Our guide to planting trees for regenerative business

At Wholegrain Digital, we have an ambition to be a truly sustainable business and we’re constantly stretching our own vision of what that means. When we co-wrote the Sustainable Web Manifesto, the most challenging point of the manifesto was that web projects should be Regenerative.

We’re already at a point in history where too much damage has been done to our ecosystems, and so being environmentally neutral is no longer good enough. When thinking about what regenerative really means for a digital agency though, it’s somewhat abstract. The simple answer seems to be that we must help remove CO2 from the atmosphere and restore ecosystems. The easiest way to do this at present is to plant trees.

I wrote earlier this year about the concept of Carbon Synching – the idea that we need to not just remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but we need to do it at roughly the same speed (or faster) than we are emitting it. Planting trees is a potentially powerful way of drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere, but trees do it gradually over their lifetime, not instantly. Therefore, if we emit one tonne of CO2 this year and plant some trees to “offset it”, our emissions will remain in the atmosphere for many years before the trees eventually draw it back in, warming the climate in the meantime. Carbon Synching is my proposed solution, which involves planting large amounts of trees upfront, so that their annual absorption in each year of their life roughly equates to what we are emitting. It isn’t a perfect solution, but a big step in the right direction.

However, Carbon Synching presented some challenges when we came to action it for the first time this year. The key questions that we needed to answer were:

  1. Does measuring CO2 as “offsets” actually make sense?
  2. How can we achieve maximum ecological benefit from tree planting?
  3. How can we maximise the scale of our benefit affordably?
  4. How can we trust the projects that we support?
  5. Is there inherent value in supporting local projects?

After considerable research and contemplation, we formed the following guidelines.

Establishing solid roots for tree planting

1. Estimate carbon impact

I have said many times that I believe that there is no such thing as being carbon “neutral” as such, because it obscures the fact that we have indeed emitted greenhouse gases. However, I do think that there is value in trying to quantify our impact in order to help focus our minds on how we can strive for a net positive impact. After all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, even if those measurements are somewhat rough. We should therefore try to measure our emissions as accurately as possible and estimate our contribution to reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, so long as we remain honest about the fact that all of these numbers are estimations and are transparent about how we calculated them. For reference, our company emissions for 2018/19 were 10.5 tonnes CO2e.

2. Create resilient ecosystems

Tree planting sounds inherently good, but it can have downsides, and in the worst cases could even damage ecosystems. For example, tree monocultures can lead to weak and lifeless ecosystems and non-native species can become invasive and damage existing ecosystems. Therefore, all tree planting projects that we support should be based on rewilding ecosystems with diverse native species.

3. Balance scale with quality

Planting one tree costs very little but planting trees on a mass scale can be very costly. In order to maximise our impact, we of course want to plant as many trees as possible but we need to ensure that cost cutting doesn’t lead us to cut corners on quality. Doing so would defeat the point entirely. We will therefore look for good value projects to support, ensuring that we only support projects that we believe are trustworthy, and genuinely help regenerate and strengthen ecosystems.

We will therefore aim to partner with projects accredited by 1% for the planet, which acts as a basic trust mark and allows us to use budget that we already have allocated for environmental projects. We would also check trust and quality ourselves before committing to any projects.

4. Prioritise trust

Trust is of paramount importance. There have been too many stories of people funding projects in foreign countries that didn’t actually happen or didn’t deliver on their promises. It’s easy to produce glossy marketing materials promising the world, but we need to be sure that we can trust our tree planting partners to deliver.

For us, this means that we will only support projects that are transparent about their operations, have a proven track record and that have been recommended to us by people or organisations that we know and trust.

What’s more, we will ask to see that these organisations have the trust of the local communities where they operate in order to ensure that the projects are supported long term.

5. Think about locality

I believe that there is value in supporting projects as locally as possible. Local projects help to protect ecosystems in our own communities, and local projects are more effective in capturing people’s imaginations. It is also easier to establish trust with projects near to you and it’s nice to know that you can visit a project and could volunteer to help, even if you don’t always do so.

That said, climate change and ecological collapse are global issues and need to be tackled everywhere. The reality is that we can afford to support much larger scale projects and make a bigger difference to communities in poorer parts of the world.

It therefore makes sense that we try to balance local and international projects and not focus exclusively on one approach.

Our ‘not so simple’ tree planting plan

What started out as a simple plan to plant some trees ended up being a little more complicated. In order to meet all of our own criteria, we formed a solution with three branches:

  1. Carbon credit projects
  2. UK based tree planting
  3. International tree planting

Carbon credit projects

One of the challenges that we encountered is that measuring the carbon impact of tree planting projects is a fairly rough science. However, we wanted to be able to judge with some reasonable degree of credibility whether we have a net positive or negative carbon impact. On top of that, our B Corp Certification asks us to demonstrate how we have “offset” our emissions and we want to make sure that what we report there is as credible as possible.

Although I do not believe in carbon offsetting as a concept, I see the value in supporting positive projects so long as we don’t kid ourselves that they actual undo our own emissions.

To support our need for some tangible reporting, we decided to support tree planting projects certified with the most credible standard available, the Gold Standard, for at least an equivalent of our annual emissions. We then took it a step further and decided to plant more trees with Gold Standard projects, using our self imposed carbon tax to define the budget. This would help provide a margin of error to cover the fact that despite our best efforts, our own emissions calculations are likely to have missed some things.

The result is that for 2018/19 we have purchased 23 tonnes of carbon credits with the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity project, a Gold Standard project planting native trees and regenerating the ecosystems around degraded farmland in Western Australia. This will also help contribute to much needed ecosystem restoration following the devastating wildfires that we have seen across Australia recently.

A rough calculation of 250kg CO2 per tree equates this to 92 native trees planted. On first glance, this funding removes carbon equivalent to more than double our annual emissions of 10.5 tonnes CO2 so you would be forgiven for thinking that this makes us net carbon negative! However, as mentioned above, it will take many years for these trees to actually absorb CO2 from the atmosphere (if they survive future wildfires), and so we must assume that they will not truly come close to absorbing what we have emitted.

UK based tree planting

Absorbing CO2 is not our only goal. The real goal is to help regenerate nature and create resilient ecosystems that support life on earth. In my opinion, the best way to achieve this is through rewilding. We found Trees for Life to be one of the most respected organisations in the UK working on rewilding projects, with an ambitious plan to rewild the Scottish Highlands. It’s not exactly local to Wholegrain’s HQ in London, but it is in the UK.

Ideally we would give all of our tree planting funds to Trees for Life this year, but at present they cannot offer Gold Standard certificates to small businesses. What’s more, although I think they are good value, as a UK based project, they’re relatively expensive compared to some projects in other parts of the world.

We’ve therefore decided to use our company Grove in Scotland to plant trees for staff birthdays, new recruits and for matching any trees planted by our team, as well as to plant a limited number of trees for our clients. We estimate that this will total at least 50 trees this year, but could be more.

Glenn Affric forest and lake in the frost
Glen Affric, Scotland in the frost

International tree planting

The only way that we could afford to plant the large number of trees set out in our Carbon Synching plan was to find projects that are lower cost than in the UK. The main cost of tree planting is not materials, but labour. Therefore, the weird reality of global inequality is that we can do a lot more to restore ecosystems in poorer parts of the world than we can here in the UK. International projects don’t have the benefits of being local to us, but they can provide genuine social and economic benefits to the communities where they operate and help us to increase the scale of our positive environmental impact. The challenge is that finding trustworthy, credible overseas projects is much more difficult than finding them locally.

The search engine Ecosia have really taken leadership in the tech industry to establish best practices in tree planting and we learned a lot from them. Combined with personal recommendations, we decided to support Eden Reforestation Projects. We have planted an initial 1500 trees, 19% more than set out in our Carbon Synching plan. We will also plant trees every month for our clients.

Bhima Sharu in the Nepal tree nursery
Nepal Nursery manager, Bhima Sharu leading the plantation activities through production of seedlings in the nursery

Becoming a regenerative business

Although it may seem a little complicated, this three part plan allows us to meet all of our criteria for high quality and large scale tree planting.

In total, for the 2018/19 year that we are currently funding, we will have planted roughly 1800 trees. If we estimate 250kg of CO2 will be absorbed by each tree over its lifetime, this adds up to a lifetime benefit of 450 tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. If we then divide that by 25 years as the approximate CO2 absorbing timeframe of a tree, we achieve 18 tons of CO2 per year, which is 71% more than our emissions. This CO2 will continue to be absorbed at roughly this rate every year for the next quarter of a century, creating ongoing benefit even if we don’t plant any more trees (which we will).

All in, our new tree planting plan gives me confidence that our team at Wholegrain Digital will become a truly regenerative business in the near future, not just with net negative carbon emissions but also contributing to the broader health of natural ecosystems.

If you have ideas to help us take this further or would like to ask us questions, please do feel free to get in touch.

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