I admit defeat. Zero carbon business isn’t possible, but could Carbon Syncing be the answer?

Written by Tom Greenwood - September 23, 2019

We founded Wholegrain Digital in part to demonstrate that truly sustainable business is possible. Over the years, we’ve butted heads with reality on a number of issues, including how to measure and reduce our carbon emissions. The science is clear that all businesses need to rapidly move to zero carbon and we’ve had a goal for Wholegrain to be zero carbon by 2026. As that date moves closer though, we’ve become aware that it simply isn’t possible. This leaves us in a pickle – we need to achieve zero carbon but we can’t.

In this post I’m going to talk about why zero carbon business isn’t possible but how a concept that I’ve called Carbon Syncing could be the answer.

The impossibility of zero carbon

After we did our carbon calculations for this year, I was frustrated by the fact that we seem to be running out of opportunities to significantly reduce our emissions. Our emissions for the past year were 10.5 tonnes CO2e, and all of that was from things that we do not have direct control over, such as the trains we travel on and the electricity we use, which (even if renewable) has emissions associated with its construction and maintenance.

I asked for advice on the ClimateAction.Tech Slack group and received a number of comments telling me that zero carbon wasn’t physically possible, with one pedantic comment pointing out that we could never be zero carbon because we all breathe out CO2. I admit defeat!

As long as there are humans on the planet operating any sort of industrialised society, there will be some carbon emissions and other environmental destruction. Everyone will be complicit in this, even if indirectly. We therefore need a solution, and in terms of carbon emissions the most common answer seems to be carbon offsetting. I disagree.

Why carbon offsetting doesn’t work

Carbon offsetting is the concept that you emit carbon and then pay money for someone else to not emit carbon, thus offsetting your emissions. In its crudest form, this involves buying some form of emissions credit from another company, whereby they reduce their emissions so that you don’t have to.

As I said when we introduced our internal carbon tax:

carbon offsetting creates the illusion that it’s okay to emit greenhouse gases so long as you pay someone else not to. In a world that needs to be zero carbon, this makes zero sense. It’s equivalent to cheating on your spouse and paying someone else not to cheat on theirs. Theoretically, there’s been no net increase in cheating and you are now “cheat neutral” but in actual fact, you cannot escape the fact that real harm has been done.

There is of course the option to buy carbon offsets in the form of planting trees. This is a much better proposition as it actually removes CO2 from the atmosphere. The problem is that, contrary to what most of the carbon offset companies would lead you to believe, these trees don’t do it immediately. They absorb carbon gradually throughout their lives, while you are emitting carbon rapidly, in real time. This means that by the time your trees have absorbed CO2 equivalent to what you emitted this year, your emissions have already been heating the planet for several years. So while it’s easy to plant trees and declare yourself carbon neutral, the reality is that in this model, the impact on the planet is anything but neutral.

Carbon Syncing could be the solution

We have seen that even if we pursue carbon reduction aggressively, we’ll eventually hit a wall where we cannot reduce it much further, so we need a solution to the carbon going into the atmosphere. As mentioned though, carbon offsetting is at best too slow, and at worst flawed.

What we need is a solution that is available now to suck carbon out of the atmosphere in approximately the same volume and timescale as we are emitting it. In other words, we need to synchronise our carbon emissions with our carbon sinks.

The solution, which I am calling Carbon Syncing, is surprisingly simple. We start by finding a technology that allows us to actually pull carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere. There are a few interesting technologies that do that, such as Carbicrete carbon negative concrete, SolarFood that uses carbon from the atmosphere to produce food, or Carbon Engineering’s carbon capture technology, although that turns CO2 back into oil that will once again get burned as fuel. Most carbon extraction technologies are in their early days and either not yet widely available or are somewhat flawed. The only one that is widely available and effective is… you guessed it – planting trees!

Photo of carbon engineering staff at their premises
Carbon Engineering are a high profile example of new technology trying to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. Credit: Carbon Engineering

As mentioned, the problem with trees from a carbon absorption perspective is that it takes a  period of years to reap the benefits. The solution is that instead of taking credit for the full carbon absorption of the trees life up front, we divide the carbon absorption up over the growing age of the tree. The unit used should be as small as possible, and I think as companies and seasons both operate on an annual basis, it makes sense to look at the carbon absorption of trees on an annual basis.

For example, let’s say that a small tree absorbs around 250kg of CO2 in the first 30 years of its life, and not much after that as it’s fully grown. Instead of planting a tree and crediting ourselves with 250kg of carbon reduction, we only account for 1/30th of it in year one. In this case, 8.33kg.

Now let’s say that our company emits 10.5 tonnes CO2e per year, as we did last year. Conventional carbon offsetting would require us to plant 42 trees to offset our emissions, but Carbon Syncing would require us to plant 1260. That’s a big difference!

Where it gets interesting is that once we have planted our 1260 trees, we then don’t need to plant any more for the next 30 years because they continue to absorb carbon year after year. We can literally watch our own carbon emissions grow because the trees get bigger (absorbing more carbon), roughly at the same rate that we emit it.

We would then only need to plant more trees if our company emissions increase or if some of the trees die. Any other trees that we plant over the next three decades are a bonus that take our business activities into negative carbon emissions.

Is there a catch?

Well yes, the main catch is that we have to stump up the money for 30 years worth of tree planting up front. That might seem a bit frightening to a lot of businesses, but it’s the only solution that actually makes sense at this time, and it isn’t as expensive as you might think. In the example above, we could plant our 1260 native trees in a rewilding program in the Scottish Highlands with Trees for Life for £7760. That’s about 1% of our revenue for one year, and seeing as we have committed to giving 1% for the Planet every year, it is quite achievable.

To put it bluntly, almost any business that has made a serious effort to minimise its emissions and that makes even a small profit can afford to do this as an investment in our collective future. The problem is not whether most businesses could afford to do this, but whether their short-termist and profit-centric thinking would allow them to make such a significant upfront investment in something that doesn’t generate profit for shareholders.

Aerial view of the Caledonian Forest
Restoration of the Caledonian Forest is bringing back an abundance of nature. Credit: Trees for Life

Ideally, we need a concept like this to be put into law as a requirement for businesses, with a fallback option for businesses that cannot afford to do it immediately. Consultant Jack O’Donoghue, who did our carbon calculations for this year, suggested that a carbon interest rate could be the solution.

Could a “carbon interest rate” help to avoid the large upfront cost? Your carbon emissions would go up by a nominal interest rate (let’s say 5% for argument’s sake) and for every additional year you delay your capital investment in carbon absorption, the amount of carbon you need to offset increases. Taking your example, if a company had 10.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions and they could only afford to offset a tenth of it (1.05 tonnes) using your model (which would mean they need to plant 126 trees), then the remaining 90% of their emissions would effectively increase (via the carbon interest rate) by 5%. So, the following year, if they wanted to clear another tenth of their emissions, they would need to plant enough trees to offset 1.05 tonnes + 5% (= 1.1025) which would be 132.3 trees. This way, the company is compensating for the lost time in tree growth absorption by planting extra trees as a result of the carbon interest rate.”

It’s a fascinating idea and perhaps something that carbon offset companies could build into their product offering, with the interest rate built into the account and based on the warming impact of CO2 over time.

Tree planting is not as simple as it sounds

The other catch with Carbon Syncing is that there is a little controversy around tree planting programs, especially in developing countries. There are reports of negative side effects for local communities, unintended environmental issues from tree monocultures and trees not being protected for their full life. The solution is to find an organisation that you know and trust. You want to ensure that they plant trees in a way that enriches the local environment and society, that will be protected long-term and that the trees would not be planted if you were not funding them. Trees for Life is a great example of this.

So that’s what we’ll be doing. You can find details of the Wholegrain Grove in Scotland here and see it develop as we build up our forest over the next 12 months. If for some reason we can’t afford it all, we’ll charge ourselves carbon interest and finish it as soon as we can.

It’s not an exact science

I can see critics of this approach stating that it is too imprecise. Perhaps 1 year is not a sufficiently granular timescale, and perhaps the carbon absorption rate of a tree is not linear over its lifetime. Not to mention the fact that different types of trees in different climates will have different rates of carbon absorption.

None of these arguments invalidate the overall concept, though. The science of carbon emissions and carbon absorption is highly imprecise at a general level, since none of us are actually measuring the carbon dioxide from our activities directly, nor are we actually measuring how much carbon each tree absorbs. It is all an estimate, and that’s a reality that we need to live with. We all just need to do our best to keep refining our estimates to make them as accurate as possible so that we can make better decisions.

Honest Solutions

The science on climate change makes it clear that we need to rapidly reduce our global carbon emissions to zero. However, even a small business like ours demonstrates that zero carbon in a literal sense is not possible because all businesses are dependent on external factors out of their control.

We therefore need to take a more realistic, holistic and, above all, honest approach to carbon reduction. Our approach should involve minimising our own business emissions to the bare minimum, selecting and supporting suppliers with the lowest emissions, and pursuing projects and technologies that extract equal or greater amounts of carbon from the atmosphere within an equivalent timeframe. Once we have reduced our own emissions as far as possible, I believe that Carbon Syncing is the best scalable solution currently available to mitigate the rest. Solutions that directly tackle the realities of both climate change and business are the ones we will need for our future.

If you have interesting experiences trying to deal with the issue of achieving zero carbon, or if you have ideas or data that could help refine the concept, I’d love to hear from you. Contact us through our form or tweet @eatwholegrain.

Try the carbon syncing calculator

Following the publication of this article, Small 99 were inspired to create a calculator tool to help businesses (or any organisation) calculate the approximate number of trees required to carbon sync their emissions. Check out the calculator on the Small99 website.

Update: 23rd May 2022.
We’ve planted 44,732 trees so far!