Our latest approach to Net Zero and carbon offsetting

Written by Tom Greenwood - December 11, 2023

Since we founded Wholegrain in 2007 we’ve been offsetting our carbon emissions in some way or another. Over the years, we’ve tried to continuously improve the robustness of our approach and have found that there is always more to learn as we move forward.

A few years ago we also set a goal to exceed carbon neutral by the end of the 2019-20 financial year, which we completed, and to become Net Zero on all 3 scopes by the end of the 2023-24 financial year. What started off as a simple and achievable goal has become increasingly confusing over the past few years and so in this post, I’m going to try to explain our current approach to Net Zero and Carbon offsetting together with the reasoning.

So what do we mean by Net Zero? 

The term Net Zero has entered mainstream vocabulary in recent years but there’s a lot of confusion around what it really means. In particular, most people don’t know the difference between terms like Carbon Neutral and Net Zero.

Carbon Neutral generally means that you offset your Scope 1 and 2 emissions each year. It’s as simple as that, making it relatively cheap and easy for most companies to do, since this usually represents a small proportion of a company’s total emissions and because generic carbon offsets are relatively cheap.

Net Zero, on the other hand, has two additional requirements on top of what it takes to be Carbon Neutral. The first addition is the requirement for the organisation to be on a defined pathway to significantly reduce their emissions and have evidence that this is being achieved. The second is the requirement to offset emissions from all three scopes, not just scopes one and two.

When we first set our Net Zero goal, there wasn’t a clear definition and so we defined it as “drawing down at least the same volume of greenhouse gases as we emit each year”. This is ever so slightly different in that it doesn’t require us to reduce our emissions but does specify that we need to draw down emissions, not just offset them.

As time has gone on, the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) has largely become accepted as the framework for Net Zero pledges. It’s great that there is now a framework to provide some clarity, but the details present some challenges. My understanding is that SBTi requires a company to plot a pathway to reduce their emissions by at least 90% before 2050. This requirement for emissions reduction is something that I fully support in concept, but it can be difficult or impossible for some companies in practice.

In our case, we’ve always strived to be a low carbon business and have made some big emissions reductions in the past such as introducing a no fly policy many years ago. This means that while some improvement is of course always possible, a 90% reduction simply isn’t feasible without wider societal changes that are out of our control. It would therefore be disingenuous for us to make a pledge to reduce our emissions by 90% from where we are now if we didn’t believe it was feasible.

I’ve actually been told by more than one consultant that the only realistic way for us to make a Net Zero pledge that actually complies with SBTi would be for us to drastically increase our emissions for a period of time and then reduce them again in the years following. It would be insanity to even consider such a thing.

The next challenge is that the whole concept of Net Zero implies that the emissions are actually removed from the atmosphere in roughly the same timescale as they were emitted in order to avoid them floating around heating up the planet for a period of time. However, most carbon offsets don’t remove emissions from the environment, but simply avoid other emissions. In other words, they pay other people not to pollute. That can be a good thing, but it’s not the same thing. It’s also almost impossible to get clear information from offset providers about the timeframes over which offsets actually take place even if they are removing emissions from the atmosphere. For example, if we fund tree planting, does the carbon get absorbed by the trees this year or is it spread over the next 30 years as the trees grow?

This all makes Net Zero pledging very murky and confusing. In light of these factors, I’ve made the decision for this year that we will withdraw our Net Zero pledge, while continuing to strive toward a robust climate friendly approach over time. The new approach that we have adopted this year for Carbon Offsetting would meet some people’s definition of Net Zero but not everyone’s and so it feels more honest to withdraw the pledge for now and simply explain transparently what we are doing.

So what are we doing?

A three pronged approach

I wrote recently about how we have changed our carbon calculation software this year and as such have a much better view of our Scope 3 emissions. This is a good thing, but it also makes things more challenging from an offsetting point of view because we have a lot more to offset, and that makes things more expensive. 

As a result, we’ve opted for a blended approach this year, consisting of three parts – Certified Carbon Removals, Gold Standard Offsets and Carbon Syncing.

Let’s dive into each one of them.

Certified Carbon Removals

As mentioned, in an ideal world, we would draw down all emissions for all three scopes in real time. We don’t currently have a way to do that truly in real time, but there are now some options that can provide assurance that emissions have been removed from the atmosphere within a reasonable timeframe and not spread over many years. These come in the form of Carbon Removals, for which there are a number of natural and manmade technologies including Biochar, Enhanced Stone Weathering and Direct Air Capture.

The problem is that these types of Certified Carbon Removals are really expensive, starting at around £150 pounds per tonne of CO2e and as far as I can tell, only available through private brokers that are adding a markup.

We decided that this year we will introduce carbon removals but due to the high cost we will only do this for a portion of our emissions. So we have paid for removals to cover what we consider to be the core emissions of our own business, which is everything within Scope 1 and Scope 2 as well as emissions for home working, commuting and business travel. In total, this accounts for about 30% of our total emissions across all three scopes.

We have used the company Supercritical to provide the removals because I’ve had some good conversations with Tom Previte who used to work there and hosts the podcast, The Carbon Removal Show, so I have confidence that they are trying to do things in the right way. In terms of the specific carbon removal method, we’ve gone with biochar this year, mostly because it is the most affordable option but also because it contributes to soil health, which is an additional ecosystem and societal benefit. 

This seems like a good solution, although it was only after purchasing the removals that I found out that there is quite a long window of time after purchase in which they will make the removals. This is good in the sense that they are transparent about the timing and they report back as soon as it has been completed, but it also means that if you are making the purchase after the end of a reporting year and then there is an additional 6 month window for the removals to take place, then there is a significant lag between the emissions and the removals. That doesn’t quite align with my carbon syncing philosophy in which the timing of removals of matched with the timing of emissions. I can’t change that this year but we need to think about reducing that down in future.

Gold Standard offsets 

The remaining 70% of our emissions, all of which are in Scope 3, have been offset using carbon credits from Gold Standard in the BaumInvest Mixed Reforestation project in Costa Rica. 

Buying carbon credits for reforestation projects that (hopefully) draw down emissions is roughly double the cost of credits for carbon avoidance projects, but it feels like the right thing to do in line with our objectives. These credits are not as robust as carbon removals from a pure carbon removal perspective, but in a more holistic sense they do offer other benefits to nature that are harder to quantify and arguably just as important.

The big question in my mind though, has always been how much of the cost is going to actually delivering these benefits and how much of it is going to the administration costs and profit of the companies acting as middlemen in the certification and retail process of the credits? In other words, how much of our money is going to helping natural ecosystems and communities versus administering the paperwork? I’ve never got a straight answer to that, but if you look for people who are just doing the work but not promising you any “credit” it is surprising how much further the money goes. Which brings us on to the third step of our approach.

Carbon Syncing

At this point, you might be thinking that the first two steps went far enough to reasonably cover all of our emissions in most people’s eyes, having removed or offset 100% of our emissions from all three scopes. However, I want to go one step further.

Eden Reforestation run mixed reforestation projects that support local communities and eco-system regeneration

A few years ago I introduced the idea of Carbon Syncing in which a company funds the planting of a large number of trees, equivalent to or greater than the number of trees that would absorb the company’s emissions on an annual basis. To clarify, instead of planting a few trees that would theoretically absorb the companies annual emissions during their growing period of 25-30 years, you plant 30 years worth of trees in year one, so that every year going forward you have enough trees to absorb your annual emissions in real time.

When we introduced this in 2019, we funded the planting of 1260 trees in a single year, but as we have widened our view of our Scope 3 emissions this year it means that we are now reporting much higher emissions. To reflect this broader reporting, we felt it important to fund the planting of a number of additional trees so that our Carbon Syncing plan is aligned to our current reporting. We’ve therefore now planted an additional 2065 trees for this purpose, bringing our total for Carbon Syncing up to 3280 trees.

Note that these trees do not come with any official claim of specific carbon removal and we cannot make such claims in regard to being Carbon Neutral or Net Zero, but the objective here is simply to create positive impact. Combined with the tree planting that we’ve funded for other initiatives, such as the Green Handshake that we give to staff when they join and the trees we plant for our Curiously Green newsletter subscribers, our total now stands at around 60,000 trees. 

Theoretically this is equivalent to about 500 tonnes of CO2 being absorbed every year as the trees grow. Now I’m realistic that all of the trees won’t necessarily survive to maturity but when combined with the broader social and ecosystem benefits achieved by these projects, I think it all helps to ensure that our business is contributing more to nature than it’s taking.

So that’s it for now. We’ll see what we can learn from this years experience, welcome ideas and feedback and will try to keep improving into the future.