Craig Cohon’s most recent meeting with President Bill Clinton about climate change was sadly a brief 15 minutes – it was kept short because the entrepreneur-turned-climate-activist can’t stop – he has to keep to a strict schedule of walking 35 kilometres a day.
When I catch up with him the next day, he is walking – of course. As well as sounding slightly breathless as he talks, this also means he’s constantly pausing to avoid passing lorries and big scary dogs, checking he’s walking in the right direction (he’s inadvertently added 200km to his journey by wrong turns) and saying hello to confused villagers.
It was President Clinton who in some ways started Craig, a Canadian who lives in London, on this journey which has seen him do some crazy things, but perhaps none as bonkers as embarking on a 4000km ‘rock n roll’ (his words) walking tour from London to Istanbul.
"In 2000 he spoke at the World Economic Forum, which I was attending as one of their ‘global leaders of tomorrow’ and he talked about a new type of capitalism which was more inclusive and would include the externalities of social well-being and the environment inside the way we think about success,"recalls Craig, 59.
At the time Craig was scaling the heights of global consumerism as the person who had founded Coca Cola in Russia. He quit “on the spot” after hearing Presidents Clinton’s words – determined to use his obvious talents for better ends.
That’s included creating a recycling company helping people in poverty, funding clean energy stoves and also owning Cirque du Soleil in Russia.
And then lockdown happened, and he was looking for a new challenge when he heard about the concept of CO2 removal and became interested in the idea of how he could ‘pay back’ his carbon footprint.
He became the first person in the world to officially find out his personal lifetime global carbon footprint. Calculating it was a complex job – the audit he gave UN advisors included everything from where the beef he ate when he was little was from to what type of jet his parents flew him on when they went on holiday.
The answer came back that he had caused 8,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere since his birth – 28 times more than the average person, mainly due to all the travelling he did for work. ‘
“It is like a big oil spill in the sky”’ says Craig of his carbon footprint. “You can’t see it, you can’t touch it or taste itbut you can clean it up.”
Craig started investigating the technology behind carbon dioxide removal and invested the $1million in his pension fund into companies working on cleaning up the sky. “It’s a nascent industry – like wind and solar energy was 30 years ago,” he says. “If there is any hope of us staying within the two degrees of climate change then we need to start scaling up CO2 removals.
“Some of that simply includes planting more forests but there are also companies taking CO2 and putting it in the bottom of the ocean – embedding in the sea – they are doing that in Holland.
"There is also a special type of rock that the Norwegians are trying which uses CO2 – other companies are sucking CO2 into concrete during the manufacturing process. I bought credits for a portfolio of these type of projects."
Could these projects be storing up more problems for the future? Craig admits it is a step into the unknown. “All I know, is I'm trying with the existing technology and existing knowledge to remove my lifetime carbon footprint,” he says. "I screwed up as a businessman but now I understand the issue. I want to try to live a net zero life moving forward, but I had to get that carbon jet off my balance sheet first."
When he announced his 14 country Walk It Back tour, his daughter suggested he was going through a midlife crisis while his son warned him not to decompose. But they are used to an unconventional dad; when he divorced their mother he moved to a barge on the Thames.
Craig, who has made it to Bulgaria when we speak with the aim of reaching Istanbul on his 60th birthday on June 5, has already got British Airways involved in a carbon dioxide removal scheme but is hoping to get more people talking about it with his walking tour of Europe.
"I am on a mission to try and get awareness of the issue,’ says Craig who partially credits his Jewish upbringing with his desire to help others. ‘Judaism is about our common humanity.
"And if we don’t stop climate change, the earth will remain but humans will be wiped out. I feel very, very blessed to be alive in this moment.
"And I’m bringing some of my values along with me on this journey back to a lot of places that historically don't like Jews and probably still don't like Jews. But I have to say, although I’ve got a pretty Jewish name, I’ve been treated with respect and kindess everywhere I’ve been."
"And it is interesting because walking through Eastern Europe there are parts where it feels like I am back in the shtetl. I am seeing the kind of life our great grandparents lived and some wonderful things have happened to me. People open their doors to and I was drinking schnapps with someone at 9.30 this morning. I’ve learned that humans are kind; we’ve just got to figure out this issue."
While he’s walking through countryside, he is also criss crossing cities – 82 in all - and meeting up with local mayors to spread his message of awareness. He’s accompanied by a truck – there was no way to make this trip entirely carbon neutral - which contains two recycled containers one for him to sleep in and one for him to invite people to have a drink and show them models of how carbon removal works.
"If you give someone a couple of shots they are much more interested in carbon removal; this is rock and roll activism," he laughs. "Yes, the climate’s f*cked up but let’s have a good time trying to fix it. I’ve had all sorts of people walk part of the journey from me – from the CEO of Coca Cola to Zulu warriors, from models to activists. I’m talking to people everywhere I go. It is tiring, it’s been tough but it’s also been incredibly rewarding. This is about changing the system because if we don’t our planet will be fine but our species will be dead."
To find out more about Craig’s journey and his campaign go to walkitback.org.