Category: Conservation

Philanthropy and climate change: A conversation with Impatience Earth

Philanthropy and climate change: A conversation with Impatience Earth

A profile photo of Yasmin Ahammed of Impatience Earth

Impatience Earth is a pro-bono climate philanthropy consultancy that educates, challenges and inspires wealth holders to take bolder funding decisions to address the climate emergency.

We interviewed Yasmin Ahammad, the Co-Managing Director of Impatience Earth to gather her insights on climate philanthropy and understand what influences donors when they are considering which projects to fund. 

Here’s what Yasmin had to say… 

1. What motivates philanthropists and foundations to fund projects that tackle climate change? 

The public’s awareness of the climate crisis has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to the tireless efforts of climate activists and the growing coverage of alarming IPCC research findings. As heat waves scorch entire cities and floods devastate communities, the reality of climate change hits closer to home more than ever before. Urgency has become the driving force for philanthropic donors to invest in the fight against climate change, and their support is crucial to creating the change and momentum we need.

At Impatience Earth, donors typically approach us with a keen understanding that the climate crisis is the most pressing issue of our time. They recognize that the impact of climate change will undo many of the gains made in other areas such as health, education, conservation, social justice, and human rights. These individuals, foundations, and companies feel a collective responsibility to act while there is still time to avoid the worst climate scenarios. They may support climate change as a new strand of their grant-making or incorporate it as a lens through which they view their existing projects.

“We have seen a particular interest in mangrove and other blue carbon projects like seagrass and saltmarshes, because it is easy to understand the numerous co-benefits of investing in such nature-based solutions.”

Why philanthropy and what inspires philanthropists right now?

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to act because it can provide the seed capital for bold and innovative movements, ideas, and initiatives to experiment, scale, and thrive. Unlike government or corporate institutions, philanthropy can afford to take risks and fund projects flexibly and nimbly, filling critical gaps in support.

We have seen a particular interest in mangrove and other blue carbon projects like seagrass and saltmarshes, because it is easy to understand the numerous co-benefits of investing in such nature-based solutions. Donors focused on reducing carbon emissions are attracted by the carbon sequestration potential of mangroves and seagrasses, while those who are passionate about biodiversity are motivated to protect and restore coastal ecosystems for the benefit of marine species. Donors with a focus on building community resilience find mangroves appealing as a natural barrier to disastrous storm surges and coastal erosion, and as a source of livelihood opportunities through eco-tourism, healthy fisheries and potential access to carbon markets. 

“We have seen a particular interest in mangrove and other blue carbon projects like seagrass and saltmarshes, because it is easy to understand the numerous co-benefits of investing in such nature-based solutions. Climate justice, land rights, youth, and women’s rights are popular cross cutting concerns, while policy, capacity building and conservation are key approaches.” 

Aside from blue carbon approaches, we see a lot of appetite amongst our clients to learn about other carbon sinks such as peatlands and forests, followed by agriculture and food systems as a whole. Climate justice, land rights, youth, and women’s rights are popular cross cutting concerns, while policy, capacity building and conservation are key approaches.      

2. What influences philanthropists’ / foundations’ decision making when assessing quality of projects in terms of how they gauge climate impact, but also co-benefits?

Each donor is different in how they assess which organisations or projects to fund, and how stringently they set the criteria. But generally speaking, they share a few common questions that help them assess the quality of a project:

How well does it align with our philanthropic mission and values? 

If climate justice is a core value of the donor, for instance, they will assess the project based on whether it advances climate justice by putting more power and resources into the hands of those most affected by the climate crisis. Similarly, if they care deeply about biodiversity, they will want to make sure that the project is led by experts who can advise on planting the right trees in the right way to benefit the local ecosystem.

What is the impact of the intervention?

Donors will consider the project’s potential to create positive environmental and social outcomes, depending on their core concerns, whether that be reduction in carbon emissions, or the extent to which communities have ownership and gain benefit from the project. Some donors like hard metrics to demonstrate the impact of the project, such as total carbon sequestered over time, number of trees planted, number of jobs created, or the percentage change in community attitudes towards mangrove restoration. While these example metrics are useful, we try to educate donors that impact measures are best defined by the project leads and communities themselves, so that they are monitoring and reporting what is most useful and important to them. 

What is the sustainability of the project?

Philanthropists will consider whether all the conditions are in place to ensure that the mangroves will be thriving and delivering their benefits long after they have stopped funding the project. This includes having the right tree species and planting methods, community buy-in through education and alternative livelihood opportunities, and a clear plan for ongoing funding, whether through donations or income.

What is the track record of the organisation?

Donors will look closely at the organisation or individuals leading the project to assess their expertise and capacity to successfully implement the project. They might do this by reviewing impact reports, holding short interviews with the project leads, or reaching out to other funders for references. 

3. Following on from the above: what information can practitioners make available, and in what format, to better showcase their projects and help this decision-making? 

In the process of making a decision, clear communication materials are essential. Donors usually start by checking out a website before they even consider asking for a proposal. That is why it’s a good idea to include compelling materials that showcase the impact of your work. 

Telling captivating stories and providing clear impact metrics are crucial to demonstrating the project’s effectiveness and track record. It’s also important to include financial information, such as the organisation’s annual budget, so that donors can determine whether their usual grant size is too much for the organisation to handle or whether they are better set to make a small contribution to a larger pool of resources. It’s also important to highlight the individuals who are behind the project, their skills and backgrounds, and to make their contact information publicly available so that donors know who they can reach out to with any questions. 

If and when invited for a proposal, then pay close attention to the guidelines, especially on the maximum pages they would like. I’ve learned that philanthropists and small foundations typically have very little time to make a number of complex decisions, so the easier you can make this process by being succinct and clear, the better. 


4. Moving away from philanthropists and to Impatience Earth – who are you, and what services do you provide?

“We see ourselves as climate knowledge and relationship brokers – helping donors access the incredible array of climate expertise of practitioners, activists, and academics to help make sense of the climate emergency in a way that resonates with them.”

We are a small team of advisors with backgrounds in climate change, biodiversity, international development, social justice, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. We are incredibly passionate about what we do, and how we see our work contributing towards a much more equitable world for everybody. We set out in 2020 to increase the amount of philanthropic capital being directed to climate change, but we also want to see funding going to actors who have been traditionally overlooked and underfunded, and to help shift philanthropy towards a more trust-based approach and in support of climate justice. 

We see ourselves as climate knowledge and relationship brokers – helping donors access the incredible array of climate expertise of practitioners, activists, and academics to help make sense of the climate emergency in a way that resonates with them, and then move forward on acting on climate with confidence by helping them develop strategies, and connecting them to co-funders and potential grantees. 

The learning journey is a central component of our work, which is a bespoke series of intimate sessions with experts where they can dive deep into a subject area and ask lots of questions. We’ve found that learning is critical; clients who want to skip the learning and go straight to recommendations on who to fund don’t seem to end up committing to climate in the long-term. 

5. What are the most common questions that you are asked? Have any common themes emerged that you think need to be better answered/communicated by practitioners?

The most common question we hear is “where can we best make an impact?”

In the climate emergency, there is no straightforward answer to this question, because it is a complex global systemic crisis. Unfortunately this is where a lot of potential donors to climate change get stuck, because it seems so overwhelming, when in fact there are so many ideas, initiatives and approaches in need of funding that will collectively deliver the change we need. 

We help each client craft an answer to this question that makes most sense to them through learning and reflection. There are a number of factors that will influence the answer, such as what values are core to the foundation, where they are drawn to funding geographically, where they think change comes from (e.g. top-town, bottom-up, or both), and which sectors and approaches resonate most with what they have supported so far and want to focus on in future. 

For practitioners seeking funding, it is important, unsurprisingly, to help funders clearly understand how their grants will make a difference. This stems from you understanding the broader change you are working towards in the climate context and beyond, whether it’s building long term community resilience, strengthening local biodiversity or building the movement for climate justice. While it’s important to outline the how (activities) and the why (the problem statement) to demonstrate your capabilities in planning a project, it is the outcomes that will inspire donors to invest in you and help them realise their own impact. 

You can find out more about Impatience Earth and their work on their website.

Not all offsets are created equal

Not all offsets are created equal

Not all offsets are created equal: what are “high quality carbon offsets”?

Our clients sometimes ask us what the difference is between carbon credits that they can buy for $5 a tonne, and those that cost $10, $50 or even more per tonne. Why pay more for the same outcome – a tonne of carbon sequestered?

Like all other products and services, carbon credits can vary widely in their quality. But what does this mean, and how can you tell a “high quality” offset from the rest?

Whether you pay $5 or $25 for a carbon offset, the outcome (for you) is the same: you can claim that you have offset that amount of your carbon footprint. However, there is much more to the process than this “behind the scenes” – including who benefits from the project interventions, what safeguards are put in place to ensure that local people are not disadvantaged, and how longevity of the carbon storage is ensured.

Any certified project – and we encourage buyers to look for certification when offsetting – must meet the requirements of carbon standards that set out how projects should operate, including calculating the carbon captured, how the community should be engaged, and how socio-economic factors should be considered. This means, on paper at least, that high standards are maintained. The principles and values vary between standards; for example, the Plan Vivo Standard places particular emphasis on the socio-economic development of less-developed nations and allows for flexibility in project design that enhances accessibility for small projects.

Certification is not failsafe, however: certified projects have been criticised on the grounds of human rights breaches, failing to ensure long-term carbon storage, and providing no carbon benefit beyond what would have occurred anyway. These criticisms are more common in the compliance carbon market than the voluntary market that we are part of (see here for an explanation of the two and their differences), however as project developers and carbon buyers, we need to ensure that these failures are not perpetuated in the projects that we run and choose to support.

So, what should buyers look for in a project?

Projects should be able to demonstrate how they engage with, involve and benefit the local community, and be able to provide evidence of this. Community consultations are a start, but are local people given opportunities to work for and govern projects? Does the project deliver financial, infrastructure or other tangible benefits for local people? How does the project monitor and act on adverse impacts on the community such as reduced access to timber? What power does the community have in decision-making? Community involvement is vital to project sustainability – carbon projects are often sited in developing nations where natural resource reliance is high, and if the needs of the community are not met the project risks alienating, disadvantaging or even displacing people, or failing altogether.

Carbon offsets are generally expected to be “permanent” to at least 100 years – that is, carbon that is stored should be locked away for at least a century. Of course, we cannot guarantee this; no one can truly say what will happen in 100 years’ time. ‘Permanence’, as it is known, is assessed on a number of factors including how the project addresses drivers of degradation and potential “exit strategies” for if and when the project comes to an end. Buyers should look for meaningful action by project developers to ensure that the stored carbon won’t be at risk as soon as the project ends. Does the project enhance environmental education? Are local people empowered to manage their local resources? Does the project address the core reasons for the loss of carbon, such as poverty that drives people to cut timber for firewood? While we cannot guarantee the future, actions such as these improve the chance that damaging activities won’t just return to normal at the end of the project.

Carbon is of course the core feature of an offset, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. Projects can deliver community development benefits such as funding education or providing water, enhancing biodiversity, or helping local people to develop more diverse livelihoods to ease the pressure on natural resources and provide jobs to local people.

We encourage buyers to explore projects Project Design Documents (or PDDs) – these should be available through the standard to which a project is certified and contain detailed information on how a project is structured and operates. Ask to speak to those in charge of the projects (at ACES, we are always happy to have a conversation with buyers and prospective buyers, whether you’re looking to buy 1 tonne or 1,000 tonnes). Developers should be transparent about their projects, including on how money is spent – some projects are worth paying a higher price for, but you should be confident that if you choose this option, your money is being spent well.

Critics of offsetting point to examples of bad practice in carbon trading projects as reason to avoid offsetting altogether. The carbon trading world is not immune to misguided or even malevolent practices that have resulted in miscarriages of justice for people or for the climate, and project developers and carbon standards should and do learn from these to prevent them from pervading in the industry. Carbon buyers should be aware of the diverse perspectives on offsetting, but also should be able to make informed decisions at a project level when considering offsetting so that they can support valuable projects that deliver not only carbon reductions, but broader benefits for people, wildlife and the environment.

Scaling community-led conservation to national climate action

Scaling community-led conservation to national climate action

Our Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects have delivered climate, biodiversity and community benefits to two coastal communities on the Kenyan coast. They have demonstrated at a small, ’boutique’ scale how climate action can not only tackle the threat of the climate emergency, but how it can do so whilst delivering benefits to local people, engaging local people in environmental governance and demonstrating how local livelihoods can be secured whilst managing the use of natural resources.

Whilst these projects deliver community benefits locally and make a contribution to fighting the climate crisis, much larger-scale action is needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5-2°C in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

This is where Nationally-Determined Contributions, or NDCs, come in. They are commitments made every 5 years by nations who are signatory to the Paris Agreement to contribute to the global effort to limit temperature rise. In the case of blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh, these can include commitments to protect and restore these carbon-rich habitats to prevent the loss of, and encourage further sequestration of, atmospheric carbon.

But when we scale blue carbon conservation like this, how do we ensure that community livelihoods are not overlooked in favour of carbon benefit? It is easy to make commitments on paper to halt the loss of these ecosystems, but how can we implement this in a way that involves local people and takes account of their needs, particularly when coastal communities rely on natural resources like timber for income and sustenance?

Our team have been part of an international research team investigating these questions and making recommendations for Kenya, and other nations, to commit to and implement socially-just blue carbon conservation and restoration.

As part of this work, we worked alongside the team developing Kenya’s 2020 NDC submission to ensure that blue carbon ecosystems were not only included in the submission, but included in a way which puts the needs of coastal communities at the heart of their management. More detail about how we achieved this can be found here. Now that Kenya’s 2020 NDC submission is finalised, we have produced a policy brief for Kenyan coastal and marine stakeholders with an interest in blue carbon management, summarising the blue carbon element of the NDC submission and what this will mean for government agencies, public bodies, NGOs and other stakeholders. This policy brief can be downloaded here.

National-level conservation and restoration of blue carbon ecosystems will not come without challenges. However by learning from projects such as Mikoko Pamoja, Vanga Blue Forest and other community-led initiatives, and by working together across government, community groups, research institutions and NGOs to understand and promote best practice, we can move towards a more sustainable future in which the needs of people are secured alongside ambitious climate action.

Protecting seagrass through carbon trading: resources for policy makers, project developers and communities

Protecting seagrass through carbon trading: resources for policy makers, project developers and communities Featured

Image: Dimitris Poursanidis,

Blue carbon ecosystems – mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh – have been at the forefront of natural climate solutions in recent years. Public awareness of their existence and importance has skyrocketed, and their role in fighting climate change is increasingly recognised by scientists, natural resource managers and the public.

These ecosystems store massive volumes of carbon, locking atmospheric CO2 into the carbon-rich soils for centuries or even millennia. But they can only do that if they are protected from degradation and destruction. ACES have been at the forefront of pioneering mangrove conservation through carbon trading since 2013. But seagrass is a relative newcomer to the carbon world, despite the benefits it brings to coastal communities and to the climate.

Image: Dimitris Poursanidis,

In 2019, we began a partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as well as Edinburgh Napier University and Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), to explore the opportunities and challenges for communities looking to protect seagrass meadows through carbon trading and other Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) frameworks.

Policy document
We produced a document for policy makers, outlining the opportunities that community-based seagrass conservation offers and the challenges that communities face when trying to protect these vital ecosystem services. We outline policy recommendations that we see as necessary to enable community-based management of seagrass meadows under PES.

Community guide
We also produced a community guide to protecting seagrass through PES. This guide translates more technical guidance for seagrass carbon and management, as well as drawing on our own experiences of running community-based mangrove conservation projects in Kenya, into an accessible document intended for use by community groups worldwide.

The community guide outlines the opportunities and challenges of running blue carbon projects, as well as signposting the steps that communities should take when planning and operating a project.

(c) Dimitris Poursanidis

Protecting the seagrass meadows of Gazi Bay

Finally, we incorporated seagrass conservation into our pioneering Mikoko Pamoja project in Gazi Bay, Kenya. We have been working with Plan Vivo as our certifying body to incorporate seagrass into the formal Project Design Document (PDD) under a ‘carbon-plus’ model.

Given the current barriers to fully accrediting seagrass under a community-led model, we are combining our seagrass conservation with our fully accredited mangrove carbon credits to enable the seagrass meadows to be protected as an “added benefit”.This means that the rigorous monitoring of carbon required for our mangrove carbon will not be needed for seagrass, but instead we will follow a citizen science monitoring protocol to report on seagrass coverage in the bay, and with Plan Vivo’s approval, offer mangrove credit buyers the option of seagrass carbon as a “bolt on” to their mangrove credits. This is the world’s first example of seagrass being incorporated into a certified blue carbon project, and we’re excited to be pioneering this alongside our partners. More information can be found in our Project Design Document.

Webinar on community-based seagrass conservation

In August 2020, ACES joined The Nature Conservancy (TNC), UNEP, KKMFRI and Edinburgh Napier University in presenting our research into how communities can protect seagrass meadows through carbon trading and other PES frameworks, as well as our work on the ground to do just that in Gazi Bay. The webinar is available to watch here.

This work was made possible by UNEP under a Small-Scale Funding Agreement which was generous funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

Keep it in the ground – mangrove carbon, that is

Keep it in the ground – mangrove carbon, that is

“Keep it in the ground” has been the motto of climate change campaigners for years. Until now this was in reference to crude oil – but thanks to research recently published in Nature, this could equally mean soil carbon. The research, led by Conservation International scientists, has identified carbon-rich landscapes, including mangrove forests, that contain so much carbon that their conservation is pivotal to avoiding a climate catastrophe – they are calling this ‘irrecoverable carbon’.

Carbon stored by ecosystems is lost to the atmosphere when those ecosystems are destroyed. When the ground is disturbed, as happens when forests are cut down, the soil becomes exposed to the air and the organic carbon is degraded into carbon dioxide. In mangrove forests, deforestation is happening at an alarming rate globally. Mangroves are cut down to make way for shrimp farming, marinas, coastal development and as a source of timber for building and firewood. They are also threatened by pollution, sedimentation and climate change.

Climate scientists have warned that we must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Keeping natural carbon sinks – as carbon-rich habitats are known – intact is a vital part to achieving this goal. We must take action to reverse the decline of these habitats to keep that carbon in the ground.

It’s hard to imagine just how much carbon is stored in these habitats. The numbers become unimaginably huge – what does 260 billion tonnes, the amount of this ‘irrecoverable carbon’ – look like? In 2019, global fossil fuel emissions reached nearly 37 billion tonnes CO2, or 10 billion tonnes of carbon. That means that 26 years worth of global emissions, at 2019 emission levels, are locked away in our ecosystems. Losing them would catapult us 26 years closer to climate catastrophe – and it is clear that we don’t have that kind of time on our hands to lose.

Tackling the climate crisis: The 3 Ps

Tackling the climate crisis: The 3 Ps

Robyn Shilland (10min read)

The climate crisis is the biggest challenge of our time. It affects every one of us on earth, and we all have a responsibility to be part of the solution. Tackling this crisis head-on is a huge and complex task. It involves all of us acting not only as individuals but as institutions and as a community. It involves bold decisions, decisive action and a willingness to make changes to our own lifestyles.

When we’re faced with how to approach the challenge as individuals, organisations, nations and as an international community, there are debates as to who should be bearing the burden of action. We can all do our bit as individuals – walking, cycling or taking the bus, cutting down on flying, turning the heating down a degree or two – but these changes can feel piecemeal in comparison to emissions from industries and from nations as a whole. And alongside this, there’s the concept of offsetting – continuing to emit but paying to make up for it elsewhere.

Reducing our carbon footprint – as individuals, institutions and nations – is first and foremost when it comes to making a difference. Our lifestyles, particularly in the west, are unsustainable – this has been recognised for decades now, and yet we are only recently coming to truly accept this. The Global Footprint Network estimates that we need 1.75 earths to sustain our lifestyle. That number shoots up when you look at individual developed countries – if we all lived like the UAE, for example, we would need 5.4 earths to sustain our lifestyle.

More recent than the push to reduce our footprint is the concept of offsetting. Offsetting means paying for activities or land management measures that make up for emissions or degradation elsewhere. Carbon offsetting is the most prominent form of offsetting today, and involves people, organisations and nations paying for activities that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere in order to offset their own carbon emissions such as from flights.

Carbon offsetting has been criticised as a distraction from reducing carbon emissions. Why bother changing our activities and lifestyles when we can just pay someone else to make up for it? The economics of offsetting mean that it is largely people and organisations in developed countries paying for offsets in developing countries, raising further ethical challenges about who should be bearing responsibility for the climate crisis.

These criticisms aren’t unfounded. Offsetting should not be used as the first line of defence against the climate crisis – it is simply not enough, and not sustainable, to expect offsets to make up for the lifestyles of developed countries.

Yet, we at ACES still decide to use offsets as a means of conservation. Why?

We see offsetting as just one part of the solution. We have developed the concept of the ‘3 Ps’ to illustrate our position on where offsetting lies in the bigger picture. In order of importance, they demonstrate how action needs to be taken to address the climate crisis.

First of all, we need political action. The biggest impact on the climate crisis can be made by the international community taking bold decisions to reduce emissions on national scales to reduce emissions from manufacturing, transport, energy and other large-scale, polluting activities. Actions must be taken by nations to incentivise and facilitate low-carbon lifestyles, and these lifestyles must be adopted through personal action. The climate crisis is out of the hands of individuals alone, but by making changes to our own lifestyles we can make a collective contribution to the solution to the climate crisis. Taking public transport instead of the car, cutting out non-essential flights and making our homes more energy-efficient may feel like a drop in the ocean, but together our carbon reductions add up. And as consumers we can vote with our wallets, demanding that institutions change their ways.

Yet we can only go so far. It will take time to adapt as a society to a truly low- or zero-carbon lifestyle. Even with the best intentions, we are all at risk of overshooting the one-planet lifestyle. And this is where offsetting comes in. It is the last resort after we have done what we can as individuals, institutions and nations to reduce our carbon footprint.

For this reason, we seek to work with responsible and ethical buyers. We encourage anyone buying offsets from us to first look at their lifestyles and ask whether they can first reduce their carbon footprint, rather than paying to offset it. We are ever-conscious of ‘greenwashing’ and want no part in superficial or unethical attempts to appear more environmentally-friendly. We want our clients to understand and share these values. We would rather our clients reduced their contribution to us if it meant reducing their carbon footprint first.

We accept that offsetting is not perfect as a solution to the climate crisis. It is not even the most important solution. It can have its flaws, and it is up to us, as the managers of offsetting projects, to face these flaws head-on and create projects that are ethical, sustainable and grounded in local communities. We have seen the success that well-run offsetting projects can have for people and the environment, and we will continue to advocate for the place of these projects in a wider global effort to stop the climate crisis.

Mikoko Pamoja is one of The Economist’s Ocean Protectors

Mikoko Pamoja is one of The Economist’s Ocean Protectors

Our Mikoko Pamoja project was featured in The Economist’s ‘The Protectors’ series, which showcases ‘the cutting edge of science and radical thinking at work in tackling the crisis facing the world’s seas’.

ACES Chair, Professor Mark Huxham, and Mikoko Pamoja scientist Lilian Mugi talked to The Economist team about how Mikoko Pamoja has made the conservation of mangrove forests pay for itself.

The Sins of the Fathers – Offsets and Legacy Carbon

The Sins of the Fathers – Offsets and Legacy Carbon

 Mark Huxham and David Sumner (10min read)

Three metres was as far as we could go. Knee deep in viscous mud and dripping with sweat, we had pushed our core to its limit, like a teaspoon slipping into a vast black blancmange. We don’t know just how deep this organic-rich sediment underlying the mangrove forest goes; we do know it contains at least 1500 tonnes of carbon per hectare, 8 times more than a typical terrestrial tropical forest. These huge reserves of below ground carbon make mangroves one of the world’s most powerful natural carbon sinks. As these forests are destroyed – for shrimp farms, agriculture, industry, timber and palm oil – this trapped, water-logged carbon is oxidised and released. If they were all lost tomorrow, the resulting carbon belch could exceed total anthropogenic emissions for two years. So the future of the planet is now linked to the fate of natural carbon stores such as mangrove swamps, peatlands and tropical rainforests. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysed what chances we had to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average; all their positive scenarios require the rapid conservation and enhancement of these sinks. Recent work by Bastin et al. has confirmed that restoring and enhancing natural sinks is one of the most effective responses we can make in the face of the climate emergency. We need to drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions (keeping fossil fuels safely buried) and at the same time preserve and expand forests, peatlands, marshes and seagrass meadows. 

Mangrove forests are natural marvels of evolution, brimming with astonishing adaptations and sublime beauties. They provide homes to wildlife and nursery grounds to fish, purify water and protect shorelines from erosion. But despite all these benefits their destruction continues, because short-term economic and political interests win out. However, there is now a way to convert one of these benefits into cash. By calculating the amount of carbon that the forests can absorb and store, and by designing projects that ensure this carbon continues to be sequestered, we can sell carbon credits on the voluntary carbon market. To commodify the forests for carbon may seem crass. But after 20 years working for mangrove preservation and failing to turn the tide on the relentless destruction of these forests, selling carbon credits to fund community-based conservation has finally provided a practical way to conserve them at the Kenyan sites where we work

 Offsets and credits 

 The title of this paper includes the term offsets but we will be also talking about carbon credits

A carbon credit is a generic term for any tradable certificate or permit representing one tonne of carbon dioxide or the equivalent amount of a different greenhouse gas. 

A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere; most people and organisations who purchase carbon credits do so in order to offset their emissions. 

Broadly speaking carbon offsets function in two ways: First, they help to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, for example by promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. Second, they contribute to the improvement and enhancement of carbon sinks, for example through afforestation or the conservation of seagrass. Projects in the first category help to prevent potential emissions: if we replace a coal fired power station with an offshore wind farm, this makes a difference to carbon dioxide emissions in the future. Projects in the second category help to reduce the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. But some projects do both at once. For example keeping a mangrove forest healthy will allow continued uptake of carbon, typically at the rate of between 2 -8 tonnes C ha-1 yr-1, and prevent the release of all the carbon currently stored in it. It is this latter function that has such important potential for the conservation of tropical forests. 

So if the activities of an individual give rise to 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, she could purchase carbon credits equivalent to those 10 tonnes. These would support, for example, a forestry scheme which would be a sink for that carbon dioxide. The cost of this carbon depends on the expenses of running the project; in most reputable schemes, these will include associated benefits for local people, for example improved education, livelihoods and wildlife conservation. 

Some examples 

If you take a return flight from London to Hong Kong this will result in the emission of about 4.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide. To offset these emissions you could contribute to a project that is enhancing carbon sinks. If the price of credits is, say, $10 a tonne, the donation must be at least $46. 

But flying may not be the best example. When these sorts of calculations are discussed, a common response is to say that ‘we shouldn’t be flying at all.’ Fair enough: most (about 75-80%) flying is done for tourism and no-one really needs to fly, although those of us who have close family in other countries may not agree. 

A better example is driving a car, where the ‘need’ is rather more nuanced. Those living in rural areas with little public transport are often genuinely dependent on a car. According to Mike Berners-Lee, driving a car from London to Glasgow and back (about 900 miles) would result in emissions of 0.33 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent for a small car and 1.1 tonnes for a large four-wheel drive. If we assume an intermediate figure of 0.5 tonnes per thousand miles, and an annual mileage of 10,000 miles, this gives a total of 5 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per year, roughly the same as a return flight from London to Hong Kong. So for many individuals, driving a car will be a significant part of their carbon footprint. Whilst the use of ultra-low emission vehicles is growing, in Scotland (where we live), they only make up (as of December 2018) 0.4% of all vehicles licensed. What should we do? Pressure governments to move faster to de-carbonise our transport system? Of course. Move if possible to electric vehicles, public transport, walking and cycling. Absolutely. And for those carbon belching miles that we cannot (yet) avoid? Individuals can and should choose to offset. 

Objections and challenges 

One immediate objection is – ‘how do we know that the money we donate is going to be used to good effect’? Similar objections can be raised about any charitable donations (and indeed fraud and incompetence could be part of any transaction in a market economy). As Peter Singer argues in ‘A Life You Can Save’, such objections should be met with due diligence, rather than used as an excuse to do nothing – we can find out what donations are good value and what are not (and campaigns such as Effective Giving do just that). The carbon market supports a number of accrediting organisations with rigorous procedures required by the projects they endorse

But why bother with carbon offsets at all? We could simply encourage individuals to donate to accredited projects that improve carbon sinks. One of the advantages of carbon offsets is that they help make people fully aware of their own contributions to the climate crisis since they require the calculation of carbon footprints or at least of carbon emissions. As awareness of their own carbon footprints grows, people who purchase carbon credits will be less likely to believe that the purchase ‘permits’ further transgressions. Critics of offsetting have suggested the opposite – that people will purchase carbon credits as an alternative to changing their lives and campaigning for system change. That is theoretically possible but, like criticising giving to charity because the money may be misused, is a claim that should be tested against the facts. In our experience people who purchase carbon credits are those who are engaged with the politics of climate change and are wrestling with some of the difficult trade-offs; they are striving to both reduce their footprints and to offset what they cannot reduce. 


George Monbiot has compared the purchase of carbon credits to the sale of indulgences in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the modern world indulgences have a bad reputation, largely because of the corrupt practices of the late medieval Church and papacy. A particularly noteworthy example is Pope Leo X, who raised money for the completion of St Peter’s basilica in Rome by the ‘usual late medieval method of raising funds, the issue of an indulgence‘. The abuse of indulgences was one of the main drivers of the Reformation. 

But the corruption of indulgences should not be allowed to obscure their original meaning, and indeed, their meaning for Catholics today. An indulgence is not the purchase of a pardon which automatically secures the buyer’s salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 

The authorities of the Church have two aims in granting indulgences. The first is to help the faithful to expiate their sins. The second is to encourage them to do works of piety, penitence and charity, particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which help the common good. (emphasis added).

In other words, the recipient of an indulgence has to do something, such as acts of charity to others. It is a way of reducing the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins. 

In a secular world, it may seem inappropriate to use the term ‘sin’. But a term such as this is not a great distance from a recent statement by David Attenborough: ‘my generation has done terrible things’.14 David Wallace-Wells does not hesitate to use the word: ‘If they work, carbon capture plants will deliver industrial absolution for industrial sin – and initiate, as a result, a whole new theological romance with the power of the machine.’ 

So the ‘terrible things’ we have done – our excessive emissions of carbon dioxide – will be punished by extreme weather and high temperatures, and the purchase of carbon offsets will help to mitigate this punishment. And the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children16, since in order to avoid climate catastrophe we will need to keep on investing in, expanding and protecting natural carbon sinks well beyond our generation. This means offsetting in the future for legacy carbon that was produced in the past. In the UK we have around 1% of the world’s population but are responsible for more than 6% of all the anthropogenic carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere; climate justice demands we deal with this dirty legacy. Current projects that pioneer ways of investing in carbon sinks are laying the foundation for this. They are doing the science, training the foresters, recruiting the volunteers and building the institutions that will help ensure we have practical and just ways of conserving and expanding carbon sinks, using money that may in future come from governments atoning for their history of carbon profligacy. 

Why should individuals bother? 

It is sometimes argued that any contribution an individual can make to mitigate climate change is so small, it’s not really worth it – we need to concentrate on campaigning for political change. Yes, obviously political action is essential, although not all of us are suited to it; but surely individual actions are important too. These show authenticity and inspire others. Of course, we can’t do everything, but to do nothing is an abdication of our responsibility

In the words of Mike Berners-Lee: 

The UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen and elsewhere have surely taught us that it isn’t enough to hope that world leaders will sort things out on their own. So the question is: where does leadership come from? My answer is that it can come from anywhere and we need it to come from everywhere at once. If the Chinese middle class wants a Western lifestyle, then Western lifestyles had better become lower carbon. Who can start that off? Anyone can. Anyone who finds a way of enjoying life more for less carbon is setting a standard for others. Anyone who chooses a lower-carbon food is helping the supermarkets to emphasise that product. Any supermarket that improves and promotes its lower-carbon range is helping its customers to enjoy low-carbon food. All of this helps the political parties to move into a low-carbon position. If you can find a way of being happier but with a smaller footprint, you are a leader. 

Several thinkers (e.g. Dale Jamieson and Derek Parfit) have pointed out that the industrial revolution, and especially the exploitation of fossil fuels that drove it, has irrevocably changed the moral landscape. Through most of human history, people lived in small communities, in which the actions of one individual would only affect their immediate neighbours. With the advent of fossil fuels, everything we do has a global effect. Something as trivial as cutting the grass with a petrol mower results in additional carbon dioxide emissions. Although the consequences for an individual on the other side of the world may be imperceptibly small, this does not mean that the action is morally insignificant. In a globalised world, ethics has been globalised. Consider the example of a firing squad. There are ten men to fire the lethal bullets, rather than one, so that no individual feels the full weight of responsibility for the death. But most people would say each member of the squad does in fact share responsibility. Now imagine a ‘firing squad’ of ten thousand people – each one mowing their lawn, and all collectively sharing the responsibility for the death, from storm damage, heat stroke or starvation, that results. 

The practicalities of purchasing carbon offsets 

So how to go about purchasing carbon credits for carbon offsetting? The first question should be ‘can I avoid emitting this carbon in the first place?’ If the answer is no, then you should be able to calculate how much you are responsible for from the many free carbon calculators on-line. Be aware, however, that they will use different assumptions and may give different results (particularly if you are looking at the effects of flying). Avoid just choosing the smallest footprint you can find. Then consider a project that fits best with your concerns and that you can trust. For example our work with mangroves (called Mikoko Pamoja) is accredited by Plan Vivo, a charity that specialises in community-based forestry. Other schemes are the Verified Carbon Standard and the Gold Standard. There is no one price for a tonne of carbon dioxide – the amount you pay (typically £5-£12 per tonne) will depend on the project you support and some bring many additional benefits (so called ‘carbon plus’) as well as offsetting. 

Imagine the world thirty years from now. Our best hope is that temperatures are only 0.5 degrees above the present. We have eradicated carbon emissions from our economies and use only renewable sources of energy. Even in this best-case future, we still need to deal with the legacy carbon polluting our atmosphere for centuries to come. We already know how to do this; it is through the conservation and enhancement of the beautiful natural carbon sinks that enrich our world in so many ways. Carbon offsetting is not the destination, but it can be a positive step towards it. 

Hope In Nature Means Faith In People

Hope In Nature Means Faith In People

‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese’. Those few words, scrawled in the areal graffiti of a thoughtless tweet, should be as light and transient as a dirty snowflake. When they issue from the most powerful man in the world, they feel more like a gale of filth. How is it possible for climate change activists, for scientists, and even for those simply concerned about the distinction between facts and self-serving fantasy, to remain hopeful in the face of such wilful rejection of the evidence?

A blithe, all-will-be-well, make-the-best-of-it optimism is not an appropriate response. That is just one more species of denial, and it is why I prefer the idea of conservation hope to conservation optimism. We need to acknowledge the scale of our challenges and the inevitability of our losses. This is the sobering message of the Anthropocene, the age of human impact; humanity has changed the Earth for millennia to come, and many of those changes are deeply sad and ugly. So just adjusting the emotional thermostat a little, like taking some happy pills, smacks of evasion. But hope, clear-eyed and well informed, can save us from cynicism and despair and point the way to the future.

So what does hope look like? How about some of the poorest people in the world donating their time and energy to conserve wildlife? Or people from nearly fifty different nations coming together to plant trees in the mud? Or national, regional and local politicians working together to nurture a community-based, locally-rooted response to the challenges that climate change brings? These are all experiences we have had with Mikoko Pamoja – ‘mangroves united’ in Swahili.

Mangroves are remarkable ecosystems. Forests that grow in the sea, they straddle the land and the oceans, mix crabs with caterpillars and tides with transpiration. They are perplexing, beautiful and useful; and they are threatened. One of their features, that we have only begun to appreciate in the past two decades, is their remarkable ability to capture and store carbon, and to elevate their soil in pace with sea level rise. This means they can help to both mitigate against and adapt to climate change, and it provides one way to work for their conservation.

The science is clear; mangroves capture carbon and losing them releases it. The economics are clear; conserving mangroves is nearly always a better investment than cutting them down, once you account for the multiple services that they provide. The policy response has been as muddy as mangrove water; because mangroves confound our usual categories – are they terrestrial or marine? Habitats for fish or sources of timber? – they fall between sectors and fall prey to muddled management as well as corruption and short term profit making. This has meant that we have lost more than 50% since the 1950s, and forest destruction continues today.

Mikoko Pamoja is the world’s first community-based mangrove conservation project to be funded by the sale of carbon credits. It was founded to help challenge and reverse these depressing trends. It acknowledges the need for poor people to benefit from their ecosystems, by turning the enormous global benefits that we all receive from the ability of these forests to trap carbon into collective progress for the people who need to care for them. Democratic decisions on how to spend their money have resulted in the community investing in new school buildings, new text books, new wells and sources of fresh drinking water.

Carbon offsetting – even when it directly benefits the poor and helps to conserve vital ecosystems – cannot solve climate change. Only large scale change can do that. But it provides one way to bring hope and start the process of conserving our vital natural carbon sinks. It also uses that hard won scientific knowledge – so casually traduced by the new US president – to link people together rather than separate them. The people of Gazi Bay in Kenya are learning how to work with others from around the world to conserve their mangroves, and they are keen to help other communities learn from them. Why not join them?