Offsetting Your Carbon Emissions by Planting Trees: What You Need to Know, How to Get Involved, and What’s Needed to Make it Work at Scale August 31, 2021 by Leah Wolfe
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The following is a guest piece written by Thekla Teunis, Founder & Strategic Director of Grounded Ingredients, with contributions by Leah Wolfe and Ethan Soloviev (HowGood), and Daniel Fourie (Grounded).


If this summer of relentless fires, floods, droughts, and tropical storms wasn’t evidence enough, the recent IPCC report has confirmed what the scientific community has been sounding the alarms about for decades: climate change is upon us and we’re out of time to do something about it. In light of this, people and companies are understandably searching for ways to do their part to lessen the damage.

Unsustainable agriculture combined with changing weather patterns can lead to arable land losing its ability to produce crops rapidly. This photo shows degraded land in South Africa during the worst drought in living memory. The farmer did an attemp…

Unsustainable agriculture combined with changing weather patterns can lead to arable land losing its ability to produce crops rapidly. This photo shows degraded land in South Africa during the worst drought in living memory. The farmer did an attempt to establish lavender (the small crops) but had to write off the field a couple years later. Image: Gareth Hubbard

As sustainability-focused entrepreneurs with many combined years of ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture experience, we noticed that suddenly our friends and colleagues were turning to us for advice: after we’ve done everything we can to reduce our own footprint, does it make sense to buy carbon credits as offsets for our remaining emissions? Is planting trees a good idea?

We live and work on different continents, and each have our own organizations but decided to join forces to share what we think you need to know about:

  1. Offsetting carbon output through reforestation projects

  2. Why this is not already happening on a massive scale

  3. What you can do right now

 

Carbon Sequestration and Reforestation: What we think you need to know

1. There’s a huge opportunity below our feet

Restoring or protecting soils and plants, to ensure carbon gets captured, is one of the cheapest ways to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels. As trees grow, they capture CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into carbon. They use part of it to grow. The rest goes underground where it is stored (sequestered) in the roots of the plants. A portion of it is then released by the roots and consumed by microorganisms living in the soil. So there’s carbon in the tree, as well as in the soil.

Soil can store large amounts of carbon. Image credit: Gareth Hubbard

Soil can store large amounts of carbon. Image credit: Gareth Hubbard

In fact, carbon stored in soil is about five times higher than the carbon content in the trees and plants themselves. Soils can be a significant contributor to solving climate change. However – the reverse is also true: because soils store a lot of carbon, when they are left idle without vegetation, this carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Breakdown of terrestrial carbon storage. Graph by Grounded. Source of data: Nature

Breakdown of terrestrial carbon storage. Graph by Grounded. Source of data: Nature

 

2. Trees can’t do it all: we need grasses, bushes, algae – everything that’s green

Planting trees has become somewhat of a go-to ecological restoration solution–especially for companies looking for a marketing win–but trees are only a part of the story.

In some cases, perennial grasses are more beneficial than trees. Peatlands are gold mines of carbon (and when we lose them, they become massive carbon emitters – similar to permafrost areas). Huge amounts of carbon are also stored in the oceans: mangrove forests are the largest store of carbon per ha (higher than tropical rainforests). So if you want to maximize impact, you have to be agnostic about what actually gets planted – let the ecosystem guide you. You want to make sure the crops which are planted (or protected!) suit the environment and aid biodiversity, rather than diminish it by planting a monoculture.

 

3. You can also sequester carbon through regenerative agriculture

Regenerative farming is a movement that’s very rapidly gaining momentum worldwide amongst farmers and consumers. It builds on ancient and indigenous practices that have been around since humans entered the ‘agricultural age’ about 10,000 years ago. These practices, which are based on the principle of ‘farming with nature, rather than against it’, disappeared in large areas of the world, with the increasing application of highly mechanized farming, pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers. And what we see now, is that about a third of our agricultural land is depleted: there is virtually no life and nutrition left in the soil. We have killed it all off, or taken it all out.

These degrading soils are contributors to global warming as they release carbon into the atmosphere. Regenerative farming is a way of farming that goes beyond organic (which mainly focuses on the avoidance of harmful chemicals in farming operations) towards a goal for the farm to contribute to increased soil fertility, and the capturing of carbon in the soil. This is done through a variety of methods such as no/low-tilling, mixed cropping systems, the application of compost and the (extensive) use of animals on the fields to aid with fertilization and soil structure improvement.

Regenerative farming also improves water infiltration, protects the soil from erosion, and improves biodiversity. However – to make these transitions, farmers need to invest. There are opportunities to support these farmers through buying carbon credits – which will provide them with an additional income stream to make this change happen.

A field of rosemary in South Africa, under regenerative agriculture: various grasses are growing to keep the soil covered between the crops. The field is grazed - animals don't eat the rosemary. The fertilise the land in doing so. In the background a highly degraded hill (due to overgrazing). Photo by Thekla Teunis, Grounded

A field of rosemary in South Africa, under regenerative agriculture: various grasses are growing to keep the soil covered between the crops. The field is grazed – animals don’t eat the rosemary. The fertilise the land in doing so. In the background a highly degraded hill (due to overgrazing). Photo by Thekla Teunis, Grounded

4. The choice between Practice-Based vs Verified Outcomes

When you plant a tree (or establish perennial grasses, protect a peatland from degrading, or restore a mangrove forest), you have an assumption beforehand on how much carbon might be stored when you do this – but you’re working with nature, and therefore anything can happen. The trees might be eaten by grazers next year, there might have been a fire, the forest might have been logged after 10 years. Also – you never know how much carbon is actually being stored, without measuring it over time.

There are certain companies in the industry who provide independent verification methods, using certain standards to check this, (VCS and the Gold Standard are two prominent examples). However – this is expensive. There is quite a lot of innovation happening at the moment, so the cost is likely to come down in the future. For now, it is still a substantial barrier for smaller projects, and that’s why you won’t find many providers of carbon credits for individuals yet.

If you’re really anxious to get started and you found a project you believe in, you can also adopt a “capture now measure later” strategy. In this case, you should still check for the longer-term impact of your project in other ways (making sure that the trees are still there after they were planted for instance). This will save you money on verification costs, but you won’t know for sure how much carbon was actually stored.

 

Why aren’t we already doing this on a massive scale?

1. Think about why the tree is no longer there in the first place

95% of the world’s degraded land is degraded because of human activities.

Deforestation and unsustainable agriculture are the largest drivers. We have deforested, and farmed, because we wanted food and wood. This means that if we want to restore these areas, we need to have a plan: are we going to use less wood? Less food? Different foods? We need to think about the ‘scalability’ of simply planting trees on a billion hectares of degraded land. Where are we going to find that land? Are we going to kick the current farmers out? What are they going to do? Is this ‘just’? Where are we going to grow the crops which they were growing? This is also where regenerative agriculture and agroforestry come in: they are methods that allow us to continue farming in these areas, but instead of killing nature in the process, we actually restore it.

In other words: we need to think about how we can transform the drivers of degradation if we want to get this right – not just put plasters on the consequences. We can’t continue to treat the symptoms without healing the cause.

Drivers of land degradation worldwide. Chart by Grounded

Drivers of land degradation worldwide. Chart by Grounded

 

2. In a crisis, not all the data is available, but waiting to act till you have all the data is the worst thing you can do

What we’ve all seen during the coronavirus pandemic, is that it is difficult to act based on limited information, but when a crisis is at hand we don’t have the luxury of time. We need to strike a balance between ‘optimal monitoring’ which can be very costly and time-consuming, and just ‘going for it’ and implementing the methods that have already been proven effective. There are no perfect solutions here – so we might have to go with the ‘best we know for now’.

 

3. Carbon sequestration is not a ‘cure-all’

What can be dangerous in our current situation, is a ‘tunnel vision’ focused on only capturing and measuring carbon stored in the soil. In nature, and therefore in agriculture, any kind of plan that’s oriented towards one single objective, is potentially destructive in a broader sense. Planting a monoculture of trees can be horrible for biodiversity. In some places we don’t want trees, we want grasses – so animals or birds can feed and live there. Some forests which are not indigenous, or have grown too dense, can create massive wildfires – releasing enormous amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere at once. If you introduce a non-indigenous species which grows quickly in a certain area, it can be invasive and wipe out an entire ecosystem if you’re not careful.

Spice farming in Tanzania done right, through agroforestry, has the potential to protect and restore one of the world's critical biodiversity hotspots. Photo credit: Eric Fishel, Grounded

Spice farming in Tanzania done right, through agroforestry, has the potential to protect and restore one of the world’s critical biodiversity hotspots. Photo credit: Eric Fishel, Grounded

Last but not least: farmers, who are among the most marginalized groups in the world, should be at the forefront of these efforts and the resulting economic benefits. They should be compensated fairly for the carbon credits generated, and not be left behind while governments, corporations, and nature organizations create new systems of economic and environmental incentives without their input.

 

What you can do right now

Knowing where to begin when it comes to fighting climate change can be overwhelming to say the least, but after reading all this, we hope you feel a bit more confident about how to get involved. There’s not one magic solution to the climate crisis, but carbon sequestration is one of our best tools and we can support the groups that are offsetting carbon and regenerative farmers today.

Below is a selection of organizations you can get in touch with to offset your carbon on an individual or company-wide level (hand-picked and not complete – if you have more suggestions please let us know!)

 

Carbon offsetting through regenerative farming

Regen Network

Marketplace where you can purchase (a portfolio of) carbon credits from regenerative farmers in different countries. Available for both individuals and companies. This is a great opportunity to purchase carbon offsets and support farmers on their difficult but very necessary transition towards regenerative agriculture.

Nori

Another marketplace for credits for regenerative agriculture. You can buy credits from a specific farmer, and you get a certificate for them. Nice interface. Quick and transparent.

Indigo Ag

Also a marketplace for carbon credits from regenerative agriculture. Currently still primarily focused on companies – so perhaps you convince your boss (or yourself, if you’re a business owner).

Ecosystems Services Market Consortium

A collaboration between corporates who are looking to purchase carbon offsets, and farmers who are ensuring that they grow carbon in their soil, alongside their crops. Currently not open for individuals.

 

Support regenerative farmers in your neighborhood

This is a bit of a DIY option, but one that can be lots of fun: you can actually just reach out in your neighborhood and find a regenerative farmer who might need support. If you’re not sure how to find them, check out the local farmer’s market, ask one of us, ask your sustainable supermarket, or check out communities such as 4returns

 

Carbon offsetting with social impact in developing countries

CoTap

If you’re looking for a way to make not only an environmental, but also a social impact with your money, CoTap could be a great option. They work with farmers in developing countries to plant trees. They’re very much into reporting, transparency and monitoring. You can purchase offsets monthly, per tonne, or whatever you like – and they give you an overview of exactly where your money went.

Gula Gula

A food forest in Indonesia. They work with many local farmers who grow the forest. Direct opportunities to participate in carbon offsetting (for companies – big and small) through their partner company CO2Operate.

 

Carbon offsets through planting trees

Life Terra

If you’re really keen on the tree-planting thing, this is nice. You can ‘adopt a tree’ from them. They work with a whole range of selected partner organisations who implement the projects worldwide. Through the tree-planting of course they expect carbon to be stored. Goal is to plant 500 million trees.

Land Life Company

Land Life Company is a tech-driven reforestation company that aims to plant trees at scale. Land Life helps companies with a sustainability agenda and turn their carbon footprint into forests. There’s no option on their website to buy ‘tree planting’ directly, but companies can reach out to see if there’s potential for collaboration.

 

Carbon offsets in the tropics, mostly through avoided deforestation

Pachama 

Buying carbon offsets for companies. Avoiding deforestation can be just as impactful as actually restoring. Most of their projects are in that ‘bucket’, some are restoration-projects.

Mother nature provides life. Let's work with her, rather than against her. Photo showing the Zambezi river in Zambia. Credit: Gareth Hubbard

Mother nature provides life. Let’s work with her, rather than against her. Photo showing the Zambezi river in Zambia. Credit: Gareth Hubbard


You can find this piece and other work by Thekla Teunis on Medium

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