How Nature-based Carbon Offsetting Solutions and Carbon Removal Could Manifest Our Net-zero Targets

Natured-based Carbon Offsetting and Removal

Olivia Crowe and Banashree Thapa

01 Mar, 2021

How Nature-based Carbon Offsetting Solutions and Carbon Removal Could Manifest Our Net-zero Targets

The need for nature-based carbon removal solutions and carbon offsets

nature-based solutions are defined as actions that harness the power of nature to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also addressing societal challenges and improving human well-being

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our time. The COP26 conference in Glasgow has shown that the time to act to save humanity from irreversible climate change is now. Only, we will have to use the right tools for it. 

Empowering nature through carbon offsetting has been hailed as an effective way to combat emissions for those institutions that can not immediately transition to a net-zero pathway. For such institutions, carbon offsetting offers a chance to compensate for GHG emissions made in one place by reducing or capturing GHG emissions elsewhere. But simply paying for one’s share of emissions won't be enough anymore, because it doesn't solve the root problem of increasing GHG emissions.

Offsets will need to include mechanisms that also actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. We live in an interconnected world and often the most powerful projects where our money can have the largest impact are located far away from the businesses that are creating the carbon emissions. There are two ways of removing carbon -

technological innovations

that actively pull CO2 from the atmosphere and store it deep in the Earth’s crust, but are in the initial phases of development with high upfront costs and may be too costly to be implemented globally. A scientifically backed, ecologically-enhancing and economic solution is to

invest in nature today.

Nature has the potential to do a third of the work needed to mitigate climate change over the next decade, however it is essential that these investments are made soon. The global climate is changing, and conditions for regenerating critical ecosystems like mangroves may become unfavourable. It has also been demonstrated that protecting and regenerating nature will have the most impact on how high global temperatures rise if they are implemented now. In addition, if the measures are designed for longevity, they could help to cool the planet in the second half of this century. 

As well as being an incredible asset to carbon offsetting, nature-based solutions are defined as actions that harness the power of nature to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also addressing societal challenges and improving human well-being.By providing not just carbon removal through strengthening carbon sinks, NBS projects like agroforestry, mangrove restoration, and seaweed farming are bringing back biodiversity, improving livelihoods and creating opportunities for local community engagement that often gets overlooked in international conservation projects.

It’s not just forests & trees

Traditional offsetting and carbon removal projects around the world have predominantly focused on forests and trees. Natural forests are carbon strongholds - they hold more carbon than has ever been emitted by industry burning fossil fuel, and have absorbed 1/3 of this carbon emitted every year. This power was recognised by the UN in 2008, leading to the creation of REDD+, a voluntary climate mitigation programme which stands for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation’. REDD+ incentivises nations rich in natural capital to avoid deforestation, and conserve and enhance carbon stocks in forests through payments for verified carbon. When designed well and in consultation with indigenous peoples’ and local communities (IPLC), REDD+ projects can deliver huge impacts not just for climate mitigation but for people and biodiversity too.

Governments around the world have since pledged to plant billions of trees, realising that as well as protecting the carbon held in forests, there is a huge opportunity to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere through tree growth. We see this in a project based in Madagascar, developed by Eden Restoration Projects where we are regenerating coastal areas through mangrove replanting. With the reduction of deforestation and poverty sitting at the heart of the project, it is an excellent example of how tree planting or afforestation can provide incredible benefits if implemented with verified methodology and scientifically backed targets.

Despite the rewarding return-on-investment from global tree planting campaigns, these campaigns have been known to fail if done without proper research on local environmental conditions or following credible, verifiable methodology. This creates doubts over credibility of carbon credits alongside ineffective finance towards too much tree planting. Afforestation projects need to not encroach on other ecosystems by using the right type of land, use a diverse mix of native species and most importantly include the correct long-term maintenance support. Furthermore, a fixation on forests as the main natural climate solution has led to many other ecosystems being overlooked despite equally contributing to GHG removal.

Broadening the scope of Nature-based carbon offsetting solutions

What is important to remember is that ‘Nature-based solutions’ exist beyond traditional forest ecosystems. From wetlands to grasslands, all other ecosystems cycle carbon and most act as net carbon sinks - absorbing it as plants grow and storing it in the soil and sediment below. This means there is an opportunity to invest in many different types of projects to deliver climate mitigation - estimated at 10Gt per year by Griscom in 2017.

Investing in the full spectrum of nature-based solutions will also deliver unique benefits that go beyond forests - for example, conserving 75% of the world’s commercial fish by protecting and regenerating mangrove forests on tropical coasts, or supporting farmers as they transition to regenerative agriculture, not only increasing the carbon in soil but also increasing biodiversity and the sustainability of farming in future.

We believe it is important to both recognise the critical role of protecting intact habitats that already support a huge diversity of species and store carbon, as well as directing finance to the regeneration of nature across many ecosystems. This is why, following the Oxford Principles for Net-Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting, we recommend using a mix of carbon offsets and carbon removals over the next decade

A brilliant example of a business doing just this is Artemis Education - delivering fairly priced schooling in the MENA region. ​​Due to learning about the carbon impact from cement in new constructions, Artemis have acquired a brownfield site and are focusing on converting / refurbishing existing buildings as opposed to building them new. Following reducing their carbon emissions as possible, Artemis have removed 20,000 tonnes of carbon in the build of an eco-friendly school in Doha by investing in a mix of offsets and removal across the Earthly projects, including tropical forest protection in Peru, mangrove planting in Madagascar and regenerative agriculture in Europe.

 Blue and soil carbon ecosystem regeneration 

Voluntary carbon markets are dynamic and the field of nature-based solutions is evolving quickly. A boom in demand over the past year, as nature is recognised as an affordable and available asset for companies aiming to reach net-zero, is putting pressure on project supply. Scientists, project developers, land managers and local communities, are now working together to deploy new carbon credits with a particular focus on blue carbon and regenerative agriculture.

In November 2021, a study by Macreadie et al., estimated that protecting and

regenerating blue carbon ecosystems like mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes

could save an equivalent of 3% of annual global carbon emissions. Kelp farming, a rapidly growing area in global food production, also has huge potential to remove and reduce carbon emissions. Kelp forests are the underwater forests of the ocean, providing habitat for sea creatures, controlling ocean acidification and protecting shorelines. 

Kelp grows quickly and requires very limited inputs compared to other types of farming. This means it also provides an effective carbon sink -- essentially, a reservoir for storing carbon -- while it can also be used as an alternative to burning fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers and plastic in packaging. These applications mean kelp farmers could generate sustainable income while supporting climate mitigation and other sustainability goals. Currently, groups in the UK, as well as the Verra Carbon Standard, are working with farms to robustly calculate carbon stocks and facilitate access to carbon finance through credits.

Thanks to the rise of

regenerative agriculture

, credits are also being developed for soil carbon sequestration and land recovery. Regenerative agriculture is a sustainable farming practice that can boost crop yields, improve biodiversity, water retention and the drawdown of carbon into the soil. This ultimately increases sustainable profits for farmers, ensuring vulnerable topsoil will remain healthy for future decades. Just a few years ago, regenerative agriculture was not in the mainstream, but today, innovative groups have taken on the challenge of measuring and monetising the carbon in soil. 

One of the biggest challenges for projects aiming to participate in carbon markets, alongside raising initial finance, is the ability to easily verify and validate carbon storage. Barriers include the cost of third parties to validate the carbon calculations, as well as the ability to measure carbon in the ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture projects are at the forefront of this, as existing technologies to measure carbon in soil can be inaccurate at first. Innovative approaches are now being explored to instead use other indicators for soil health, such as water retention, to stack multiple indicators to get a better picture of ecosystem recovery, as well as to use satellite observation to validate the outcomes. Hopefully as these new techniques evolve, more high-quality projects will gain access to carbon finance and we can scale different types of nature protection and regeneration.

Contributions from finance, governments and business

The COP26 conference reiterated the links between nature and climate agendas by highlighting the importance of nature-based solutions as one of the key themes throughout the conference. Agreements such as actions to reduce methane emissions, pledges to stop deforestation by 2030 are incredibly promising for NBS - as this indicates increased opportunities for protection, valuation and regeneration of natural ecosystems. 

Along with a broader inclusion, COP26 also saw financial institutions with over US$130trn of assets commit to net zero under the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ). The much-awaited International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) was also launched which is set to create a ‘comprehensive global baseline of high-quality sustainability disclosure standards’ for the private sector. This gives us a clear message that finance and business need to simultaneously shift to nature-positive and net zero. 

Under this positive light, we see a ripe opportunity for nature to take control back in the fight against climate change. The importance of nature is finally being acknowledged not just in the scientific arena, but also amongst the private sector. And we as a platform are seeing that in the growing demand for high quality nature based solutions projects that go beyond the carbon, tackling multiple socio-economic and biodiversity issues simultaneously. Going forward, we see an essential role for the development of standards so that businesses can more easily invest in the multiple benefits of nature-based solutions, as well as validating bodies making the process for accreditation of carbon credits more streamlined and hassle-free, so project managers are able to get the quickest and most efficient returns for their carbon stocks.

Olivia Crowe and Banashree Thapa

Olivia is a Research Associate at Earthly. She is exploring strategies to scale nature protection & regeneration, support social equity and curb climate breakdown. Banashree is a Researcher at Earthly. She is working to scale up investment and action on blue carbon ecosystems, with a particular focus on mangroves and seagrasses.