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Carbon offsetting: Putting trees to work

If, like me, you are concerned about the growing impact of climate change, you will almost certainly have come across ‘carbon offsetting’ as a way of reducing your carbon footprint. If, again like me, you look sceptically at options to offset your emissions by a simple online payment, then we share your hesitancy. At Oaklin we decided to be carbon neutral some years ago, but we have long been concerned about where our money goes and how much of it actually reaches causes that create genuine carbon reductions.

"… we face a huge gap between the actions we must take now to tackle climate change and the rate that we can move away from fossil fuel consumption at scale."

To overcome these concerns, we decided to run an internal project to look at how offsetting works and how confident consumers can be that the carbon reduction initiative they invest in, actually offset their emissions. It is still in its early stages, but has already proved a fascinating project. As part of Net Zero week, we thought it would be useful to share our early observations.

What is carbon offsetting and why is it needed?

Before we get into the conclusions, we should start with a quick overview of what carbon offsetting is and why it is needed? The idea behind carbon offsetting is that those who are creating CO2 emissions can invest in certified projects, or actions by others, that reduce an equivalent amount of carbon. In effect, by investing in carbon offsetting, you are funding the actions of others to reduce carbon in an equivalent volume to emissions your actions created.   

The idea sounds straight forward, but the fair question is, “isn’t carbon offsetting just allowing others to pay to pollute, rather than tackling the source of the problem?” We might equally ask, “why fund mechanisms like this, rather than reducing the source of the problem, our dependence on fossil fuels?” The reality is one of timing. Even though clean energy innovations are beginning to emerge, we face a huge gap between the actions we must take now to tackle climate change and the rate that we can move away from fossil fuel consumption at scale. Carbon offsetting allows us to start making a difference now, rather than waiting decades for the infrastructure of the future to reach maturity. It also encourages investment in small scale initiatives and new ideas, which can scale over time to become the solutions of the future. If we are to achieve the objective of the Paris Agreement, “keeping global mean temperature increase well below 2oC”, we need to start putting sustainable carbon reduction measures in place immediately. Carbon offsetting is one of the most effective ways we can all take action today. 

If won over by the concept, concern turns to efficacy of the operation, in particular, how can one trust that money invested in offsetting actually goes to a carbon reduction cause? This has been a particular concern for us at Oaklin. There are many examples of well intentioned carbon offsetting projects hitting the headlines for how little of the money invested actually made it to the intended offsetting project. We felt the only way to reach a conclusive view would be to create our own offsetting project and explore how hard it is to have it accredited and put into action.  

Oaklin’s work with Word Forest

As part of our CSR effort, we have been working with a charity called Word Forest. They are UK based, but operate a large reforestation programme in Kenya, where newly planted trees grow fast in the tropical sun and capture the maximum possible carbon. What drew us to Word Forest is that they also work with the local communities around their tree planting programmes. They work to empower local women so they benefit from the produce that grows on the trees and they provide the women with education, so they understand how to run a small business based on the produce they collect from the forest. Word Forest also creates schools and community centres, again with a strong focus on education, passing on the value of the forests and the economic potential they represent. The social development they provide alongside their reforestation creates a sustainable forestry solution that is valued by the local community, who are motivated to support the trees and ensure they grow to maturity. Their concept has made a hugely positive impact in the communities where their programmes have run. You can find out more about Word Forest here.

When we approached them, the team at Word Forest were as sceptical about carbon offsetting as we were, but had found that potential donors to the charity were increasingly asking whether Word Forest operated accredited offsetting programmes. We teamed up with Word Forest to fund and develop our own accredited carbon offsetting programme, which we could be confident was valid and which would tell us a great deal about the process and how confident we could be in the outcome.

Creating an accredited carbon offsetting programme

The key word that has appeared a few times here is “accreditation”. Having an accredited programme means that someone from an official organisation has inspected your offsetting programme and deemed it ‘sound’.  There are a number of accreditation organisations, the most well known are Verra VCS and Gold Standard.  For our project with Word Forest, we selected Gold Standard accreditation. It had the most thorough assessment process, and its funding model was one we could see was both independent and sustainable.

So, we knew we wanted to create an accredited offsetting programme, we knew we wanted to seek that accreditation from Gold Standard and, through Oaklin, we had the funds to pursue it. Now we just needed to ‘do it’. The Word Forest team designed a planting programme that would be a great first effort for our offsetting experiment. They designed a scheme that would transform 600 acres of scrub to verdant, mixed forest over five years. That would mean almost 600,000 trees planted, which would grow quickly from saplings to full sized trees, all of which over the five years would absorb around 150,000 tonnes of CO2, and would go on to absorb CO2 at the same rate for at least another 25 years. Word Forest monitors the trees every year, paying the farmers for each one that survives. This encourages the farmers to do everything they can to protect and nurture the trees.

"…we have found the Gold Standard approach to be thorough and demanding. It has made us focus on the long-term strategy that will deliver the carbon offset commitments we hope to offer."

From the outset of our engagement with Gold Standard, our misgivings about offsetting began to be quashed. The Gold Standard accreditation process proved to be thorough and demanding; we were as reassured by the requirements before us as we were frustrated at the need to step carefully through the extensive diktat. The key questions we faced were, how could we guarantee that the trees planted would be in place for at least thirty years, that the land they were on was owned or leased for long enough to meet that requirement, and how we would measure the exact amounts of carbon they offset. The aim being to ensure that a fair and clearly auditable trail could be followed from money invested to trees planted and carbon recovered. 

In a developed and densely populated country like the UK, land ownership is an established concept in law.  In rural Kenya, these concepts proved harder to secure definitively. Over the course of many months Word Forest have worked hard to finalise the ownership rights to the land used in our reforestation programme.  We also had to ensure that Word Forest itself is an organisation with a thirty year timeline ahead of it. There were, of course, many detailed questions about fencing, planting costs and ongoing maintenance, which we were entirely expecting. The questions about longevity, governance and security of outcome proved more profound and challenging than we anticipated, which were as reassuring as they were difficult to answer.

Our final task in this stage of the process is to demonstrate that our tree planting aspirations fit with the development of the local area and the wider strategic priorities for the country. The standards for this dialogue are exactingly defined by Gold Standard and we are scratching our heads about how we are going to meet them. As I write this, we are working on how we will convene a summit of local people, officials, politicians and business leaders, on site, in the Kenyan bush, to explain what we are doing and how it will benefit the local community. Fortunately, Word Forest’s work over many years on female education and empowerment has created strong links across the local community and a lot of support for further Word Forest programmes. We don’t envisage any problem meeting the requirement and, we welcome the scrutiny on local engagement, diversity, anti-corruption and future sustainability. Once again, we have found that our expectations about a superficial and nonsensical accreditation process have been confounded. The requirements have been detailed and thoughtful at every stage. 

The cynical could still be forgiven for thinking that we have only to tick ‘yes’ in all the boxes on the accreditation form, and append some aspirational words to reassure a superficial assessor, to be rewarded with our accreditation. As we have found, this is not the case. As we make the final tweaks to our accreditation submission, we are already preparing for an in person, onsite, inspection by a Gold Standard accreditation auditor. We fully expect to have to live up to all the claims and assurances we have made, including introducing them personally to those from the local community we have consulted.

We are confident we can meet this next challenge, just as we have been with the other requirements that Gold Standard have presented us with. No system of accreditation can ever be perfect, but we have found the Gold Standard approach to be thorough and demanding. It has made us focus on the long-term strategy that will deliver the carbon offset commitments we hope to offer. Word Forest’s CEO, Tracey West reflected “Our original stance on carbon credits was negative, partially because we observed many companies who were simply ticking boxes. Thankfully, the topic seems to have been demystified; a critical fog has lifted, but more transparency and education is needed. Firms of all sizes need to get a wriggle on and start planting trees in the tropics, where they grow up to 10 times faster than anywhere else on the planet. Lace that with women’s empowerment and education and you have a blueprint for a sustainable solution”.

So, can one trust in a Gold Standard offsetting project?

Well, based on our engagement thus far, we are fast coming around to the idea that you can, and indeed that you should. Even after you have done all you can to reduce your carbon footprint, there is still more that each of us needs to do. In the short term at least, investing in carbon offsets via a Gold Standard accredited programme provides a real and constructive way of doing just that. Our hope is that by the end of the year you will be able to choose Word Forest as you do so. Getting there has proved more difficult than we expected, but that fact, in itself, has been a huge reassurance. We hope that in our next article we can provide feedback from our inspection and a timeline for our first carbon offset project to appear on the Gold Standard market place; stay tuned!

Dominic Hurndall

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Dominic Hurndall


Dom is a Partner in Oaklin Consulting, with over 24 years’ consulting and Board advisory experience across the public and private sectors. A graduate of Durham University, Dom has an honours degree in archaeology and is an alumnus of London Business School. Previous to a career in consulting, Dom spend 6 years in the military. Dom has built extensive experienced in business strategy, outsourcing, workforce restructuring, communications, digital technology and designing and delivering complex change. He has particular sector experience in aerospace, retail financial services, trade wholesale, and in six government departments and agencies.