Note: this article was modified on September 10th.

If you have read Carbon Offsetting (part 1) and Carbon Offsetting (part 2), you are probably ready for some good news about the environmental impact of carbon offsetting. Let’s go back to the client who wanted to offset all carbon associated with one event or business activity, or – best case – all business / organizational activities, be it Green IT, production, travel, commuting etc.

Let’s assume that a certain carbon volume to offset came out of a calculation at one of the many available online carbon calculators. What can we do today? Is there a way to speed up the sequestration of CO2 under existing carbon offsetting schemes? In theory, the answer is yes, but it would ask for a rather unconventional approach. Please bear with me.

In this blog I will focus on the possibility of direct tree planting as an alternative method to take the carbon associated with these business activities out of the air within one year after planting. I have dubbed this the ‘plant-it-forward’ scheme.

Basically four steps are involved, after which several other things will happen out of sight – but not out of mind and closely monitored by auditors.

Step 1: Estimate the (yearly) need in tons, using one of the carbon footprint calculators abundantly available online.

Step 2: Multiply that number of tons with a factor 59* to get to the number of trees that will need to be planted if you want to take that amount of carbon out of the air within the first 12 months after planting (the factor used here is based on data from a large-scale reforestation project of mangroves in Myanmar that I am connected with; other direct tree planting projects could deliver higher or lower multiplication factors).

This way we have determined a sufficient number of trees that needs to be planted directly in order to offset a certain footprint within one year.

Now we need to tackle two more problems before we’re there:

  • Who owns the carbon?
  • How can we provide funding for the replanting, monitoring, auditing for the next twenty years?

Regarding the first, if we want to create a simpler user experience, it is imperative that all carbon that comes from the planting of the trees, and is owned by the sponsor. But wait, we have just calculated with only the carbon for the first year. What will happen to the other 96.6% of the carbon that those trees will mitigate during the remaining 19 years? Under the ‘plant-it-forward’ scheme, it will be cancelled on behalf of the planet. More about that later.

The second problem, about the funding of the certification of the carbon, can be tackled by planting 20% extra trees, of which the carbon credits will be sold on the open market. The proceeds from these sales will be sufficient to monitor and maintain the planted plot on behalf of the sponsor.

Step 3: Finance the project to plant 20% extra trees. To get to the total number of trees in one easy calculation: multiply the number of trees with a factor 68. Often these prices are in the € 1 per tree range, which would bring the ‘price’ around € 68 per ton of carbon.

Step 4: Do the same thing next year, and pretty soon you will start erasing your own historical footprint, instead of ‘just’ compensating for today.

The world is still speeding up (!) with the burning of more fossils and more deforestation, leading to the rise of the number or CO2 particles in the air. The challenge of our lifetime is to stop this acceleration and finally begin the descend towards below 400 ppm – who knows when. This will require a tremendous amount of effort from our side in which compensating the effect of one activity is by itself not going to make a huge impact, I am afraid.

With the ‘plant-it-forward’ scheme, several things will be accomplished:

First, we can safely claim that all of the carbon generated by a certain business activity will be mitigated within 12 months from now, by your ‘own’ forest that will clearly be marked on Open Forests explorers (meaning: no one else can claim having financed that plot of forest).

Secondly, by financing this large-scale planting approach, in the end you will mitigate 29 times as much carbon as you needed in the first place. This extra carbon will not be sold on the open market nor can it be claimed on behalf of your organization, but it will be cancelled on behalf of the planet (meaning: no one else can claim the carbon, no double counting).

In the solution sketched above, the existing certification schemes and voluntary carbon markets will guarantee the necessary transparency. This means that this approach could be applied today. Please note that in the age of freely available, up-to-date satellite images a completely different approach to auditing could be used for countries where the livelihood aspect is not necessary to keep the forests alive, read more in the next post the internet forests.

At The Green Web Foundation we’re eager to raise the bar for what it means to be a green hoster, so let us know if you’re interested to plant-it-forward, or share your ideas to develop another kind of (dark) green energy.

Thanks a bunch for reading this post, please get in touch if you have any questions or remarks!

Disclosure: The Green Web Foundation works with volunteers, so one of the freelance jobs of the writer of this article is managing carbon rights and direct tree planting projects for EU-based clients of Worldview International Foundation in Myanmar. But, the proposed scheme could work for any tree planting NGO that certifies the carbon, or any other carbon scheme that really sequestrates carbon (instead of credits solely generated by avoiding extra carbon).

*) the factor 59 is the result of the fact that in the first year, mangroves in Myanmar sequestrate only 3.4% (17 kilograms) of the total they will during a reforestation certification cycle of twenty years (500 kilograms), where two mangroves are needed to get to one ton over twenty years -> (1/0.0034) * 2 = 59.