"I'm really trying to move the dial. Humans have emitted about 2.3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide since the First Industrial Revolution, so if I can help get a handle on a couple billion by the time I'm done, I'll be pleased with myself," says Reed Shapiro '10, who is on the front lines in the battle against the impending climate crisis. A business development manager for South Pole, the global leader in the fight to reduce emissions, Shapiro works with clients across industries to reduce emissions internally and connect them with carbon offsets and credits to reduce their remaining environmental impacts.
Put simply, if global temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius, the climate will begin to destabilize beyond human capacity to adapt and avoid ecosystem collapse and the related economic losses. Over 73 governmental initiatives globally have enacted either caps on the amount of carbon dioxide that companies can emit, or taxes on tonnes of carbon. In regulated jurisdictions where caps (or emissions trading schemes—ETS) exist, companies that exceed these restrictions, can use "allowances" to offset this discrepancy by trading with other regulated entities that have stayed below their cap.
These policy schemes cover some 23 percent of global emissions. For the remaining 77 percent, a voluntary carbon market (VCM) exists, where companies fund projects that either avoid emissions being released into or reduce emissions already circulating in the atmosphere. VCM projects range from renewable energy creation to reforestation, to wetland and marine conservation and revitalization. That's where Shapiro and the team at South Pole come in, tailoring individual solutions for each client to measure, manage, act upon, and voluntarily offset emissions in line with what leading climate science considers global best practice.
Shapiro's interest in global stewardship began while he was a student at Lafayette College, where in 2012 he read an article that outlined how humanity had enough identified oil reserves to surpass the 1.5-degree planetary tipping point five times over. He recalls that knowledge as "frankly, terrifying." But it wasn't until he ran into a family friend at a farmers' market that he could really begin to help combat carbon emissions.
That woman was Olivia Fussell, who founded the carbon-offset management firm Carbon Credit Capital in 2006. As Shapiro remembers, "I told her that I wanted to work in the climate industry, but with my background in economics and policy studies, I knew that whatever job I had needed to intersect with finance to really get the job done." She offered him an internship, and Shapiro quickly rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming the organization's director of business development by 2015.
After working for six years at CCC, Shapiro began working for larger-scale South Pole, where he has mitigated close to 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas since 2021.
At South Pole, each client's "climate journey" begins with an evaluation of their current level of emissions, before the team sets future reduction goals for them to achieve. From there, Shapiro devises a road map to hit those targets, overseeing the sale of climate products and credits, leading contract negotiations, and connecting clients with in-house consultants who guide the day-to-day strategy and implementation of emissions "interventions."
While South Pole caters to a wide range of clients, Shapiro focuses primarily on the financial industry as well as companies producing consumer staples and technology or offering professional services—for even these nonmanufacturing businesses have significant carbon footprints, from electricity usage and travel to data processing, heating and cooling systems, investments, capital goods, and purchased goods and services.
Shapiro isn't naive about the challenges that lie ahead. "As a society, we are not doing nearly enough. There has to be an advance in carbon removal many thousand times what it is today, otherwise, we could really be in some deep yogurt," he says, pointing to unprecedented rainfall in California in the last year and other increasingly common aberrations in weather patterns (what he calls "not global warming, but climate weirding").
But he nonetheless remains cautiously optimistic. "The tide has absolutely turned. There are some incredibly huge stakeholders in big business and finance who are signaling they have trillions of dollars to deploy into climate solutions and climate finance. The best intersectional climate and economic models say we'll need $2 trillion to $5 trillion per year to adequately scale both nature-based and technological solutions. If enough of the money on the sidelines can be matched with real-world projects/initiatives with proven scalability, we've got a real shot," he continues.
"This decade is absolutely critical. We have the tools to mitigate the risk, but it's a question of whether enough 50- to 100-plus-year-old institutions arrive at the understanding that in order to exist for another 50 to 100-plus years, it has to be all hands on deck—right now. I'm so glad to be at South Pole, because we're working on these exact investments and initiatives at scale today."