Measure. Reduce. Offset

May 15 · 12 min read

In conversation with World Land Trust to find out more about their Carbon Balanced programme

The World Land Trust has been protecting and conserving threatened environments for the best part of thirty years. Using land purchase as a key tool for conservation, the WLT makes it very easy for supporters to get involved. You can donate directly to the projects that are close to your heart — including carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting puts money towards projects and initiatives that aim to reduce carbon emissions or improve carbon dioxide absorption, in an effort to compensate for emissions from things like flights.

The WLT has a carbon calculator that can help you calculate how much CO2 you are producing as an individual or a business, giving you a figure that you can invest in their projects. Impossible is proud to be part of the WLT’s carbon balanced programme.

Ivory poaching has been an increasing threat to populations of African Elephants over the past century. The African Elephant is one of the mammals protected by WLT in Zambia through the Keepers of the Wild programme in partnership with the Kasanka Trust.

Impossible co-founder Lily Cole spoke with the WLT’s Senior Carbon Programme Manager Charlie Langan and Director of Communications and Development, Dan Bradbury, to find out more about the programme and how people can get on board.

Charlie: The offset mechanism really is about compensating for any emissions you create. There’s a lot of things we can do in our general life to reduce our effect on the climate, and reducing our carbon emissions, and that’s generally reflected in carbon project development. Really you can just think of carbon offsetting as a tool for raising that into projects that have multiple benefits, climate being one of them. We focus a lot of our carbon work on the protection of standing forests.

Dan: There’s a belief that land protection could account for 50% of the carbon emissions. So actually land is really important.The WLT mantra has always been that the land is the most important aspect so if you save a piece of land, through whatever method, whether it’s purchasing, long term leasing, you save everything that uses that piece of land. So it provides and supports not only the species but can provide for and support local communities in those areas as well. So lots of our projects have got a watershed element to them as well, so providing water to those villages too.

Lily: And so if someone does carbon offsetting through WLT, that money goes into a fund that buys up land wherever you see the opportunity basically?

D: Yes, we have these key and core carbon projects and so all that money goes to that land and goes towards that project and that long term protection of that area as well. We’ve now directly funded the protection of over 760 000 acres of forest, and then if you combine that with out partners, we’re into the millions of acres.

And then how do we protect them? We put the land in the direct ownership of our local NGO or partner, so WLT essentially doesn’t own any land. We work with our partners to fund those. So they then look after the long term management of these projects, they own leases for that land. So effectively we are creating lots of private nature reserves, I suppose if you want to call it that. They are places that are still wild and people can visit as well, but they’re all privately owned by an NGO in those areas. A bit like the nature reserves in the UK being owned by a wildlife trust — all the projects are owned by the country partner. So they’re doing the monitoring and they’re working with local people, so they employ local people to work for them as wildlife rangers, who do the monitoring and the protection and the guarding of those areas.

C: It’s not just about enforcement in many of these areas, that’s part of the value of the carbon project. To really get carbon credits you need to do a lot of background study to really understand what’s happening in these areas, what’s driving the land use change and really try and understand these communities where we have these problems of deforestation. Quite often you find these communities are more than aware of the environmental problems they’re generating, or facing and the key is to work with them to develop a strategy. So we work on the enforcement part, implementing the laws and ensuring the regulations are met, but actually a lot of it is supporting communities to move towards more sustainable uses of the forest, or towards better livelihood programmes and alternatives. And while we’re not providing everything, the development sector is much bigger than the environmental sector. We are trying to tie in the aspect of sustainable development and supporting these communities towards better livelihoods and poverty alleviation that way.

D: The other thing that all our farmers do, is about providing and creating opportunity for people in those areas as well, because if you provide opportunity and you can demonstrate that, then they will buy into it. So we do have some projects where it’s long term, so not carbon projects, but long term community lease projects, where all the communities, before you can even start a project, they have to buy into it. So they end up buying or managing the land or making sure the land is used in the right way, or used in a sustainable way as well.

C: If you have a management plan and a management board that’s from the community, then they take real ownership and engagement and it produces much better conservation outcomes but also allows them to use the land to support much more livelihood.

Vietnam is one of the most biologically diverse countries on Earth and also one of the fastest growing economies in the world. WLT is helping conserve Vietnam’s forests in partnership with Viet Nature Conservation Centre.

L: A critique of carbon offsetting projects is that they can displace local communities, whereby indigenous people might lose access to their land because they’re turned into conservation parks. How do you prevent it from becoming an environment versus the locals issue?

D: We work very much with the communities, they’re community led, they’re community focused. In any of our projects we make sure that our partners are not working just purely on land purchase, they’re providing empowerment to local women, they’re working with local fishermen, they’re working with local villages around ecotourism. And what we’ve done with the projects is we’ve tried not to displace people, and we try not to move them, and where there have been cases of that happening, or where that’s been a possibility, even if one person in that village decides it’s not going to happen, then it doesn’t happen.

C: This ties in with the evolution in the carbon market and carbon world. Because a lot of carbon offsetting is ultimately on a voluntary basis, people are not racing to the bottom of the barrel. They don’t want the cheapest credits. What they want is to support projects through the carbon offsetting that really protect forest and that protect people alongside it, and that’s the project that we’re trying to develop, the ‘leaves and people’ approach. We want to make sure that everyone is engaged in the project and the mechanics of the carbon project, that we’re really documenting exactly the base line context, what’s happening at the moment, how are we engaging with everyone, how are we bringing all of their ideas into the design of the project and what’s our ambition and our objective of the project and how are we going to make sure that we’re keeping things in line with those objectives. That’s all part of the carbon project and development and it goes towards creating much better and much more robust projects.

L: How would you explain in a nutshell to an outsider what the carbon market and what carbon credits means and looks like?

D: Truth be known, the whole carbon project seems complicated and not accessible. We try and let people know that everybody has an impact, regardless of whether we like it or not. We’re all aware of the impact we have with over-usage of packaging, and consuming too much stuff. But basically by going about our daily lives we also have an impact when we’re traveling about. So we ask people to actually look at what they’re doing and that can be as simple as looking at our utility bills because as soon as you put a light on, the heating on, you start to have a carbon footprint. So we ask people to measure. Then we ask people to look at what they’re doing, whether it’s utilities or their travel, then we ask them to reduce. We’re not asking anyone to stop travelling. We’re not asking anyone to not go to places, but we ask them, ‘do you need to go to all of those places? Do you need to do all of those things?’

Then what you do is say, well, I’ve reduced as much as I can, I’ve asked everybody to reduce as much as they possibly can, so at that point we then say, look, you still need to do those things but now let’s try to offset that impact and offset what you’re producing. At that point is when we ask people to offset their carbon emissions.

So we measure, reduce and offset.

We ask them to look at what they’re doing. It can be looking at your energy suppliers, it could be looking at what lightbulbs you’re using, do I need to take three trips to the supermarket when I could do one, do I need to travel down to London for that meeting when I could do it by telephone, you know it’s all of those things. We try to ask individuals and businesses.

C: I think it’s also important to recognise that the offsetting is just a mechanism of paying back an investment that we’ve made upfront in forest protection, and working with communities. We put the money upfront and after a certain amount of time we measure the carbon that we’ve saved and that’s basically what the carbon offset goes to pay.

WLT has been working to fund strategic land purchases to conserve wildlife corridors for Orang-utans and other Bornean species in Sabah since 2008.

L: How does it work on a more international level on the carbon markets, with the Amazon for example, with the new president in Brazil and all the concerns around the impact that his focus on business will have on the Amazon. Are there enough international political incentives to protect their forest as it stands right now, or do you think we need more NGO volunteer work to fill the gaps that politics is leaving?

C: It’s an interesting question, quite a big unknown I think. In terms of the international climate action, the action is quite weak. So you have the Paris agreement which was just sort of an understanding across all countries that we would limit carbon emissions to a certain cap. Then the following discussion was that everyone had to then propose basically how much emissions they thought they could reduce and then what’s been done subsequently is to add up what everyone said and say, “hmm, we’re not going to meet those two degrees targets”. People are now, in the next round, trying to make more ambitious pledges for individual countries. So it’s very much on a voluntary basis, for each sort of nation state to decide how much it can reduce its carbon emissions. Now the international community is making money available, quite slowly, but money is being made available, particularly for developing countries, to really help people meet these pledges, and push them towards more ambitious pledges. So part of that is the REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation), a long running programme about conserving and protecting forest and also trying to expand forest. It’s been a long and very slow process but national governments are now developing national plans for how they’re going to reduce deforestation.

L: How does REDD work? Can you talk me through the funding and how it operates?

C: Well the funding is based on donor funding, so Norway has contributed a lot of money, a lot of that goes into the green climate facility, that’s based in South Korea — it’s basically a bank and a fund and it makes investments in country projects and programmes. The whole Paris idea is that each country is sovereign and takes charge and it has a specific context. So in some countries a lot of that financing is going into government, to help the government to improve the regulatory environment, enforce its laws and do all those sorts of legal things. In other countries they’re taking a different approach where they’re developing more conservation projects, which is a bit more like our project where we have an individual organisation taking control of, or taking the management of, a forest and working that way. It’s all kind of very bespoke to the country concept which is part of the beauty but also the complexity of the approach. But the previous attempts of having a unifying law just failed, I mean that was the Copenhagen cop that really ended in disaster, so this is a more collaborative approach with cohesion thrown in.

L: Are there any other mechanisms whereby wealthy countries that have already decimated their own ecosystems and forests like the US and UK, could essentially pay countries like Brazil to protect their forests, because there’s obviously a global benefit to that happening. Does that happen in anyway? Do you think REDD is an example of that or do you think that’s naive?

C: That’s what’s happening in certain places, so in Vietnam the World Bank has a pot of money, partly from the UK, partly from Norway, partly from the US. It’s working with the national but also provincial government in the northern parts of the country and has set quite ambitious targets for protecting forest and measuring the forest and if the Vietnamese government can meet those targets then the World Bank will release funding at certain intervals for them.

In Tanzania they’ve done the same, although there have been some challenges there. The Norwegian government put money in there partly to the government and partly to more private and NGO actors, to really set out a programme where if they protect the forest then this money will flow towards the people who are responsible for protecting the forest.

Tanzania was a focal country of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative.

L: Do you have any examples of people or companies trying to be carbon negative?

D: It’s an interesting question because we’ve gone past the Paris agreement now and very little has happened. And last year was the start of a number of more research based articles to say we’re in big trouble, even if we bring down carbon emissions to near 0 in the next five years. We’re going to need negative emissions technology, and very little work has been done in what that actually looks like. So, tree planting is sort one of those but there’s a lot of other ideas about seeding the ocean with chemicals, adding things into the soil, and so these ideas are starting to gain traction.

But at the moment it is much more about offsetting above and beyond and that’s becoming much more popular now. Businesses are becoming interested in ‘insetting’ — greening supply lines. A big part of that is carbon offsetting for the whole of the supply line of a product, or the aspects of coffee production let’s say from making sure that you’re not planting coffee in areas where deforestation is high, making sure you’re having more shade grown coffee, so that’s sequestering carbon, and then offsetting any transport and processing emissions that are produced from bringing the coffee from the farm — the whole supply chain. Building it in from the beginning, rather than retrospectively, which is exciting.

If you would like to offset your carbon, as an individual or business, you can do so here.

To learn more about the importance of Carbon Neutrality, you can read Science shows it’s vital to be carbon neutral before 2050. By Lily Cole


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Building the future of possibilities, not inevitabilities.