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George Sullivan of Net Zero Analysis & Design Corp.: “Disruption can get messy”

When framing the scope of a project or addressing an issue, it’s important to make an honest assessment that includes all pros and cons. Painting too rosy a picture or making big claims that you can’t be sure to live up to doesn’t help anyone. When challenges or conflicts come up, an honest assessment of […]

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When framing the scope of a project or addressing an issue, it’s important to make an honest assessment that includes all pros and cons. Painting too rosy a picture or making big claims that you can’t be sure to live up to doesn’t help anyone. When challenges or conflicts come up, an honest assessment of the part each person or circumstance played can help you avoid being unnecessarily critical or judgmental.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing George D. Sullivan. He is passionate about helping companies grow and prosper while mitigating their carbon footprints by creating data-driven, scientifically valid climate action plans. He has been asked to consult with companies, organizations, learning institutions, and governments all over the world on matters of building science, renewable energy, carbon offsetting and carbon offset generation, carbon neutrality and net zero emissions. George founded Net Zero Analysis and Design Corp., integrating 30 years of experience in engineering, industry, commodities trading, and building science to address a large market opportunity gap created by the challenges in existing sustainability certification systems and carbon offset markets.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

After attending the first Earth Day in 1970 at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, I knew that my interests in biology and applied physics (i.e. engineering) could allow me to make a difference. The question was where and how?

I was working in corporate engineering roles at a time when the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other EPA Regulations changed the way companies were allowed to do business. This was eye-opening and I saw what it takes to change an industry. It takes the application of transparency, reporting, and regulation.

A few years later, I was on the floor at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) trading commodities and financial instruments, which was a great learning experience. I had to tap into my interests in mathematics, modeling, and market-charting to understand the commodities and financial markets. This was a step out of my corporate engineering roles and added another layer to my understanding of how the business world operated.

My current company, Net Zero Analysis & Design Corp., is my 5th startup. My first was Eco Smart Building, founded in 1990 and operated through 2015. Eco Smart was a design/building company focused on gut rehabbing existing multifamily and commercial office buildings to meet the EPA’s Energy Star requirements. Reducing building energy use, thus reducing the operational carbon footprint, was the focus. While running Eco Smart, I also tracked the Kyoto Protocol and the development of the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) which traded carbon offsets at the CBOT. I watched both Kyoto and CCX rise and decline. The short reason is that both were missing a globally-accepted standard that adequately covered the definition of terms and methodologies on measurement.

Net Zero Analysis & Design Corp. (NZA) was founded to fill this gap, and is focused on 3 specific areas: Carbon offset project development, carbon footprint calculation and reduction, and regulated carbon offset trading.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’re disrupting the sustainability and carbon offset industry by applying globally accepted standards for verification to it. Major investment funds have gotten very serious about carbon neutrality in their portfolios and are influencing corporate carbon neutrality requirements. Right now, most of the well-known green-building and sustainability certifications out there score against their own arbitrary criteria, and use no central widely-adopted standard to give their ratings solid meaning. Companies that want to go carbon neutral have to deal with an unreliable system of disparate criteria and results that confuse company leadership about what they are getting for their money and effort, and what they can reasonably claim with regard to their climate-action achievements. This leaves them open to liability when they are just trying to improve the way they do business in a way that is important to their investors, clients and customers. A company that wants to go carbon neutral is entering the Wild West. Somewhat ironically, we’re disrupting an industry by bringing order and oversight to it.

Through our International Organization for Standards (ISO)-based verification methods, we are offering companies what they need to make sure their carbon-neutrality claims are bullet-proof, with adequate documentation if challenged. A company’s duty to investors and shareholders requires transparency and accuracy because valuations rise and fall with claims of carbon neutrality (or discoveries of “greenwashing.”) If they can’t substantiate the claim, they can’t substantiate the company’s value. This can get them noticed by watchdogs and regulatory agencies who are there to protect consumers and investors.

My team has developed a Global ISO 14001 Carbon Footprint Model for Annual Carbon Neutrality Calculations and reporting to Science Based Targets. In partnership with Entrex Capital Markets, we have brought FINRA and SEC regulation to the voluntary and compliance carbon offset marketplaces through the development of the Entrex Carbon Market.

Companies that want to go carbon neutral and work with us get guidance for conforming to UN standards when measuring their carbon footprint, third-party review through ISO, carbon-footprint reduction consulting, and the ability to purchase carbon offset securities on a regulated market. Securitizing the carbon offsets makes them subject to FINRA rules and SEC oversight. This eliminates the need for lengthy private due diligence and the expensive professional services that are required when a company buys offsets from an over-the-counter (OTC) market. It’s carbon neutrality better, cheaper, faster.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I have made was showing up two days early to a training class when I was in the process of getting the certifications necessary to execute our business model. I was attending a training program in another city and the instructor had emailed out the series of invites for the classes. I accepted the invites on my phone and had a glitch in the process of adding them to the calendar. One of the training classes was added to the wrong date. I flew in for the 4th class of the series and checked into the hotel. They normally held a cocktail hour, so I went to the usual place and no one was there from the class, so I waited. Two hours later, I called the instructor to see where they were at, and discovered I was there early. Really early! With little else to do, I ended up working on the class homework for the entire course over the next two days and completed all of the assignments. When the class started that week, I was over-prepared compared to the other 30 students. I was already bored with the basics and wanted to get deeper into the subject, so I ended up driving the class nuts with my questions.

In hindsight, I’m probably more amused by it than my classmates were, but I’ve always been driven to find and process as much information as possible and to find connections and synergies in systems. In a lot of ways I’m still just a curious kid that can’t wait to jump into the deep end.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact? I have had a number of mentors along the way:

Dr. Alfred Whitecamp was a childhood neighbor and an early mentor. He developed new applications for products that his company made, and suggested that I write down all of my thoughts around a problem I was working on, keep them visible, and review them every day. It was a solid problem-solving skill that I have used and refined over time.

He introduced me to the idea that problem-solving is all based on the data sets you include or exclude to solve the problem. It also led me to consider that some data sets should be excluded. Usually, it was because they did not fit the calculations or gave false results, making me rethink the problem to consider wider, deeper, more long-term ramifications.

W. Edward Deming — Though I never met him, I am an avid student of Deming. The idea of applying a data-focused review of a company and a process to develop actionable data sets, for things that have never been measured before was eye-opening!

Deming wrote, “Without Data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” I’ve applied this idea to various existing sustainability certifications and when reading Corporate Carbon Neutrality Audits and public disclosures from companies’ sustainability reports. I have found projectcomments that are not substantiated with actual data. This is problematic. It puts the claims in the realm of opinion rather than fact. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only scientifically and mathematically sound path is through ISO 14001 Carbon Neutrality Reporting and Science Based Targets methods, which are based on actual utility, operational, and supply chain data.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption of an industry is good when new information, processes, and efficiencies are properly tested and appropriately applied. This usually allows new players into the marketplace and affords the opportunity to offer better service, giving a business a distinct advantage over the competition. Innovation and improvement often have ramifications beyond the original industry where they happened.

The Real Estate Financing/Mortgage Banking Industry was disrupted by the appearance of mortgage-backed securities, where a number of mortgages are wrapped into a security and then sold to investors. This was a good deal for all of the banks, mortgage processors, and major financial consulting firms. However, mortgage-backed securities weren’t tested properly and the models were based on existing financial models that weren’t entirely applicable to the new product. The financial consulting firms sold the mortgage-backed securities model to governments across the globe, which over-heated the real estate market, and led to a massive correction and the financial meltdown in 2008.

Disruption can get messy.

When I consider a system or structure that has withstood the test of time, it seems to me that it has invariably done so because it has adapted to changing times. The U.S. Constitution, for example, is still an important set of guiding principles two and a half centuries later. It has remained that way because it can be amended. Without those critical amendments, the rest of the document would have lost its relevance. As society has changed, we’ve come to realize the hypocrisy in stating that “All men are created equal,” but counting enslaved men as 3/5 of a person. Women weren’t counted at all. At some point, we were forced to reckon with the unfairness of excluding half of the U.S. population from voting. The genius of the Constitution is that the mechanism for adaptation (and so, survival) was built in.

Change is inevitable. Groups that don’t want change or don’t want to learn anything new are at risk of becoming irrelevant and dying out. This happens a lot with the “old guard” at the top of any business sector. As soon as they become inflexible, someone else will blow past them.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Be honesty. Be inclusive. Take ownership. I try to apply all three in all aspects of life.

When framing the scope of a project or addressing an issue, it’s important to make an honest assessment that includes all pros and cons. Painting too rosy a picture or making big claims that you can’t be sure to live up to doesn’t help anyone. When challenges or conflicts come up, an honest assessment of the part each person or circumstance played can help you avoid being unnecessarily critical or judgmental.

Inclusion is an attitude of “we are all in this together.” Do not be an observer. Don’t be a dictator. Be a partner. You never know where good ideas and useful talents will come from.

Own your decisions, and if there is a required course correction, own the issue that sent you off course. Ownership is the basis of power. Be honest with yourself about what really happened. Making an objective assessment is the key to controlling where you are going.

When I founded Net Zero Analysis & Design Corp. in 2015 we were focused on measuring and reducing the carbon footprint of buildings through energy efficiency controls. It was very real estate focused. As the Paris Accord on Climate Change was unfolding, I continued to find ISO 14000 and 14001 applications for new tools that needed to be developed, which ultimately led to us developing a true data-driven general measurement tool that can be universally applied. The journey involved a number of pivots, mistakes, missteps, and reworks by the entire team as we tried to keep up with new developments and an industry that was in the middle of a major shift. We ran into some walls and put our trust in the wrong strategies, but we all owned the learning curve. We’ve had to reassess and revise our business model several times to navigate market changes, but it has made the team stronger as we move forward!

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We are launching a software-as-a-service platform that will allow companies to compile their data in a way that that meets the ISO 14001 standard and conforms to Science Based Targets. We looked at other services to recommend and could not find one that we were sure met the criteria for the U.N. definition for carbon neutrality and net zero emissions. The subscription is mostly self-service, but will include consulting hours with us to help clients make sure they are on the right track. With hundreds of companies recently pledging to go carbon neutral according to that very specific criteria, we felt there was a hole in the marketplace that needed to be filled. Companies are looking for guidance in what is, for most of them, a completely new endeavor. With our service, they’ll know what data is needed, what sources to pull it from and how to categorize it. They can stay on-budget by doing it themselves, and it makes updates and tracking improvements relatively simple.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I support Public Radio, public television, and I love documentaries. I enjoy any well-rounded and fact-based information outlet. From my first reading of “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, and “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappe’, I have been questioning how we do business and what impact it has on the natural world. I’m a life-long nature lover. I have another degree in biology and have been an avid bird-watcher for many years, so paying attention to how economic activities affect biological systems and species is in my blood. It’s always part of my analysis when I think about my work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“To live is to learn” is my favorite Life Lesson Quote. If you’re alive, you are always learning and adapting to something new. I have a more powerful computer in my smart phone than was used to plan the first space flights to the moon! I no longer send letters and I have fewer conversations on the phone. I use e-mail, unless it’s faster to have a video meeting. And that video meeting usually happens on my smart phone. Business communications look completely different than they did 30 years ago. We can’t imagine waiting 3 days for a business letter to arrive in the mail, and these days because of COVID, packing a conference room for a meeting is out, so we’ve had to develop new methods of “getting together” to share ideas. We make small adjustments all the time to keep up with what’s happening and it keeps us on our toes and makes life interesting. It’s only in hindsight that we can see the full scope of what we’ve learned.

I’ve always been hungry for information and interested in how one thing connects to another, and the next thing, and the two things after that, and how those connect back to the original. Finding new ways to apply what I’ve learned to solve problems others have struggled with is really rewarding.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

It would definitely have to do with the broader climate action movement. Land loss, clean water shortages and famine due to weather disruptions and natural disasters will result in massive displacement and climate migration. These conditions are the biggest threat to the stability of our world and the wellbeing of billions of people.

The mitigation approach has to be multi-pronged and governments have to play a big part. We have to integrate energy-efficient buildings and transportation, renewable energy, restorative agriculture and preservation of forests, especially our rain forests and ancient old-growth forests (which take up more and more carbon as they get older). We need to create local, resilient systems that don’t rely on inputs from the other side of the world to survive. Global commerce, in some instances is great. A carbon offset produced in India, for instance, has the same global effect as one produced in the United States. It’s all the same atmosphere. Beans produced in Chile, however, are better utilized in Chile with regard to food security and global carbon footprint.

Decarbonizing our economy is absolutely essential if we are going to salvage life as we know it and restore the planet to a new balance. Influencing governments to encourage, financially incentivize, and secure their local food systems and energy grids would make communities more resilient in the face of the massive challenges to come.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can find us on our website, https://netzeroanalysis.com, where they can learn about carbon neutrality, calculate their carbon footprint and even buy offsets. They can also find links to our mobile app for Android and IOS. They can also find us on social media, where we share instructional and informational videos and relevant articles.

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEaptvW16QyJkDWHGdM5PVQ
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/netzeroanalysis
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/george-sullivan-2025042/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

It was great speaking with you. Thanks!

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