Over the last two month I shared two articles on carbon offsetting and greenwashing with you, and today’s post looks at potential offsetting pitfalls, how to spot them, and some examples of how the tea industry is approaching climate change.
As a tea company we opt for tree planting as our favored methods but as you will recall in our previous blog on several methods of offsetting, we decided to be fully open and include how to be careful when reforesting, in order for it to be long lasting and ecologically respectful. However, there are also complications in the other methods of offsetting we introduced.
So, with a firm eye on the tea industry but also as a useful summary, here’s what we’ll be talking about with the three main types of offsetting:
- What to Watch Out For in Environmental Restoration (including Tree Planting)
- How To Carefully Assess Sustainable Community Outreach
- Difficulties of Direct Air Capture (DAC)
- Buying a Cleaner Conscience? & Why is a Tea Company Talking About This?
So...welcome to Part 6 of MA’s Going Carbon Positive series!
Taking you on our journey to carbon positivity/negatively, and scrutinizing the environmentalism and carbon production of the tea industry and the world as a whole.
Catch up on our past carbon blogs in the series:
Part 1: Global Warming and Tea Primer
Part 2: Making Your Tea Greener: Environmental impact of teabags, coffee, packaging & more
Part 3: Reducing Your Online Business’ Carbon Footprint: Key Factors
Part 4: What are the Main Carbon Offsetting Methods? Top Ways to Capture Carbon & What to Look For
Part 5: What is Greenwashing? Examples of Greenwashing & 'How to Spot It' Free Downloadables
Ensuring Ecological Restoration Best Practices in Offsetting
Ecological restoration can be an incredibly delicate process. If not done properly, these projects hold the potential to increase environmental degradation instead of reversing it! Beyond just environmental degradation, they can also risk harming the surrounding indigenous communities.
Here’s what you need to think about when using environmental restoration methods in CO2 reduction - and some tea-rrific examples:
Managing the Delicate Web of Ecology
In the past, there have been many examples of attempted ecological restoration that have ended in disaster. For example, a 20th century project in Hawaii to restore their wetlands and increase natural water filtration has actually led to a crisis of invasive red mangrove trees that have actually exponentially worsened the wetland destruction and the destruction of neighboring coral reefs (NPR).
To avoid further disasters like this one it is important to make sure that restoration projects are planting only native species (Kolbert). And not just planting native species but planting a wide variety of plant species. This is important for creating or maintaining ecological balance, and also increases resilience to pests, storms and other threats. Say no to monoculture!
Do you remember hearing about food webs in middle or elementary school? At the ripe old age of eleven or twelve, we learned the importance of diversity within an ecosystem. When you look at those complex charts of arrows and pictures of different organisms it is easy to trace with your finger how an imbalance within this system can lead to collapse. Too much of one thing is never a good thing.
In the tea industry, the Sri Lankan tea behemoth Dilmah has taken real steps to fight climate change and go carbon neutral: they actually dug up stretches of their tea gardens to create nature corridors (Dilmah & Edana). Their goal is to restore forest habitats and break up the monoculture of their plantations, and revive degraded wetland habitats near the Sinharaja Rainforest.
What are the units?
Because ecological restoration is an accessible form of offsetting for individuals and businesses (unlike DAC for example!), the risk of greenwashing is big. One very quick way to check if a program is serious about making a difference is to check the units: if they are talking in pounds or kilos of CO2 reduction, odds are they are just in it to look good.
Here’s a little tea example: Adagio Teas is one of the largest loose leaf tea stores in the USA, and they make a donation to a carbon offsetting organization for every sale. Sounds great, right? Well, their contribution helps “offset two pounds of carbon” - and their total amount of carbon offset is 493.2 tons (Adagio). To put these numbers into perspective, two pounds of carbon equals four cups of milk, and 493 tons equals one year’s driving of 107 normal passenger cars, or one year of 66 average American households (EPA). Definitely a good thing, but not as significant as the marketing would suggest.
Here at MatchaAlternatives, we’ve offset 275 tons of carbon and we are a fraction of the size of Adagio! For every tea bundle we sell, we offset one ton of carbon - not one pound, not one kilo, but one ton. Because we want to make a real difference.
How Ecology Can Impact Community
The implications of these projects also don’t end at planting. Once these trees or wetlands vegetation are planted, it is vital that those undertaking this restoration project continue to care for these plants. Very little success will come from planting and leaving the seedlings to their own devices.
With these and earlier steps it is good to look into how these projects are including local populations. Implementing policies that change the environment must always be done with adequate respect and stakeholder engagement with the impacted communities; this is true whether the ‘do-gooder’ is a local government, national government and especially so (given long historical issues of intervention) when it’s a foreign NGO, government or organization (Kolbert).
Local communities are the ones that have the greatest historical connection to their lands and should be consulted, as they will be the ones connected to the land going forward, and also heavily involved with its stewardship. If you cannot guarantee that the restoration will be maintained in the years to come, you can’t guarantee the carbon offsets and entire project collapses.
Within the tea industry, I wanted to share two great examples of tea companies working with the local community to offset carbon:
- The tea company Dilmah in Sri Lanka has multiple community-focused climate change projects. One, run by their conservation arm is working with selected families in the Batticoloa District to plant 1 million cashew trees to offset carbon. These trees are native to the region, and are an excellent cash crop which will help financially support the participating families. The families are also encouraged to plant other crops around the cashews for ecological diversity and to help create a reliable annual income. And of course, as these trees mature they continue to capture carbon dioxide and fight climate change (Dilmah & Batticoloa).
- The Jalinga Tea Garden in Assam, India is officially carbon neutral and has achieved this by working closely with their 1600 employees. Out of their 1100 hectares, they have left 225 hectares as virgin forest instead of planting it with tea. This is to absorb carbon dioxide, and also provides habitat. In the tea gardens themselves, Jalinga maintains shade trees which increases ecological diversity even within the plantations, plus absorbing carbon. At the community scale, they have provided each employee’s family with two eco-stoves which use 60% less fuel than traditional stoves, and work to train other tea gardens in carbon offsetting (Storm Tea).
These are very delicate issues and it is critical to work with local communities, as well as following the science.
What can I do if I want to buy carbon offsets?
For an environmental / ecological restoration carbon offset program, here’s what to look for:
- Make sure that the project and/or business is thoughtfully choosing the species they are planting and where they are planting them, and has a plan for how they will be maintained
- Watch your units! Offsetting can do a lot or a little, so alarm bells should ring when a project is talking in only pounds, grams or kilos
- Ensure the community is involved and engaged with the process, with their needs considered, respected and incorporated
How to Carefully Assess Sustainable Community Outreach
One of the biggest issues in regards to community outreach of this form is the historical implication of foreign intervention and international aid.
Oof! A big topic indeed, but let’s touch on the impact of history and politics here for your consideration when offsetting using community outreach (as a reminder of how this is a form of offsetting, check out What are the Main Carbon Offsetting Methods? Top Ways to Capture Carbon & What to Look For).
What Can Be Bad About Volunteering?
Oftentimes, projects such as these involve something called “voluntourism”. Voluntourism is basically a form of tourism that usually gives travellers the opportunity to volunteer with affiliated charities while on vacation (Stein). While these trips are not always seen as a vacation, they often include fun activities and housing that is more on par with a trip of leisure in addition to the volunteer work travellers participate in.
This doesn’t sound bad at all, right? It’s like adding a little act of selflessness to your holiday, isn’t that a good thing? Sometimes it is! But unfortunately, these are very delicate situations.
Voluntourism is notorious for providing free labor for projects that could be completed by paying local workers. By using the free labor of tourists, these organizations are actually harming the community by taking jobs and depressing their economy (Stein).
Understanding the Legacies
Naturally what comes to mind first are tourists from high-income countries visiting low-income countries but the concept is true anywhere. There are few to no countries currently involved in these projects that haven’t felt the impacts of colonization on one side or the other (Loiseau).
Even today, when major powers claim there are no longer any existing colonies (though there is a mountain of literature that begs to differ!), many nations that experienced occupation are still dependent or integrated in various ways with the previous regional power.
Great differences in geopolitical power between countries still of course continuing and impacting relations, with NGOs having to walk a tightrope of responsibilities over their impact with regards to these historical imbalances (Loiseau & Stein).
If you want to learn more about it check out some of the links in References and Further Readings at the end of this article, which can take you through some of this history.
What can I do?
Check if you are going to join or invest in community outreach that the NGO is aware of these implications and do what they can to make sure that volunteer work does not negatively impact the community. If there is no or little stakeholder engagement in an NGO’s process or policy that is a big red flag!
Another way to put this, is this: is the outreach these organisations are providing something that will continue to benefit the community once they are gone?
Projects like trash cleanup that uses volunteers may provide the community with a cleaner environment in that moment, but it does not build any infrastructure or programs that will work to keep things clean once the organization has left.
Projects like this are part of what causes dependency, by providing assistance or resources that are finite. Ultimately the actual long term impact is limited too.
EcoAct’s Cookstove project may be a great example of sustainable outreach. Yes, that is kind of a pun, it's environmentally sustainable but also a sustainable means of assistance. This project gives communities access to stoves that are much cleaner and don’t burn coal, reducing the communities’ carbon footprint (EcoAct).
Climeworks' Direct Air Capture plant in Hinwil, Switzerland
The Other Side of Direct Air Capture (DAC)
DAC is one of the newest offsetting technologies, and is just that: pulling carbon directly from the air (or perhaps a smoke stack) and producing carbon dioxide in a solid or compressed form ready for storage.
DAC is a large-scale solution, on a governmental level, with large plants required. It requires very little human labor, however it is not necessarily the most efficient means of removing carbon due to set-up costs. DAC requires the constructing of a whole lot of new infrastructure, which is an investment not all nations can currently undertake. It is currently pricey, too - capturing a tonne of CO2 with DAC costs up to $600, which is substantially more than reforestation (Lebling).
The DAC cost per tonne is predicted to fall, however the opportunity cost is still a very real question: what else could we spend that money on?
Then there is the issue of storing all that captured carbon: Some DAC programs have plans to reuse the carbon as fuel. In this case, the emissions would be re-emitted to the atmosphere, which means it will need to be removed once again, but most designs seem to lean more heavily on storing the carbon, like it was before it was used as fuel the first time.
The largest market for CO2 is for Enhanced Oil Recovery, which basically means injecting the CO2 into the ground to displace hard to reach oil. Ahh the irony… (Lebling) However, without the demand from oil companies, there would be even less incentive to invest in DAC plants. Not so black and white!
Which means we have to contend with storage: Storage is a great option for what to do with the carbon because if it is not in the atmosphere, it can’t contribute to the greenhouse effect, to warming.
But where would all of this be stored? The now on-hold US Direct Air Capture project had planned to store the carbon in empty fossil fuel mines or inground saline deposits. The placement of the storage locations needs to be carefully managed to not cause other new problems.
What can I do?
So if you are interested in investing in DAC ensure you vet the programs that take your interest:
- Do your research on their research: Check their plans and policies to see if they are conducting their research on their storage locations and methods: whether in environmental rights, stakeholder engagement, if it is being used to produce more fossil fuels. In pushing this new innovative way to offset carbon, we must make sure that these projects are emphasizing how important it is that they benefit all people.
- “Additionality”: DAC is extremely expensive to start up, and so small contributions are unlikely to make a major difference to the funding of these projects. In other words, a project may be funded by a government or millions or billions of dollars of debt, which would happen with or without your $10, or $100 or $1000 donation. Other offsetting programs may expand, or happen in general, only because of donations of this size.
- In the tea industry, DAC is only really relevant in terms of wealthy governments investing to fight climate change (as only they can afford the massive up-front costs of DAC, whether China or the USA). This is in part to protect the tea industries of optimal growing regions, such as Kenya, where tea production is estimated to drop by 26.9% by 2050 due to climate change (Daily Planet) but where Kenya itself is unlikely to be on the forefront of CO2 DAC investment.
Buying a Cleaner Conscience?
A short note here, as there is much philosophical debate here. It is down to the reader and investor in offsetting, whether carbon offsetting feels too much like one is simply “avoiding guilt”.
Ultimately, in the founders’ beliefs, so long as real work is done, and is done carefully and respectfully as described in this article, they think it doesn’t matter too much.
17% of the Amazon forest has been lost in the last 50 years (WWE). If it was guilt that lead someone to plant a tree and save one ton of CO2, or the cold CSR policy of an investment bank to donate millions to a global NGO to protect an entire forest and prevent or reverse deforestation….so long as that tree was planted in a sustainable way, and that forest was protected with complete and full stakeholder engagement and approval, the world is a better place for it.
All this being said, if you consciously or unconsciously use offsetting as permission to emit more carbon, that's a big problem! Just like going to the gym doesn't mean we have permission to eat 10 cakes, offsetting our carbon footprint doesn't give a blank cheque for more emissions.
Why is a Tea Company Talking About This?
With problems of this scale, ecology and habitat being destroyed, and CO2 heating up the plant, the founders think the world is in need of every business and every person to pick and choose more carefully what they support or consume or avoid. For us, as part of the global tea industry, we also have responsibilities.
We mitigate where we can, but given we have little power over growers themselves, we must incorporate methods to offset the emissions produced by our existence.
We have been studying our business and the tea industry from an environmental standpoint, since its founding, especially reducing its carbon footprint. For our offsetting plans, we are currently calculating our footprint not only with the tea we sell, but the CO2 production from farm to teacup, with all the manufacturing processes and transportation in between.
We have already been planting hundreds of trees to help offset our and our customers’ footprints, but our goals are larger than “carbon neutrality”. We are heading towards Carbon Positivity, to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than we create.
In 2021 we hope to achieve this goal - where our teashop will have a net-benefit on the world, not just “covering our tracks” with neutrality. Join us!
Note From Anna
So don’t let this blog discourage you! If you want to join us in offsetting the CO2 that leading your life produces, then wonderful! We hope this blog will help you best decide when and where, to address and examine the projects you find with a critical eye.
Offsetting is not a silver bullet, mitigation of carbon production is absolutely key, but offsetting it is still a crucial part of combating climate change as we all know mitigating to zero is nigh-impossible without becoming a hermit.
This is why it's so important to talk about all of it, the good and the bad. What will be the long term impacts of these projects? Are these projects doing what they can to benefit and protect all people?
After writing our last piece on offsetting, I felt it was necessary to come back and discuss all of these questions and issues above. It is easy to overlook the ways that offsetting can impact the very human aspects of our world, let alone mistakenly impacting ecology, especially when such projects are taking place oceans away.
But at the end of the day, we are investing in our environment for the betterment of humanity, so we must think of the people this will impact directly.
This piece is being published on May 16, which also happens to be Love A Tree Day! So if you read through this piece and want to appreciate our planet's trees, celebrate Love A Tree Day.
Whether this means you donate to plant a tree (after the proper research), buy a tea bundle and plant a tree with our teashop (knowing we are investigating all these important details as we plant trees for you), or just go out and give your closest tree a big hug, make sure to acknowledge just how important these plants are to our lives.
Too corny!? Well it’s true!!
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References & Further Reading on Responsible Carbon Offset Investing
Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2018. “Climate Solutions: Is It Feasible to Remove Enough CO2 from the Air?” YaleEnvironment 360. November 15, 2018. Accessed March 9, 2021. https://e360.yale.edu/features/negative-emissions-is-it-feasible-to-remove-co2-from-the-air.
Lebling, Katie et al. 2021. “Direct Air Capture: Resource Considerations and Cost for Carbon Removal.” World Resource Institute. January 6, 2021. Accessed March 9, 2021. https://www.wri.org/blog/2021/01/direct-air-capture-definition-cost-considerations
NPR, 2020. All Things Considered. Hawaii Reboots Depression-Era Conservation Corps Using Pandemic Assistance Funds. https://www.npr.org/2020/12/22/948826751/hawaii-reboots-depression-era-conservation-corps-using-pandemic-assistance-funds. Accessed 16th May 2021.
Dilmah & Edana. https://www.dilmahtea.com/sustainability/carbon-neutral-dilmah-tea.html# ; https://www.dilmahconservation.org/initiatives/sustainability/biodiversity-corridor-endana.html. Accessed 16th May 2021.
Adagio. https://www.adagio.com/pages/carbon_offset.html. Accessed 16th May 2021.
Matcha Alternatives. https://matchaalternatives.com/blogs/the-ma-blog/tea-coffee-environmental-impact-carbon-footprint. Accessed 16th May 2021.
Forest Preserves. https://www.ccfpd.org/Portals/0/Assets/PDF/Facts_Chart.pdf . Accessed 16th May 2021.
Dilmah & Batticoloa. Greening Batticaloa. https://www.dilmahconservation.org/initiatives/sustainability/greening-the-east.html. Accessed 16th May 2021.
Storm Tea. Jalinga - The World’s Only Certified Carbon Neutral Tea Garden. https://www.stormtea.co.uk/news/carbon%20neutral-tea-jalinga-india-assam-tea. Accessed 16th May 2021.
Our Daily Planet, Climate Change Threatens Global Tea Production. https://www.ourdailyplanet.com/story/oh-no-climate-change-threatens-global-tea-production/. Accessed 16th May 2021.
EcoAct: Best Carbon Offsetting Project awarded to Cookstove project in Sudan, 13/09/2019 Joe Mayne https://eco-act.com/carbon-offsetting/best-carbon-offsetting-project-award/,. Accessed 16th May 2021.
WWE: Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Accessed 16th May 2021. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/deforestation-and-forest-degradation
Bethina Loiseau, Rebekah Sibbald, Salem A. Raman, Darren Benedict, Helen Dimaras, Lawrence C. Loh, ‘Don't make my people beggars’: a developing world house of cards, Community Development Journal, Volume 51, Issue 4, 4 October 2016, Pages 571–584, https://doi-org.proxy.mtholyoke.edu:2443/10.1093/cdj/bsv047
Stein, Yetta Rose, "Volunteering to Colonize: a Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Impacts of Voluntourism" (2017). University Honors Theses. Paper 411.
Pieces not specifically referenced here, but are fascinating further reading:
I Had no idea about the pounds vs tons thing! Yikes!