Achieving Net Zero Carbon Emissions and Sustainable Development Goals in an affordable way

Achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 requires the creation of large carbon sinks as well as large reductions in carbon emissions. Growing trees is currently one of the most important ways to create carbon sinks at scale. This is already recognised by the UK government as demonstrated by e.g. the creation of the Woodland Carbon Guarantee and the proposed Nature for Climate Fund. While valuable pathfinders, these initiatives are tiny compared to the huge scale of the problem. According to the Climate Change Committee the UK will need to plant about 75-100 million trees on space equivalent to 30,000 to 50,000 football pitches every year to capture the carbon needed to meet the UK target!

The problem is not just finding the space. It is also the huge cost involved in accessing the land, planting the trees and maintaining them for at least thirty years in countries like the UK where land and labour costs are high. The high costs per acre and the huge area of land required equate to a huge spending requirement and a cost per tonne of carbon captured between $50-100/tCO2e. To persuade investors to grow such a vast number of trees in the UK will require very high government subsidies that will probably be unaffordable, especially in a post-covid world. Even if the subsidies were affordable they may not be wise as it would risk diverting resources away from other climate change priorities and/or the wider government spending agenda.

There is a cheaper and better way. It recognises that there is only one atmosphere. Much more carbon will be captured from the atmosphere with the same amount of money by planting trees in countries with lots of land and lower labour costs than spending the same amount in the UK. Tree growing in parts of Africa and India has shown that carbon is being captured at less than a fifth of the cost in the UK - less than $10/tCO2e! So long as the carbon capture is genuine, and there are no other offsetting disadvantages, it makes sense for the UK government to use part of its climate change and development assistance budgets to extend the same sort of support currently provided for tree growing in the UK to carefully selected groups of farmers in certain developing countries. Well-designed programmes in these countries would not only capture more carbon for a given cost – they would also generate additional benefits such as reducing the current worrying deforestation, improving biodiversity and improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

How would such a scheme work? The Woodland Carbon Guarantee gives tree growers the option to sell tonnes of carbon, when captured, to the UK government at a guaranteed minimum price. Extending the same sort of guaranteed price mechanism to qualifying tree growers in developing countries would stimulate much more tree growing and carbon capture at a much lower guaranteed carbon price. Setting the guaranteed price at, say, $10/tCO2e would stimulate investment in those countries where the cost of carbon capture is much lower than in the UK and other high cost countries. The result would be carbon capture at least five times greater than would be achieved with the same amount of money in the UK. Of course, it would be important to ensure that the carbon credits are “genuine” and “truly additional”, that there is no “double counting” of credits and that in practice as well as in theory the claimed additional environmental and livelihoods benefits are realised by smallholder farmers (not as increased profits for foreign companies). But without doubt there are practicable solutions, as evidenced by initiatives already in existence.

Let me introduce you to TIST, a brilliant example of how tree growing by groups of smallholder farmers in Africa and India is both capturing carbon at scale and generating sustainable improvements in the environment, and farmers’ incomes. TIST farmers work in small groups to plant and maintain tree groves on unused or degraded land, largely on their own time and at their own cost. They source the seeds and plant and maintain the trees; each individual tree is GPS located and photographed to evidence when and where new trees have been planted; the trees are regularly maintained and periodically measured and re-photographed to evidence net tree growth (taking account of the originally planted trees that have since died); after at least five, and generally ten, years the trees are measured, the carbon captured is quantified and the evidence presented to an independent Validator which, if satisfied, confirms the validity of the carbon credits; and the carbon credits may then be sold in the informal carbon market, in which case 70% of the proceeds are paid to the farmers and the balance used to meet the costs of the business.

Other noteworthy features are: the farmers are self-governing (with women and men equally represented) and they are highly self-motivated because in addition to the deferred payments they expect to receive when the carbon credits are sold they also benefit from more immediate benefits such as improved soil quality, improved diet from collecting berries and nuts from the (mixed) trees and better access to firewood. TIST tree growing is very low cost because the land is essentially costless, labour costs are very low (not least because farmers provide much of the labour for free) and technology costs are also very low cost (basic mobile phones with cameras).

There are currently more than 90,000 TIST farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and one State in India. They have planted more than 18 million trees, already captured more than 5 million tonnes of carbon and the same trees will capture about 15 million tonnes as they grow bigger. TIST is expanding by “osmosis” – groups of farmers travel around in buses promoting the idea to other farmers, so new groups form as more farmers elect to grow more trees. The enthusiasm of farmers to adopt the TIST approach is evident and the potential to grow is huge. But the ability of TIST and other similar organisations to grow more rapidly is constrained by the low and volatile carbon price in the informal carbon market. A guaranteed minimum price scheme of the sort currently offered to investors to encourage tree growing in the UK extended to TIST and other comparable organisations would immediately enable much greater investment in tree growing, and much greater carbon capture, at lower cost to the government. In so doing, the UK government would not only do much more to achieve the net zero carbon emissions target with less money but also contribute more to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, if the climate change strategy proves to be successful, the carbon price will rise above the guaranteed minimum price and so there will be no net cost involved in providing the guarantee.

In conclusion, if the UK government is serious about achieving the net zero carbon target in an affordable way, it should extend the carbon price guarantee, currently available to investors for tree growing in England, to UK investors growing trees in sustainable tree growing ventures in low income developing countries. It should set the minimum price guarantee at a low level to ensure that these investments are undertaken only in low-cost ventures. The carbon captured as a result of the price guarantee provided by the government should count towards meeting the UK’s net zero target. The government should use its mandate as chair of COP 26 to promote the use of the same approach to promote carbon capture and sustainable development more widely in the international community.

Keith Palmer

September 2020.