Looking Beyond Your Footprint: An Interview with Sean Kinghorn
We recently had the chance to sit down with our own Sean Kinghorn, our Partnerships and Program Development Strategist, to learn more about his career in sustainability, his pathway to joining the Tradewater team, and his perspective on the collective action we must take to curb climate change today.
Were there any specific sectors, organizations or an individual’s work that motivated you to do environmental/sustainability work originally?
I took an environmental studies class during my freshman year of college, and I had that ‘aha’ moment: “I know this is what I’m going to focus on for the rest of my life.” Traveling and seeing the natural world and other communities and cultures mapped real-life examples onto what I was studying. So many people are just trying to put food on the table. We need to meet people where they are, find out why they might be doing things that harm the environment, and create solutions that are truly sustainable. I really loved trying to understand the humanity behind these environmental issues and their potential solutions. This passion matured into my focus on what became the global sustainability movement years later.
My kids will ask me about the work I do (I talk with high school and college students about it, as well), and I joke with them, saying, “The work I do has the worst job security in the world. I’ve been doing it for 20+ years, and the world is worse off!” My two real messages to them are:
- Unless you know something that I don’t…you get one shot at this life. Make it worthwhile, do good and be kind every day.
- There is only one planet. We’re the only ones who can protect and heal it.
What led you to your role at Tradewater?
I found Tradewater while I was Global Sustainability Leader at Intuit. The company was focused on their greenhouse gas emissions, shrinking their footprint, etc. While I was there, I had a revelation: if companies are only focused on their own emissions, that doesn’t go very far. I wanted to know what we could do that went above and beyond that. So, we launched a climate-positive strategy at Intuit focused on helping others outside of our company’s traditional footprint – employees, customers, and communities where we had a presence – to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. We recognized that our “handprint” (positive environmental impact) could be vastly greater than solely focusing on reducing our “footprint” (negative environmental impact).
At that point, the book “Drawdown” was being published (Project Drawdown’s book on climate solutions, edited by Paul Hawken). I got one of the first copies. The book shined a light on the top 80+ climate solutions today that were proven, scalable, and economically viable, and made it clear that:
- We can do these things, but we need to scale faster.
- There is no silver bullet—we just have to do the hard work, now.
- Refrigerant management was #1 in the book, on the list of things we need to focus on.
It was interesting, super-surprising, and frustrating. I feel like I’m well-versed in sustainability, in problems and solutions, and destroying refrigerants was clearly relevant to the depletion of the ozone layer, but I didn’t know this was causing such a massive climate problem overall. I was bothered that I hadn’t known. I started researching, asking people, “Who is doing this work?”
I was introduced to Tim and Gabe, who were about to do Tradewater’s first international project, collecting refrigerants in Ghana, and shipping them to the U.S. to be destroyed. Intuit funded the first phase, which strategically aligned with our climate-positive goal, and thus earned carbon credits. Intuit’s support helped Tradewater expand their global reach to over 12 countries. When I decided to step away from corporate sustainability and focus 100% of my time on scaling climate solutions, I reached out to Tradewater, and asked if I could join their amazing team.
What keeps you going in the climate mitigation realm?
I’m a huge proponent of Project Drawdown and what they are trying to accomplish. There are lots of other tech-leaning solutions that have not yet had the time to be proven economically or functionally, and may take too long to scale, so they cannot be the only solutions. They are important, and though they should still be the recipients of focus, attention, and funding, Drawdown’s “emergency brake” solutions are proven, fast-acting and right in front of us. I think the majority of investment should support these.
Refrigerant destruction doesn’t draw headlines, but it’s so important to address it. We need to focus on high-impact, scalable solutions we can use now, which will buy us the time we need to employ those other solutions. That’s where I want to put my effort and skills. Tradewater has expanded our scope to also focus on stopping methane emissions from orphaned gas wells – another scalable, immediate Drawdown solution – which is fantastic.
What are the messages that you feel get through to people?
The Drawdown roadmap shows what companies can do to get us to where we need to be. They’ve also introduced the concept of the Climate Emergency Brakes. Decarbonizing the transportation sector or heavy industry will take decades, but there are “emergency brakes,” things that can buy us time—dealing with refrigerants and methane are two of these emergency brakes.
Are there key points some companies may be missing in their efforts to become more sustainable?
One of the interesting things I noticed is that sometimes companies see and use external reporting frameworks – which are so important for transparency and reporting – but usually do not account for the potent non-CO2 gases we target. And when they adhere only to these frameworks, they sometimes fall short on supporting climate projects (like Tradewater’s) via carbon credits. There has been an unintended consequence of a lack of creativity and inspiration. Unfortunately, this is really hurting the carbon market.
I truly believe corporate climate strategy should be an and, not an or, when it comes to carbon credits. Of course, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, but that could take years or decades. In the meantime, companies are polluting the atmosphere as they decarbonize. They should support climate projects like Tradewater’s to mitigate the harm they are causing now (and have historically).
True climate action by companies needs to focus on both strategies; one cannot replace the other. It is critical that we take collective action and finance big swings against climate change today. Recognition of this fact will be the key to bending the curve on climate change—before it’s too late.