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December 7, 2023

Good carbon credits ‘are a million miles away’ from greenwashing

The Wildlife Trusts’ Rob Stoneman
The Wildlife Trusts’ Rob Stoneman says there are ways to implement voluntary carbon markets to avoid any notion of greenwashing

Corporates buying carbon credits in tree planting and other nature protection schemes are the future of nature restoration if done well, says The Wildlife Trusts’ Rob Stoneman

“If we don’t value nature, we will, in our capitalist system continue to destroy it because it has no value,” says Rob Stoneman, director of landscape recovery at UK non-profit The Wildlife Trusts.

Speaking to Sustainable Views ahead of COP28 — where December 9 has been deemed nature, land use and oceans day — Stoneman says he understands why some continue to rail against the idea of putting a value on flora and fauna. During negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow, Bolivia, for example, reportedly pushed back against the inclusion of “nature-based solutions”, stating: “This text assumes that nature is only in service of people’s needs, but nature has an intrinsic value. It is sacred.”

Stoneman, in line with what has become mainstream thinking, insists, however, that pricing nature is the only way we will manage to protect and restore it. And while voluntary carbon markets, the means by which corporates are investing in nature, have received their fair share of bad press, he says there are ways to implement them to avoid any notion of greenwashing.

“[The Wildlife Trusts] has been around for over 100 years and we recently asked ourselves whether we were being ambitious enough about the nature and climate crisis,” he says, explaining how an organisation whose bread and butter is managing around 2,300 nature reserves across the UK stepped into the environmental, social and governance space.

The result of the trust’s introspection is a three-part Strategy 2030, aimed at reversing the huge nature losses seen across the UK in recent years in line with the goals of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework to conserve 30 per cent of the earth’s land and sea by 2030.

Meeting this goal will be a massive challenge for many countries, not least in the UK, one of the most nature-depleted places on the planet. Ninety-seven per cent of the country’s nature is deemed to be in a poor condition.

“Nature-based solutions”, where actions to protect flora and fauna also focus on their wider benefits, like the greenhouse gas emissions cutting potential of peat bog restoration or tree planting, is a central tenet of the strategy. Corporates wanting to offset emissions to achieve ESG can finance such solutions.

‘Insurance policy’

Stoneman cites the work his organisation is doing with insurance company Aviva as a model for other projects. “Aviva wanted nature-based solutions for some emissions that by the 2040s they won’t be able to get rid of, like their investments in construction and aviation,” he says. “Sectors where today there is no real technical, net zero solution.” Aviva aims to be net zero by 2040.

In February, the insurer gave “one of the largest ever corporate donations for nature conservation in British history”, he says. With the £38mn handed over by the company, The Wildlife Trusts is acquiring new nature reserves and planting trees on them.

The amount of carbon estimated to be sequestered by planting trees is turned into carbon credits, based on the UK’s Woodland Carbon Code, a voluntary carbon standard, and the credits are handed back to Aviva. The insurance company gets to achieve its net zero target and “we create these fantastic nature reserves”, says Stoneman.

He describes Aviva’s decision to invest now for emissions it may need to deal with in the 2040s as “an insurance policy” — it might not need the carbon credits if technological progress happens to decarbonise these sectors, but in case this does not happen, “they would like to invest in a way that is very much not greenwashing”, he says.

Questions have been raised about the long-term reliance on trees to reduce emissions, given they may burn or be chopped down. Stoneman insists the trees planted by The Wildlife Trusts are largely exempt from such risks.

“We’re a charity that has been around for over 100 years and there is no reason to think we won’t be around for hundreds more,” he says. “We can manage these woodlands from new to old forests and to beautiful Atlantic rainforests over the centuries.” A fifth of the UK was once covered with Atlantic rainforests, but now only 1 per cent of them remain.

The trees will also offer co-benefits, says Stoneman. These may be environmental, in the form of natural flood management or improved water quality, or social, offering local people places to walk and spend time in nature, or economic, potentially providing struggling farmers with fresh a source of income.

On poor quality UK agricultural land that has only been farmed because of subsidies, projects such as that being undertaken with Aviva could present “a new model for managing land”, he says. He foresees a transition on areas with “very poor agricultural soils”, from an “uneconomic subsidised sheep pasture to an economic model based on some form of agroforestry”.

The 2021 National Food Strategy written by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon, for the UK government found that 20 per cent of Britain’s farmland produces just 3 per cent of calories. It would be possible to take 5 per cent to 8 per cent of today’s least-productive farmland out of production to meet net zero goals, the report says.

Such a move would have “very little impact on food production”, says Stoneman, who also echoes Dimbleby’s findings about the the considerable amount of land — 40 per cent in the UK — given over to growing crops for animal feed.

He also rues the fact that more than half of the UK’s land is used “for bulk commodities for processed food that we know make us ill, this is a bust system”. The 5 per cent of land used for biofuels is likewise “ridiculous when we can produce renewable sources of energy” that can be used instead of growing crops for fuels, he says, though he adds that this “may be part of transition for the time being”.

Green market principles

In term of how all this will evolve, Stoneman asks: “Can we mix up voluntary carbon markets with nature tourism, food production — the woodlands will still be grazed — and biodiversity net gain?” He evokes “a model that creates a new future for those farmers that are in desperate trouble already, never mind in 10 years’ time”, and insists his vision has “nothing to do with the greenwashing we see in some of the ESG markets. We are a million miles away from that”.

In October, The Wildlife Trusts, along with other leading UK wildlife organisations including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Woodland Trust and the National Trust, published a set of principles they have developed in conjunction with consultants Finance Earth and Federated Hermes.

The voluntary principles say that carbon and other nature credits must be “science-based, transparent and verifiable, ideally in perpetuity and benefiting local communities as well as society more broadly”, said Finance Earth chair James Alexander at their launch. They also rule out nature organisations working with fossil fuel companies.

In addition to voluntary standards, Stoneman says “governments need to regulate against the undermining of sustainability goals by corporate interests”.

Coming back to those who remain unconvinced by the capitalisation of nature, he insists there is no choice as long as we remain “in a system where we value everything in pounds and pence”.

“It is really important we continue with the economics of biodiversity,” Stoneman says, referencing the UK government’s 2021 Dasgupta Review, named after the Cambridge University professor who authored the study.

Suggesting we are all asset managers, Partha Dasgupta developed the concept of the “economics of biodiversity”, showing that capital per person has significantly increased over the years at the expense of the stock of natural capital. Dasgupta labelled this trend “impact inequality” and called for a correction of the imbalance between humanity’s demands and nature’s supply.

“If we don’t value and engage with nature, we will never solve the inextricable problems, like climate change, facing the world,” says Stoneman.

A service from the Financial Times