Note: this article was last modified on October 1th, 2019.

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, while working with existing carbon offsetting schemes while sticking to the additionality approach? The answer is to this question 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 just a few years after planting. And yes, it will be expensive but through the fact that you bypass the middlemen, it probably will not require more budget!

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

Step 1: Estimate the (yearly) need in tons, using one of the carbon footprint calculators available online. Don’t hit the offset button yet.

Step 2: Connect with a direct tree planting project, and ask if they will provide you with a sequestration curve, showing how much carbon is sequestrated in the twenty years (or more) after planting. Such an S-curve usually looks something like this:

Photo credit: Union of Concerned Scientists.

If you have the carbon uptake split out per year, you can use the following spreadsheet (download .ods here), to see the compounded effect of your tree planting efforts, if you repeat this process year on year.

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, two or three years, all depending on your available budget.

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 issue: if we want to create a simpler user experience, it seems imperative that all carbon that comes from the planting of the trees, is owned by the sponsor. But wait, we have just calculated with only the carbon for the first few years, what will happen to the other 90% of the carbon that those trees will mitigate during the remaining lifetime? Under the ‘plant-it-forward’ scheme, we will make sure that nobody else claims it, more about that later.

The second problem, about the funding of the certification of the carbon, can be tackled in two ways, one complicated and one very simple, depended on the economics of the area where you would like to let the planting happen. The main question is: is it necessary to change the socioeconomic context of the tree-planting area? If it is not, you can skip the next step (!), more about that in the sequel to this article (coming soon).

If livelihood projects are a necessity, by planting a certain number of extra trees (let’s say 20%), additional carbon credits can be generated that will be sold on the open market. The proceeds from these sales will be sufficient to monitor and maintain the planted plots on behalf of the sponsor.

Step 3: Finance the project, including the 20% extra trees. To get to the total number of trees in one easy calculation: multiply the number of necessary carbon credits with a factor 40*. Often these prices are in the € 1 per tree range, which would bring the ‘price’ around € 48 per ton of carbon (the 20% extra included) – not too bad actually!

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.

Why is that necessary? 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 an amount 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 this simple ‘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 1-3 years from now, by your ‘own’ forest that will clearly be marked on public forest 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 at least ten 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, more about this soon in another post.

At The Green Web Foundation we’re eager to raise the bar for what it means to be a green hoster or datacenter, so let us know if you’re interested to plant-it-forward, or share your ideas to develop another kind of (dark) green energy. We might start our own forest again one day soon! 😉

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

*) The real factor is the product of two variables: the number of years that you give yourself to absorb the carbon that you generated this year, and the carbon uptake of the trees within that time-frame in tons of CO2.

Example: say you would like to sequestrate 40 tons of carbon for your hosting company within two years. You contacted a mangrove project, and the provided curve makes clear that in the first year after planting, the trees will sequestrate 10 kilogram of carbon, and 15 kilogram in the second year, so in total 25 kilograms per tree during the first two growth years. The calculation now becomes very simple: divide 40.000 kilograms by 25 kilogram per tree, to get to the number of trees you need to plant (1600). So the calculation factor to get from tons to trees, would be 40 in this example.