. However, once C-level buy-in is given, it formalizes the sustainability lead’s role as the primary advocate for the CDR strategy, giving them access to crucial financial and personnel resources. Moreover, if the CEO actively supports the initiative, not just as a decision-maker but as a vocal advocate, this can significantly accelerate the development and implementation of the CDR strategy. As a champion of CDR, the CEO can effectively promote education about and build alliances for the initiative, both at the executive level and throughout the organization. This often creates a “lighthouse effect,” where the CEO’s involvement highlights the importance of CDR across the company. This effect is most pronounced when the CEO has been involved from the beginning, actively driving awareness and engagement with the CDR agenda.
“I believe the overarching message here is that it all begins at the top. Securing buy-in from upper management and ensuring they grasp the significance of the initiative is crucial.”
“I think to have the buy-in from the top management team was crucial. And the way to get that was to educate quite deeply on what all the different components of that strategy meant.”
“Our CEO is a remarkable leader and visionary who comprehends the role of CDR in our sustainability journey. They spearheaded negotiations with our senior management, and their passion likely influenced the decision-making process.”
“A former colleague tried and failed to secure CEO buy-in. They lacked the necessary expertise and did not manage to effectively explain the importance of their proposal, merely stating, ‘this is important.’ But the crucial questions remained unanswered: Why is it important? Why should we do this?”
The second critical decision involves obtaining approval from the CEO for the budget and implementation of the strategy. The necessity for final CEO approval, even for small pilot purchases, primarily stems from the novelty, unique characteristics, and inherent risks associated with CDR. Although obtaining this approval is crucial, it can manifest in various forms: In some instances, CEO approval may occur very early – sometimes concurrently with the initial buy-in – typically focusing only on setting a fixed budget. In these cases, the responsibility for developing the strategy and designing the CDR credit purchases is delegated to the sustainability lead. Alternatively, CEO approval might be secured closer to the implementation and actual purchase phase after most building blocks of the CDR strategy have already been crafted in more detail.

Case Examples

Recognizing the necessity and urgency of CDR, the organization’s CEO committed to an annual budget for CDR credit purchases even before the formal development of the CDR strategy had begun. Subsequently, the sustainability lead and their team navigated the CDR ecosystem, assessed various suppliers, and determined where the allocated budget could have the most significant impact. While the broader aspects of the evolving CDR strategy continued to be discussed with C-level executives, the CEO’s early and fundamental approval of the budget was invaluable, providing a foundational resource for the team to develop the CDR strategy effectively.
After receiving initial buy-in from the organization’s CEO, the sustainability lead was charged with developing the CDR strategy. While the CEO had endorsed the overarching climate strategy and acknowledged the necessity for CDR, the process toward final approval was protracted. Several elements of the CDR strategy required repeated refinement before decision-makers sanctioned a detailed proposal for CDR credit purchases. Although lengthy, this iterative process was essential to aligning the CDR strategy with the organization’s broader sustainability vision.
For the sustainability lead, the ease with which they navigate through the two decision points hinges on several factors. The sustainability lead can establish trust through early engagement with the CEO and C-level while demonstrating subject matter expertise. Leveraging an established organizational culture and long-standing employee relationships can be a valuable resource, facilitating smoother organizational processes. Finally, governance structures such as sustainability or steering committees provide the formal settings necessary for continuous exchange with C-level, serving as platforms for discussing sustainability issues, raising awareness, and sharing insights, which in turn strengthens trust and confidence in the initiatives being proposed.
“At first, everyone was confused, and we did not get approval. The second time, all decision-makers agreed it made sense except for one, silencing further discussion. The third time, we had everyone aligned. Always ask three times.”
“First and foremost, the most critical leadership aspect was when C-level assumed responsibility for procuring CDR. This was pivotal for us, making it easier for everyone else to move in this direction.”
“Ensuring visibility through governance mechanisms is crucial, which can be as straightforward as organizing a meeting. It is essential to ensure that C-level is not encountering the information for the first time during the final decision-making meeting.”
“Building trust, fostering relationships, and effectively influencing stakeholders are critical. It is important to maintain these relationships and ensure the existence of governance structures that provide visibility. These structures offer opportunities to present proposals to C-level executives and engage them early on.”

Conclusion and Outlook

To close the ambition gap between net-zero commitments and the demand for CDR required to keep up with science-based targets, more voluntary buyers need to enter the market. This can accelerate CDR development and deployment and drive down future costs, making credits more accessible to a broader market. Beyond the six building blocks identified in the 14 interviews with CDR leaders, several essential and overarching aspects emerge. Keeping these in mind is vital for current and future sustainability leads, as they consistently influence and shape the overall approach to developing and executing a comprehensive CDR strategy.
Given the nascency of the CDR ecosystem and its complexity, internal building and sharing of knowledge is key. Knowledge building begins early on as key organizational stakeholders become aware of CDR’s necessity and urgency. This forms the cornerstone upon which the sustainability lead and their team build by acquiring further expertise and educating stakeholders within the organization through an iterative process. Despite being a tedious and resource-intensive process, knowledge-building and sharing are critical for developing the necessary building blocks and crafting a compelling CDR strategy. Ultimately, the organization must develop a shared understanding of why CDR credits are being purchased today and how this strategy aligns with the broader organizational sustainability vision.The core part of this is the business case, which should answer the strategic question: Why engage in CDR today? Without regulatory requirements or clear incentives to purchase CDR early on, developing a business case for initial CDR procurement is a unique endeavor. Its complexity lies in the extensive range of available CDR methods, high inherent risks, and often significant costs. As of today, developing a business case for CDR procurement does not involve straightforward calculations for a return on investment. The decision to invest in CDR credits is either made out of strategic foresight or after identifying longer-term business opportunities. Organizations with higher risk tolerance and financial liquidity often seen among early adopters, may possess a distinct advantage in adopting CDR strategies. However, the voluntary nature of CDR engagement ensures that any organization can participate, regardless of size or financial capabilities. The flexibility to customize the type and size of initial CDR purchases allows organizations to tailor their approach to fit their specific setup and resources. 
Building deep knowledge of a complex topic throughout the organization as well as developing a compelling business case, requires a collective effort. Cultivating relationships and collaboration is prioritized by the sustainability lead from the outset. This involves a coordinated effort across various business units and key stakeholders, highlighting the necessity for strong leadership. By involving and convincing these stakeholders, sustainability leads can effectively ‘work their way up,’ building a robust support network crucial for the successful rollout of the CDR strategy.The work for the sustainability lead does not end with the first purchases. The experiences and lessons learned from the first CDR purchases can be leveraged to continuously expand the organization’s expertise and refine its business case as they move forward with CDR. At some point, CDR and its underlying technologies will have matured, and incentives or even regulations to incorporate CDR into the organization’s sustainability strategy will be in place. Over time, more and more organizations will learn how to navigate the complexity of the CDR ecosystem and will find practices to craft the building blocks needed for their strategy efficiently. In the meantime, the onus is on responsible leaders to fuel action and to bridge the ambition gap between net-zero commitments and the demand for CDR required to support the scale-up of novel and existing CDR methods.

Authors and Acknowledgements

This report is developed by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, the non-profit CDR startup accelerator and ecosystem builder remove, and the Sustainability in Business Lab (sus.lab) at ETH Zurich. The authors would like to express their deep gratitude to the sustainability leads who participated in the interviews and shared their success stories.
BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt
remove
sus.lab at ETH Zurich
The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt unites economic innovators, political decision-makers, leading scientists, and representatives of civil society in a global network. Together, we transcend borders, cultures, and systems to advocate for innovations and sustainable changes that pave the way for innovative economies and resilient democracies. These efforts serve as the foundation for a fairer and more livable future. At the core of our endeavors is Responsible Leadership, as we firmly believe that a more just and inclusive society is possible when those in power understand and fulfill their responsibilities. As a European foundation with a global perspective, we operate out of offices in Berlin and Munich.
remove is a non-profit organization focused on supporting European early-stage CDR startups and fostering CDR ecosystems. Its core activity is running Europe’s premier accelerator program solely focused on CDR, having supported more than 120 startups so far. Beyond that, remove engages in ecosystem building activities, policy work and thought leadership through its collaboration with academic institutions such as ETH Zurich’s sus.lab.Contact: info@removal.global
The Sustainability in Business Lab (sus.lab) is part of the Group for Sustainability and Technology at ETH Zurich. With a focus on industry-related CDR projects since 2021, sus.lab actively collaborates with various stakeholders, including companies, policymakers, and academia, functioning as a think-and-do-tank. In their role as the core partner of remove, sus.lab shapes the program with thought leadership and ecosystem development.

Contact: suslab@ethz.ch  

Julia Bläsius

BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt

Maya Volwahsen

BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt

Marian Krüger

remove

Hans Westerhof

remove

Rawan Gebran

remove

Oliver Akeret

sus.lab ETH Zurich

Gudrun Thorsdottir

sus.lab ETH Zurich

Aliénor von Roten

sus.lab ETH Zurich

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From Awareness to Action: The Six Building Blocks of Durable Carbon Removal Purchases

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Maya Volwahsen is the Head of Insights at the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. Reach out to Maya via email if you have questions about our Insights work and partnership opportunities.