Comic thanks to https://www.stevecutts.com/
Over the last couple of decades, responding to climate change has increasingly become one of the most major talking points for governments and businesses alike. One of the major climate change actors they are discussing is carbon.
Carbon emissions and on a grander scale all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are one of the leading causes in the increased warming of our atmosphere and the resulting climate changes we have experienced.
And we would know! One cup of tea can take up to 200g of CO2 to produce (1)! That’s why MA is not just talking about climate change but also doing our part to make change!
Welcome to the fourth edition of our Going Carbon Positive blog series, where we share all we are learning about climate change and carbon on our journey to carbon positivity. But getting to carbon positivity means going beyond net zero CO2 production. So how would we do that?
The way to go beyond carbon neutrality and become carbon positive is through a process called offsetting.
In this edition of MA’s Going Carbon Positive series I will be walking you through the most important parts of carbon offsetting:
- What is Carbon Offsetting? Including Offsettings vs Mitigation
- Ecological Restoration: The Greener the Better!
- Direct Air Capture: Out of Thin Air...
- Sustainable Community Outreach: Is it offsetting?
- MA’s Offsetting: Our Teashop's Own Methods and Plans
If you wold like a primer on carbon neutrality and positivity, which confusingly is also called going carbon negative, check out our last blog in this series Reducing Your Business’ Carbon Footprint
Here at MA we make sure to ethically source our teas from sustainable producers and are doing what we can to reduce our emissions where possible.
For more on our mission for sustainability check out our Ethical Sourcing and Packaging page
Now, let’s get learning!
What is Carbon Offsetting?
So, before we can start learning all things offsetting, we must first talk about what it even is.
Offsetting is the process of investing in projects that are dedicated to removing CO2 from the atmosphere. That is, that has already been released into the air. A good way to look at this is as a credit; every dollar invested in an offsetting program is a credit that subtracts from your net total emissions (2).
Offsetting is also sometimes referred to as “negative emissions” (3) due to this overall effect, to remove rather than add carbon dioxide. Not to be confused with carbon negative which is another term for carbon positive. We environmentalists really seem to like having as many terms for one thing as possible!
Offsetting vs Mitigation
Now this is a bit of a review from earlier pieces in this series, so if you want a deeper overview go check those out!
Before we even get to offsetting there are many things we can do to adapt our processes and behaviors to respond to the climate crisis. From adopting cleaner energy practices to altering production models and materials - these are all examples of mitigation.
So that’s solved then, we can go home, right? Sorry, not quite - mitigation is not enough! For many businesses there are only so many innovations that exist to decrease carbon production in their business processes (e.g. commuting of staff, or energy use in a factory). A haulage business for example, has no CO2-free alternative at present to replace their trucks.
We have yet to evolve our technology to the point where we as companies or communities can become 100% carbon neutral through mitigation alone.
Now, as I mentioned above, offsetting is a secondary measure in the mission to fully reduce carbon emissions. So before investing in other organizations’ projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere, first you must reduce your own emissions.
So that's just what mitigation is: all the ways we adapt our own actions to produce fewer GHG emissions. This takes many forms from switching over to renewable energy like solar power to investing in sustainably produced products and packaging.
For more information on what mitigation is and mitigation strategies for businesses check out the earlier pieces in our Going Carbon Positive series
So, now you’ve mitigated as much as possible...but need to go a step further to either go carbon neutral or carbon positive. Time to investigate the three main forms of CO2 offsetting!
1. Ecological Restoration For Carbon Reduction
Our first and the current most popular form of offsetting is ecological restoration. The benefits of this are quite clear and have been for decades: vegetation absorbs carbon through photosynthesis (argh! high school biology flashbacks!)... so a great way to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere is to plant more!
I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of mass deforestation and ecological destruction as a result of human activities and industries. These projects are a direct response to this, to bring back what we’ve lost and then go even further. So, what does ecological restoration mean? What are the main types? Well, you’ve come to the right place!
1.1 Forestry Restoration: Carbon Sinks as Trees Grow!
Forestry restoration is one of the most well-known ways to offset GHG emissions. If you were to look up the practices of most businesses that have pledged to go carbon neutral or positive you will find that many have invested in tree planting.
And for good reason! According to statistics from the USDA, on average trees will absorb about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year (4). This is averaged across a number of different tree species, so some may sequester even more than that!
In 2019, a study was published in the journal Science and quickly spread across the environmental community: The study modeled scenarios to figure out the greatest impact of tree planting on carbon removal from our atmosphere (5). What they found was that our planet has the potential to accommodate an additional 0.9 billion hectares of forest on top of the existing 4.4 billion hectares that exist today (5). All together that's more than three times the size of Russia!
This study became one of the key factors behind the creation of the Trillion Trees project. Yes, I said a trillion trees, a thousand billion. I know its way more than I can get my head around!
This project is spearheaded by the World Economics Forum as a part of the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. They pledged they would work towards a goal of planting a trillion trees by 2030.
Unfortunately individuals cannot donate directly to the UN and the requirements to become a stakeholder in the project is often more than a small business can offer. But thankfully there are other ways to get involved with tree planting: Many other organizations like the Arbor Day Foundation or One Tree Planted are already pursuing missions to restore forests, sometimes as directly oart of the Trillion Trees project, so there are a ton of ways to contribute!
And now’s the best time to do so. The day that this piece is published (March 21st) is actually International Forests Day! So if you want to give thanks and celebrate the forests that provide us with so much, support forest restoration!
1.2 Wetlands Restoration: What's so important about wetlands to manage your carbon footprint?
Wetlands restoration is a much less discussed carbon offsetting program but by no means is it any less important.
In fact, a study from the Department of Sustainability in Australia researched the role of wetlands in the carbon cycle. They looked at all wetland ecosystems including peat bogs, seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, estuaries, and floodplains.
They found that total wetlands ecosystems make up only about 9% of the world's land area but stores 35% of the world's CO2 (6)!
Fortunately there are a ton of NGOs working towards protecting these ecosystems, just like forests. Nature4Climate is one leading organization that has a wetlands restoration program. Currently 8% of their funding comes from public support, but they are also backed by major environmental orgs like WWF, EDF, and the UN Environmental Program (7).
And that's not all, a 2008 study from the Journal of the Human Environment found that the value of wetlands in the US was more than 23.2 billion USD per year (8)!
This calculation was based on the protection wetlands provide coastal communities from extreme weather like hurricanes. Basically, in 2008 wetlands prevented more than 23.2 billion USD worth of damages thanks to buffering the impacts of major weather events (8).
More than a decade on, these same communities have even more urban development and, due to climate change, are at a much higher risk from extreme weather. So imagine what that number would be now!
Not to mention that wetlands are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the US and often serve as the backbone of the greater aquatic and terrestrial environments. Do you remember learning about food webs during 7th grade? We learned at the ripe old age of eleven or twelve 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. Without wetlands that whole web would fall out of balance and could bring an end to that whole ecosystem!
Peatlands CO2 Sequestration: A Peaty Powerhouse
Peatlands in particular play an incredible and outsized role in removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The International Union for Conservation of Nature summarise this perfectly so we will quote directly: (18)
Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store; the area covered by near natural peatland worldwide (>3 million km2) sequesters 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.
Damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, annually releasing almost 6% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Peatland restoration can therefore bring significant emissions reductions.
As such, we at MA are investigating the accessibility of sponsoring peatland restoration as part of our carbon positive journey, in addition to forestry offsetting.
Picture of cyanobacteria under a microscope. Image sourced from Wikipedia
1.3 Ocean Restoration and Other GHG Reducing Projects
Ecological restoration doesn’t end with just forests and wetlands, most NGOs dedicated to environmental restoration and protection have projects in a variety of ecosystems. For instance, Nature4Climate also does work in grasslands and with agriculture industries.
The organization Cool Effect has programs in forest restoration as well as oceans’ ecosystem restoration. This is huge! People think that trees absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, but it's nothing compared to our oceans, which sequester 7 billion tons of carbon per year (9)!
That number may seem massive, but the organisms that make this possible are microscopic. The ocean's incredible carbon-eating power is all thanks to the itty bitty algae it supports. Cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue green algae, is actually the organism behind the Oxygen Revolution that occurred 2.3 billion years ago and made our planet livable by reducing the atmospheric carbon (9)!
Zooxanthellae algae, another tiny superpower, supports life in coral reefs and is also a major carbon-eater (9). That's why the best ways to make sure the ocean can continue to be this amazing is to ensure coral reefs and other ocean ecosystems are protected.
And that’s not all! Like I mentioned above, some of these NGOs also have projects dedicated to farming and agriculture. You might be thinking, isn’t agriculture the opposite of restoring natural ecosystems? You wouldn’t be totally wrong, but seeing as agriculture is a necessity for humanity many are working to find ways to make it greener.
In fact, the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), the umbrella organisation for MA’s tea producers and tea sources, has embarked on projects like this. In China the organization has begun to use fully organic plant-based fertilizers which decreases GHG produced by using animal based fertilizers (10).
How To Evaluate Ecological Restoration Offsetting Programs
Quick Tip: Before you go off and find a project to support, it's important to recognize that ecological restoration can be a very delicate process. If not done properly, these projects hold the potential to increase environmental degradation in these areas as opposed to reversing it. This is the source for much of the criticism of ecological restoration, when it is not done properly and sustainably.
So here are a few important things to look out for:
- Does this organization list the species they are planting? This is super important, you don’t want to support a group that’s planting invasive species!
- Are they planting diverse species? Mass planting of only one species can be almost as bad for the ecosystem as planting an invasive species because it runs basically just as high a risk of destabilizing the food web.
- Are these orgs partnered with local communities or organizations? Going into foreign communities, planting vegetation and then leaving is not an effective way to restore ecosystems!
- Does the organization incorporate a portion of their funding to the future maintenance, management and measurement of their program? I.e. it is sustainable?
DAC System's Fans in Texas. Image sourced from Vox
2. What is Direct Air Capture (DAC)?
Ever heard of direct air capture? If not that's totally fine, and you’re not alone! DAC is still pretty new to the world of CO2 reduction, but it may be one of our best forms of offsetting yet! DAC is, most basically, technology that captures carbon dioxide directly from the air (11). Yes, you read that right, they suck it right out!
How could it possibly do this? Here is Carbon Engineering’s, one of the leading DAC companies in the US, description of the process:
"Our Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology does this by pulling in atmospheric air, then through a series of chemical reactions, extracts the carbon dioxide (CO2) from it while returning the rest of the air to the environment. This is what plants and trees do every day as they photosynthesize, except Direct Air Capture technology does it much faster, with a smaller land footprint, and delivers the carbon dioxide in a pure, compressed form that can then be stored underground or reused."
Diagram belongs to Climeworks. Pictured is their DAC system model.
Considering the fact that it seems like our time to make a real difference to carbon emissions is diminishing exponentially, DAC is becoming incredibly popular for its ability to remove a significant amount of carbon from the atmosphere in a relatively short amount of time.
In fact, a paper published in Nature Communications modeled the possible impact of this carbon capture process on our emissions. With optimal investments from across the globe, DAC could be removing up to 2.3 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually by 2050 (12)! This is huge! (Remember, the ocean removes 7 billion tons a year for comparison, so suddenly we’re talking about a big impact!)
And you wouldn’t be the only one to think this, many nations have begun to invest in these projects. The US had invested in building the world’s largest DAC plant in the Permian Basin (13). Unfortunately, the project was put on hold due to the pandemic, but an additional $15 million was added to the project this past January and the project may be completed by 2022 (13)!
The US is not alone in this, many countries have faced difficulties implementing DAC programs as it is a pricey investment at the moment. According to CarbonBrief, the current cost of DAC technology is about $600 per ton of CO2 (14), which is quite a steep price considering it only takes $1 to plant a tree, which offsets 1 ton CO2 (15).
But don’t lose hope! The Swiss DAC company Climeworks forecasts that in the next few years that price will begin to drop rapidly. So at the moment DAC may not be the negative emissions program you can invest in as a small business or individual, but hopefully soon it will become a great way to offset your carbon footprint (14).
And I for one can’t wait! That 2.3 billion tons of CO2 it could potentially remove? That's about 400 times the amount of carbon we currently manually sequester (16)! And this alone would make sure we stay way under the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of 1.5°C warming by 2050 (16).
3. Sustainable Community Outreach: Is it Mitigation or Offsetting?
The line between mitigation and offsetting is not always as clear as the examples I’ve given make it out to be. This next form of negative emissions is one example of how these two can meld into a new beast: Sustainable Community Outreach.
Through researching NGOs that were dedicated to CO2 reduction and offsetting, I found that many run projects not solely focused on removing the carbon from our atmosphere but instead taking a (much!) more circuitous route.
Basically, this approach allows investors to fund mitigation projects for others as a way to offset their own carbon footprint. What this means is that by investing in the mitigation of a third party, you are decreasing carbon output overall and that reduction becomes an offset credit for yourself.
Clear as mud? Don’t worry! I know this is quite convoluted and technical so maybe this chart will help:
Timeline illustrating the process of community outreach to carbon offset credits © MatchaAlternatives.com 2021
- On the community or individual scale, this could take the form of providing water purifiers, or energy efficient/green cooking, or heating technology.
- On a larger infrastructure scale this could take the form of working to institute a recycling program or other form of waste management in areas where that does not exist.
In addition to their ecological restoration projects, Cool Effect also runs a few different clean energy cookstove projects around the world. Another NGO that works in community outreach is EcoAct, which runs programs dedicated to providing cleaner energy technologies and cleaner water to communities across the globe.
How To Evaluate Community Outreach Offsetting Programs
Quick Tip: Just like ecological restoration, sustainable community outreach can be a very delicate process. Here are somethings to look out for when investing in these projects:
- Interventionist projects into other countries are fraught with complex issues caused by histories of imperialism and colonization. It is important to invest in organizations that make it clear they are aware of these relationships. This is a very difficult matter that deserves more than just a bullet, I know! Don't worry I am planning to dive into this in depth in a later blog.
- Going further, community-based projects have a long history of being something delivered from "on high", without bringing sustained benefits to the community in question. If done improperly, it is completed without the stakeholder engagement that should be necessary for a sustainable change. That's why when you are looking to NGOs to support you have to ask: is the outreach these orgs are providing something that will continue to benefit the community once they are gone? Is there meaningful community and stakeholder engagement?
How Do We Offset? MA’s methods for carbon reduction
Here at MA we recognize just how important it is for businesses, no matter the size, to take responsibility for how they impact the environment. As a society, we cannot sacrifice sustainability for profit. That's why we have made it our mission to move towards carbon positivity.
We have put in a ton of research to figure out the most sustainable way to sell tea. We also sell teaware that is reusable or compostable and all of our tea is loose leaf to avoid the negative impacts of tea bags.
We use plastic packaging instead of glass, metal, card or paper to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions knowing that our customers have access to plastic recycling facilities. It may be counterintuitive but it has the lowest CO2 production. We at MA are not about what looks good (such as paper looking packaging which has a plastic coating inside making it unrecyclable) but are lead by the science. This has been our way to mitigate.
To learn more about pollution caused by tea bags check out our blog, Making Your Tea Greener.
But as this article describes, mitigation is not enough. That is why MA helping the Arbor Day Foundation, #TeamTrees and OneTreePlanted projects. We chose to invest in forest restoration because it is one of the most accessible forms of offsetting with organisations that are clear on their priorities, sustainability and responsibility. It is a great place to start for any small business!
A Review of Our Carbon Offsetting Path
So here’s a little bit of us practicing what we preach. Does the Arbor Day Foundation stand up to our Quick Tips? It kinda does. The foundation makes sure to only plant indigenous species and partners with local forestry organizations so that the work of maintaining this restoration is given to the native people and their country (17).
The foundation still has ways to go and still needs to do some reckoning with their role as a western body entering foreign countries with all the needed and appropriate reflection of that type of role. But they are doing what they can to handle situations delicately to avoid harm and bring the greatest benefits to the regions they support.
We started supporting them when we launched in 2019, and are aiming to be fully carbon positive this spring 2021, offsetting not only our current carbon emissions but also all emissions that went into the research and building of this tea shop. This includes our travels to different tea gardens around the world (flights are a big emitter of CO2), our digital footprint, and the carbon footprints of our various suppliers in getting the tea to us.
For every tea bundle we sell a tree is planted.
So far we have offset 200 tons of carbon dioxide!
So...make sure to check out our tea bundles! If you're looking for something to celebrate the incoming warm weather why not try our Tropical Mango Citrus Iced Tea Bundle?
Moving Forward with Carbon Footprint Reduction
So that's what we're doing but what can you do? One of the major reasons we are publishing this series is not just to take you readers along on our journey but to show you what we have learned in hopes that you to will dedicate yourself or your company to helping create a cleaner more sustainable world.
And I, personally, hope this piece has helped you feel empowered to do just that! Make sure to check out all the organizations I've linked to see where you want to contribute to the movement to clean up our atmosphere.
None of the ones we have listed here appeal to you? Don't worry there are tons of opportunities out there to make a difference. And make sure you stick around for later blogs in this series by subscribing because that just what we'll be talking about!
A Note From Anna...
I hope that this taught you something new about carbon offsetting, or at least was a great review! Either way thanks for spending your time with me today!
I don’t know about all of you but oftentimes I feel very overwhelmed by the massive issue that is climate change and it makes me feel a little powerless. But learning about offsetting definitely made me feel a whole lot better. It's great to know there are still ways we can make a difference and that there are still people working to build even better solutions each day!
Now, I am going to go outside in this cold and rainy weather and try to find a nice climbable tree somewhere in the heart of NYC. Might have to head over to a park as that's the closest I’ll get to celebrating International Forests Day in an actual forest. You should celebrate too! Go frolic in your local forest! Hug a tree!
Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below or on our IG @MatchaAlternatives
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References & Further Reading
- Munasinghe, Mohan, et al. “Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts and Overall Sustainability of the Tea Sector in Sri Lanka.” Sustainable Production and Consumption, Elsevier, 26 Aug. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352550917300246?via=ihub.
- Gibbens, Sarah. 2019. “What are carbon offsets? Here’s why travellers are buying them.” NatGeo. December, 10 2019. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/12/what-are-carbon-offsets/
- Lowe, Jason. 2016. “Do We Need BECCS to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change?” ClimeWorks. April 14, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-do-we-need-beccs-to-avoid-dangerous-climate-change
- Mounce Stancil, Joanna. 2019. “The Power of One Tree - The Very Air We Breath.” USDA. June 3, 2019. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2015/03/17/power-one-tree-very-air-we-breathe
- Bastin, Jean-Francois et al. 2019. “The Global Tree Restoration Program.” Science, 365(6448): 76-79. July 5, 2019. Accessed March 14, 2021. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76
- Foster, John. 2012. “The Role of Wetlands in the Carbon Cycle.” Australia Department of Sustainability. July, 2012. Accessed March 17, 2021. https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/b55b1fe4-7d09-47af-96c4-6cbb5f106d4f/files/wetlands-role-carbon-cycle.pdf
- Nature4Climate, “Avoided Coastal Wetlands Impacts.” Accessed March 14, 2021. https://nature4climate.org/science/n4c-pathways/wetlands/avoided-coastal-wetland-impacts/
- Costanza, Robert et al. 2008. “The Value of Coastal Wetlands for Hurricane Protection.” Journal of the Human Environment. 37(4): 241-248. June 1, 2008. Accessed March 11, 2021. https://doi-org.proxy.mtholyoke.edu:2443/10.1579/0044-7447(2008)37[241:TVOCWF]2.0.CO;2
- Brewer, Peter. Et al. 2005. “Ocean Storage.” IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage, Chapter 6: 278-318. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/srccs_chapter6-1.pdf
- Ethical Tea Partnership, “2020 Highlights” Accessed March 18, 2021 https://www.ethicalteapartnership.org/our-2020-highlights/.
- 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
- Hanna, Ryan et al. 2021. “Emergency deployment of direct air capture as a response to the climate crisis.” Nature Communications, 12: 368. January 14, 2021. Accessed March 9, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-20437-0
- Beck, Lee. 2020.“Carbon capture storage in the USA: the role of US innovation leadership in climate-technology commercialization.” Clean Energy, 4(1): 2-11. December 24, 2019. Accessed March 11, 2021. https://academic.oup.com/ce/article/4/1/2/5686277
- Evans, Simon. 2017. “The Swiss Company Hoping to Capture 1% of Global CO2 Emissions By 2025.” CarbonBrief. June 22, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://www.carbonbrief.org/swiss-company-hoping-capture-1-global-co2-emissions-2025
- One Tree Planted, “Get Involved.” Accessed March 15, 2021. https://onetreeplanted.org/pages/individuals
- Simon, Matt. 2021. “Is it Time for an Emergency Rollout of Carbon-Eating Machines?” Wired. January 26, 2021. Accessed March 8, 2021. https://www.wired.com/story/is-it-time-for-an-emergency-rollout-of-carbon-eating-machines/
- Arbor Day Foundation, “Understanding Our Impact.” https://www.arborday.org/programs/replanting/impact/
- International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Peatlands and climate change. Accessed March 21, 2021. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/peatlands-and-climate-change