RaÃºl Mellado Ortiz (www.raulmellado.es)
How difficult is it to plant a tree? Or to be more precise, how difficult is it to plant the several billion trees that are said to be required to soak up carbon from the atmosphere on a scale that would mitigate, and ultimately reverse, the impact of global warming?
Not difficult at all you might think. So perhaps a better question is why aren’t we doing more of it? According to research published earlier this year by researchers at ETH Zurich, around 1.7 billion hectares of land could be set aside for tree planting, enough for 1.2 trillion saplings. Ultimately forestation on this scale could sequester around 200 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.
Bumps In The Road
The problem is, of course, that someone has to take responsibility for ensuring that trees are planted on a scale that will make a difference – and that’s where the obstacles begin to arise. Everyone agrees that trees are a good thing. But against that, there are the costs and planning issues associated with creating forests and woodland in parts of the world that are currently bare. And will those costs be born by governments pursuing a green agenda, or private companies offsetting their carbon footprints? Then there is a question of the land itself? What can be done to incentivize landowners to assign sections of their property to tree planting?
Perhaps, the obvious answer is that governments should co-ordinate forestation programs not only nationally but in line with international agreements. The problem is that finding consensus at a political level is not always easy. Witness the the fudged closing agreement at last week’s Madrid climate summit.
So now a third question. In the interim, how might you encourage businesses and landowners to take matters into their hands?
Over the space of the last month, I’ve talked to the founders of two early-stage ventures that are approaching the problem from different but perhaps complementary angles. One is seeking to put a financial value on tree planting initiatives by providing hard data on the amount of carbon sequestered. The other runs tree planting programs on behalf of businesses that are seeking to establish their green credentials in the eyes of customers while also providing landowners with an economic rationale for taking part in the projects. So what does this mean in practice?
Based in Barcelona, Tree-Nation has planted around five million trees in Europe, the U.S., Asia, the Middle East and South and Central America. The company’s internet platform offers a simple proposition – for a small fee either a company or an individual can sanction the planting of a tree from the comfort of an office or living room. But the aim of the company is not simply to encourage good deeds in a wicked world. It intends to embed the idea of carbon offsetting within the marketing strategy of its business partners.
“The idea is that every time you sell a product, you plant a tree,” says founder, Maxime Renaudin. “So planting a tree becomes part of your service.” Having piloted the concept in Niger, Tree-Nation has scaled up and today has twenty projects up and running, working with around 70 partners.
But is it really something that companies will run with – and more importantly fund – over the longer-term? Renaudin thinks so. “Once they get started, the feedback from customers is so good that they would have a hard time stopping it,” he asserts.
Meanwhile, Tree-Nation tailors each project to local needs. Trees offer economic benefits above and beyond climate change mitigation. They can for, example, shelter crops, prevent flooding or provide food. All good things, but the merits of planting a woodland or forest can take many years to become apparent. In the meantime, there can be a short term economic hit. For instance, local people might think the land could be used for other purposes. So, Tree-Nation’s approach is to ensure that all the projects align with the priorities of the people on the ground. “If you don’t do that, the trees will be gone in twenty years,” Renaudin says.
Follow The Money
Treeconomy – a very early stage startup company that I mentioned in a recent post on Europe’s Climate Launchpad – take a different approach. By deploying drones equipped with measuring devices, the company is setting out to put hard numbers on how much carbon is being sequestered by trees in any given area. The idea is that this information will enable those who are planting trees (either directly or indirectly) to assign a fairly precise financial value to their projects when mapped onto carbon offset programs.
Founders, Harry Grocott and Rob Godfrey say this will encourage investment in tree planting – investment that will, in turn, encourage landowners to set aside plots for forestation projects. In their view, this could be a game-changer. “As things stand people know that trees sequester carbon from the air, but is not seen as an investment opportunity,” says Grocott.
The common factor here is that both Tree-Nation and Treeconomy are seeking to move the dial by giving businesses, landowner and investors an economic reason for upping their tree planting game. In that respect, both are – in their own ways – market-oriented solutions.
Is that enough to make a difference, or is this something that only governments can and should address? Well at the very least, private sector ventures can contribute to a much bigger jigsaw of disparate tree-planting programs. There is, after all, more than one way to address a problem. Entrepreneurial ventures – be they conventional companies, social impact businesses, or charities – can certainly play a part.