Piva Capital’s Going Carbon Neutral
Unveiling our first carbon offset purchases #BuyInTheOpen
By Julia Reichelstein, Investor at Piva Capital
Net Zero, Climate Neutral, Carbon Negative… corporate climate pledges are everywhere. As of today, over a fifth of the world’s largest companies have made some sort of climate pledge. Governments and corporations alike are beginning to take action and get serious about addressing their climate emissions. As investors in climate and deep tech, we’re seeing new technologies and business models rapidly adopted by a shifting landscape. Corporations are internalizing that climate strategies are no longer peripheral to business — they’re core.
At Piva Capital, we think deeply about how we can effectively, scalably fight climate change by investing directly in companies fueling the decarbonization revolution–everything from alternative proteins and long duration energy storage, to carbon removal and sequestration. But we want to go beyond investing in these impactful companies, and ensure our fund is walking our talk.
That’s why Piva Capital is going Carbon Neutral — offsetting all historical emissions, and all emissions going forward. We’re starting today with offsetting the firm’s emissions from launch in 2019 through the end of 2020, and are pledging to offset every year going forward.
Part 1: Why Now
Why is Piva going Carbon Neutral?
- Climate change is happening now — time is of the essence. While investing in innovative decarbonization technologies is fundamental to what we do at Piva, we also wanted to ensure we’re not adding to the carbon problem today.
- Many promising high-quality carbon removal technologies are still young and expensive — and need help scaling. Building market demand for high quality credits is a key piece to getting removal technologies down the cost curve (theory of change said best by Stripe). By helping to build that early market demand, we’re getting more tons of CO2 removed, sooner.
- We continuously strive to be better investors. We know this space through investing, but actually participating directly in the carbon markets — figuring out how to do our own carbon accounting, how to validate what offsets to buy, and how to actually buy them — has taken our understanding to a whole new level.
Our Approach: To go Carbon Neutral with high-quality offsets that have real climate impact.
Pay for Quality: We strive to be a thoughtfully informed buyer and believe that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to pay for high quality offsets. Sadly, the vast majority of carbon offsets available today do not fulfill the impact they claim to make — avoiding or permanently removing 1 ton of CO2. But some offsets do. It’s therefore important to:
- Figure out what is actually high quality… we leveraged the broader ecosystem of experts (Carbon Plan, Microsoft, Stripe, etc.) to deepen our understanding and create our own framework of what constitutes high-quality offsets.
- …and pay substantially more than market average for that quality. As a VC fund with a relatively small carbon footprint, we have the privilege of being able to pay relatively more per ton. Most of our carbon footprint comes from travel (planes, trains, automobiles), and so we’ve committed to spending 15% of annual travel spend on going Carbon Neutral. Tying our budget to our emissions means that our commitment to high quality offsetting will grow as we do.
We’re paying an average of $209 / ton, compared with a market average of $3 / ton.
Learning Mindset: That said… it’s a nascent industry, and we’re still in the early days of understanding the most thoughtful route forward. On one hand, we want to ensure the offsets we buy undertake rigorous measurement and that the known science supports their claims. On the other hand, it’s yet to be seen which technologies come down the cost curve fastest. We decided to take a portfolio approach — buying quality offsets from across the spectrum, including both removal and avoidance offsets, as well as both nature and non-nature based offsets.
Like most companies, we didn’t have a dedicated team to figure out how to be Carbon Neutral. Figuring out our carbon footprint, what offsets to buy, and how to buy them, fell to the everyday team. Even as experienced investors in the space, there were a lot of unknowns, and surprisingly few templates on how to go Carbon Neutral, thoughtfully. We wanted to change that — with step by step transparency, we hope this can serve as a resource for other small firms.
Additionally, we hope that sharing the specific offsets we purchased pushes others towards similar transparency. In a world of highly variable offset qualities, transparency as the norm will help keep us and others accountable for purchasing high quality offsets with real climate impact.
Instead of #BuildingInTheOpen, we’re Buying (Offsets) In the Open #BuyInTheOpen
Part 2: The How — Nuts & Bolts on how we went Carbon Neutral (as a VC)
Carbon Accounting: Estimating Emissions
You can’t address what you can’t measure — measurement is the essential first step for corporations to make real progress towards their climate commitments. Piva, like a lot of firms, needed to start with understanding its emission footprint. Initially we wanted to outsource the carbon accounting for accountability’s sake, but we didn’t find a great fit in the market to help us do the work. Our goal was to be exhaustive, unbiased, and as precise as possible, while also actionable. To create our inventory of emissions we:
- Logged every flight, coming up with a total miles flown for each year (broken out into miles flown economy class, and miles flown business class).
- Logged every car trip, summing our total miles driven (either in a personal car or a taxi/ride share).
- Contacted our office building to understand our monthly energy consumption (in kWh).
We then looked around for a way to convert those miles / KWh into reliable CO2 emissions estimates. We leveraged the GHG Protocol, which is a science-based, open-source tool that easily translated our yearly consumption to CO2 tons. For 2019 and 2020, we estimate Piva emitted 72 tons of CO2 — fairly low tonnages, as we had only a single traveling investor in 2019, and 2020’s COVID brought travel to a halt.
Note: As is clear, our estimation calculation was intentionally basic and focused on the top emission sources. While good measurement is critical, we felt confident this straightforward path led to an accurate (and replicable!) result.
With our tons estimated per year, and our budget set (15% of annual travel spend), we had the parameters to go out to market. Our first step was figuring out our quality parameters for our offsets.
We tried to take a balanced approach to quality monitoring. We invest in this space, and so have the team and expertise to go deeper into the science than most, but as a 7-investor fund, Piva doesn’t have a dedicated team to parse through all the offset qualities. We wanted to create a purchasing methodology that could be replicated by similarly small companies, which leveraged the existing expertise in the space.
We used the following framework to consider the different types of offsets:
Consulting the existing experts, we came up with a simple framework on what counted as “high quality” in our book.
1The permanence threshold for Microsoft, with which we agreed. Equivalency of ton-years accepted.
A Note on Avoidance Offsets: Avoidance offsets are the vast majority of offsets historically — with upwards of 75% of offsets generated coming from conservation (avoided deforestation) or renewable energy (avoided fossil fuel energy emissions). In general, the buyers that focus on high-quality offsets have moved away from avoidance offsets as a whole, because they typically struggle to prove additionality. Take an example of a forest conservation avoidance offset. Proving additionality would entail proving that the trees would have been cut down, but weren’t, because of the monetary incentive the carbon offset provided. Would the tree we paid to conserve actually have been cut down if we hadn’t purchased the offset? We’ll never truly know, and in some instances, we might have our doubts.
However, we feel that there can be real, impactful, additional avoidance offsets. We didn’t want to exclude avoidance offsets completely. Our criteria for the avoidance offsets included are particularly stringent — the vast majority of avoidance offsets cannot clear our additionality hurdle. For us to include an avoidance offset, they must prove there is no monetary incentive for the avoidance action to take place, aside from the carbon credit purchase. Essentially, no conservation or renewable energy credits can pass this test — there are too many monetary reasons to not cut down a forest or install solar.
In addition to making sure the tons we bought passed our own view on quality, we also wanted to leverage the ecosystem of knowledge to make sure the offsets were peer-reviewed by the people whose full-time job it is to understand the details behind every offset. To that:
- Most of the tons we included were first purchased by leaders in this space: Stripe, Microsoft, or Shopify.
- We looked to CarbonPlan, an expert non-profit that independently rates the quality of carbon offsets, as our north star. Every offset we bought had a 3+ star rating on their system.
Once we had decided what to purchase, we had a rather long “short list” of offsets we would have liked to buy. Actually buying them was another matter entirely. Quite a few of the quality offsets are from young companies and nascent technologies, making their supply severely constrained. Additionally, purchasing the in-demand offsets as a small firm with relatively small tonnage needs was also a challenge — understandably, most offset suppliers wanted to prioritize customers that were buying larger volumes.
Ultimately, we were aided by pioneers in the space who are making these high-quality offsets more accessible. We ended up purchasing through offset marketplace Patch, as well as through Stripe, and even directly from the companies, as was the case for Recoolit.
The combination of budget, tonnage to offset, and our quality lenses, led us to the following portfolio for our 2019 & 2020 offsets:
We know $15.5k may not sound like a lot of money, but we believe that two additional points provide important context. Firstly, we do not have a significant carbon footprint (1 full time investor in 2019, combined with limited travel in COVID-riddled 2020). Secondly, we deliberately bought high-quality offsets at premium prices (>$200 / ton on average). Piva is deeply committed to fulfilling our Carbon Neutral commitment in the future, annually spending much more as we grow, and in a normal year would expect to spend closer to $70k on high-quality offsets.
Pursuing our portfolio and learning approach, we bought a little bit of everything — from forest carbon to direct air capture to bio char to advanced weathering — coming to an average price per ton of $209. We kept the nature-based tons below 65% of the total tons, as it was important to ensure we were purchasing significant tonnage that helped to drive new technologies down the cost curves (which, in general, we believe is needed for engineered solutions like DAC). Needless to say, there were a lot of incredible offsets we wanted to buy, but just weren’t able to purchase.
This is just the beginning…
Overall, we aim for this to be a helpful resource to other VC firms and startups as they go through their own climate pledge journeys. We also hope the transparency here helps ignite a movement where every corporate buyer is pushed to disclose exactly what offsets they’re buying, nudging them towards paying up for quality #BuyInTheOpen.
We’re excited to do our next round of purchases in January to offset the 2021 emissions year. And in the meantime, we’re continuously learning. We will continue to share our journey through the Piva Capital Medium channel and encourage other firms and startups to join us on our quest to bring transparency to the carbon offset process.
A special thanks to Jim Bunch at Impact Delta, Chris Tolles at Yardstick, Miral Alaraj at Patch, Hannah Bebbington at Stripe, and Jeremy Freeman at CarbonPlan for their guidance on this journey.