post via Jonathan Rademaekers: [email protected]
Frederick Schilling, the founder of Dagoba Chocolate, has always been sustainably-minded. He supported organic cacao and fair-trade practices before they were popular. He looked into using cacao trees and their ability to grow in the shade of other trees as a way to increase the value of a rainforest, and therefore give it a fighting chance at survival. Now out of the chocolate business, (Dagoba was sold to Hershey’s a few years back, Frederick and elephant’s editor Waylon Lewis published an interview re: the sale), Frederick is pursuing global sustainability through his Big Tree Climate Fund. This time, he’s selling a different kind of forest product: a tree’s ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
What’s that, you ask? Sell what? “Carbon offsets” are created in a variety of ways, but always by either by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or by preventing them from being released in the first place. Trees do a great job of the former.
A little background first. As soon as the threat of global warming was recognized, early movers were looking for ways to reduce their “carbon footprints”. A carbon footprint refers to how much greenhouse gas pollution one emits. These early movers soon realized that there were real challenges, most often stemming from a lack of available low-carbon alternatives or the high costs of these alternatives. Enter the offset.
Since global warming is a… global problem and it doesn’t matter where pollution occurs, the idea of the offset was born. Why not pay for someone else to reduce his carbon footprint on your behalf It seemed to make a lot of sense, especially when the same amount of money could go way farther in other parts of the world. Another plus of the offset is its side benefit – it introduces the concept of sustainability and the technology to realize it to people who may not have access to it.
The signing of the Kyoto Protocol by participating countries legitimized the carbon offset by including it within its framework. Since then, there has been a burgeoning “carbon market” where offsets, each representing one ton of CO2, are traded like any other tradable commodity. In unregulated countries, the voluntary carbon market has grown where individuals and corporations voluntarily purchase offsets to help them lower their carbon footprints and achieve that concept of “carbon neutral” – having no carbon footprint or being responsible for zero net emissions of greenhouse gases.
The carbon offset has had a rocky reputation from the beginning, at times lauded and at others, lambasted. Critics liken the carbon offset to the indulgences of old, where rich sinners were able to buy their way to forgiveness from the church. A comical cartoon comes to mind where a man sits on his knees in front of a chaplain and, head bowed, begs for forgiveness:
“Forgive me father for I have S.U.V’d.”
“Go my son, for your sins have been offset.”
In addition, the history of the carbon offset has been likened to the Wild West, where early prospectors often got away with what they could, sometimes selling nothing more than a bunch of hot air. There were also cases of companies wanting to offset their operations by planting trees in developing countries. Unfortunately, these often became textbook examples of how keeping costs down can do more harm than good. They would come into a community, kick locals off a tract of land, plant a mono-crop of fast growing, non-native trees that would leech the soil of nutrients, support no wild life, and harm the water shed. These projects were rightly critiqued to the point that this type of thing no longer occurs.
With all the controversy surrounding carbon offsets, why would Mr. Schilling want to get involved? Well he, and his team of “righteous ninjas” at Big Tree Climate Fund, have sensed an opportunity; an opportunity to differentiate themselves and to use the carbon market as a catalyst for social and environmental change.
“Offsets really have the power to catalyze action,” explains Schilling. “Sure they’ve been misused at times, what hasn’t? We are addressing all their shortcomings and are demonstrating their real potential.” And they do have potential.
Because of offsets, an area of pristine rainforest in danger of being cut down now has an inherent value. You can offer a small farmer or landowner money to NOT cut the trees near him. He can make a living as a forest protector rather than by clearing the forest – certainly an idea whose time has come.
This idea, termed REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) works by measuring the amount of CO2 that would be released into the atmosphere if the trees were to fall. By following the right protocols, oversight and certifications, the prevented release of CO2 can be sold as third party verified carbon offsets and thereby fund the forest’s protection. It’s an idea gaining traction by the UN, Brazil, Indonesia, the US administration and many other major bodies that recognize that something must be done to reduce deforestation. This source of greenhouse gases after all, accounts for 20% of global emissions, more than all transportation combined.
“We are on the front lines of this new era where nature has a monetary value,” explains Schilling. “Right now we are in talks with a large land holder in the Amazon and a man with the rights to log a huge tract of forest in Indonesia. In both cases we can use the carbon market to generate income for them if they agree to protect the forests forever.”
Forever, of course, is a tall order but with the proper insurance mechanisms, buffers and other techniques devised and imposed by the third party certification bodies, the issue of impermanence with forestry-based carbon projects has largely been addressed. That’s why governments are even considering these types of mechanisms.
“That’s just the beginning,” Frederick adds. “We don’t just want to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, we want to help catalyze fundamental change.” One of the stars of Frederick’s band of ninjas is Ben Ripple, the founder of Big Tree Farms, the namesake for the climate fund. Ripple has been working on the ground in Indonesia on sustainability issues for over a decade. His mission with Big Tree Farms was to create a sustainable supply chain management company that could represent artisanal food producers on the global market. He recognized the need as he witnessed the global market, and the constant pressure it exerted to lower prices, was squeezing the producers out of existence.
Ripple was determined to work from the bottom up. He would represent the producer, see what they needed to earn, offer them a fair price for their goods and then proceed up the supply chain finding niches and branding that would lead to a decent market share for those goods. It is this principal that was adopted by Big Tree Climate Fund.
“We call it Fair Carbon™”, explains Ripple, “and it represents a new strategy for the mitigation of global climate change. More than just a program focused on creating saleable emissions reductions, Fair Carbon programs are built on the three pillars of sustainability; Social Justice, Environmental Stewardship and Fair Economics. Too often in the current paradigm of carbon credit schemes, key stakeholders at the bottom of the pyramid are overlooked and underutilized. Fair Carbon bridges a vital link between the needs of the global poor and the need and desire of consumers to offset their carbon footprint more meaningfully. Fair Carbon is an empowering solution to all participants.”
“What he’s trying to say is that we think carbon offset projects should involve, and benefit, the people on the ground in the area of the project,” clarifies Schilling. “If you’re going to protect some forest you can’t just put a fence around it and deprive the locals of their previous livelihood. You have to meet with them, work with them, understand them and work to give them other opportunities. This can be through education, training, or access to new resources, all the while listening and respecting their needs and culture. It’s a very sensitive undertaking, but it can be so empowering if done right. A lot of these people don’t want to be burning down the forests. It’s hard work but they have no choice. We want to offer them a choice. A financially, socially and environmentally attractive choice, and carbon offsets make that choice possible by providing the funding.”
The choice seems to be attractive to all sides. While the company is still quite young, it has already gained the attention of some successful, sustainably minded companies who are interested in supporting their mission. Among others, Numi Organic Tea recently partnered with Big Tree on an initiative to offset their carbon footprint from operations and shipping, a big move for a company that has to source many of its teas and herbs from halfway around the world. Pangea Organics, the makers of “ecocentric” body and skincare products, is working with Big Tree on a massive tree planting program.
“That’s an area that we are excited to develop and grow,” says Schilling. “Offsets are our core, but they can get complicated with all the third party certifications that are required when it comes to commoditizing a ton of sequestered CO2. Tree planting is much more cut and dry. We have a simple system of third party oversight so that our partners are sure their trees get planted, but we don’t make any specific claims as to how many grams of carbon the trees are going suck up. This allows the whole process to be streamlined and, with no need for expensive monitoring, measuring and certification, our partners’ money can go much farther and get more trees in the ground.”
The tree planting programs are open to anyone, from the individual wanting to plant a few trees in addition to calculating and offsetting their footprint on the Big Tree website, to big corporations wanting to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by taking responsibility for their impact.
Big Tree accounts for care and maintenance of the trees for three years, by which time they are established enough to survive on their own, documenting the process along the way with pictures, videos and updates. “We’re going to have it so a customer, with a minimum order, can get a picture of a plaque with their name on it near the trees they planted. We want to connect the sponsors to their trees.”
Making connections is Big Tree’s goal. Connecting all of us to the emissions we are responsible for with its online carbon calculator while connecting us to ways to reduce our impact with a large list of conservation tips. Connecting us with great ways to take responsibility for our impact by supporting important projects and also giving the curious and interested a connection to facts and updates on “green” happenings on their blog, Facebook and Twitter pages.
“We want to provide information and opportunities to act,” says Schilling. “We will be happy and consider it a success if our company is made obsolete in the future. Offsets are a great tool for accelerating the transition we all have to make to a more sustainable lifestyle when they are used in a comprehensive sustainability plan that includes actual internal emissions reductions, but they are only a tool for transition. We at Big Tree Climate Fund honestly can’t wait until there is no need for offsets, and we are confident that we will be able to move into another arena when that time comes. Until then, however, we want to offer the best, most beneficial, most holistic ways to take responsibility for our environmental impacts and help accelerate the transition toward sustainability.”