Capital, Carbon, and Comms

By Narda Shirley, co-founder, Wilful.

Post COP26, what has changed for us as communications professionals? How does Article 6 – one of the summit’s main agreements – affect how we engage stakeholders in our action on climate change? Are we entering a new phase in which how we choose to offset the greenhouse gas emissions we can’t yet reduce will say as much about our organisation as the fact that we do it at all?

The agreement of a framework for international carbon markets is being held up as one of the key outcomes of COP26. This is an important milestone in firming up some of the principles that have been debated since Paris and stewarded along in the interim by the Task Force on Voluntary Carbon Markets, (TSVCM) led by UN Climate Envoy, Mark Carney.

The new agreement polishes up the credentials and framework of an industry which some still view with hesitation. This is an overhang from offsets generated as far back as 2003 that didn’t always sell well, partly because of a lack of understanding of the impending climate emergency and partly because of scepticism around their effectiveness.

In comparison, the new breed of voluntary offsetting organisations is at pains to emphasise the scientific rigour of their methodologies that lock up carbon, either through nature-based solutions or through manufacturing processes that use CO2 as a feedstock. A lot of attention is given to addressing issues such as additionality (making sure that the removal wouldn’t have happened anyway), double accounting (where the issuer and the buyer both claim the credit) and redundancy (mitigating for forests that were planted to sequester carbon burning down).

One other welcome development of the coming of age of carbon markets is that respected experts and academics are now happy to add their names to advisory boards. One such example being Oxford University’s leading climate academic, and global influencer, Prof. Myles Allen, who has agreed to chair the advisory board of marketplace, carbon standard and registry, Puro.earth.

This is the kind of useful independent endorsement for communications professionals who need to reassure stakeholders of the effectiveness of their commitments and actions on the road to net zero. Mark Carney summed it up, speaking on a World Economic Forum panel at the start of this year, when he said ‘First reduce, then report and only then look to offset’. Every step of which needs to be communicated and put into context.

In the days since COP26 ended, the carbon markets have reacted positively to the news about Article 6. On 15 November, the FT reported that the price for emitting one tonne of carbon in the EU ‘climbed 5.5 per cent to €66.74 a tonne, more than double the level at the beginning of the year and up from €55 a tonne a month ago’.

This upsurge in demand for carbon offsets also coincides with the understanding that we cannot think in silos any more. We need holistic solutions to a warming planet that not only sequester carbon effectively, but also ideally, support biodiversity and help the people most affected to earn a living. Hence the idea of a just and green economy that doesn’t plunge populations already badly affected by climate change into deeper poverty.

Much has changed since people threw seeds out of planes and declared it ‘job done’ in terms of carbon offsetting. We understand a lot more now about the different ways in which it is possible to regenerate degraded environments and kick start new industries to lock up carbon for the long term.

Sea kelp forests (which can be farmed sustainably) are among nature’s most effective carbon sinks. Mangroves and peat bogs are valuable habitats as well as being ‘nature-based solutions’ that sequester carbon in the fight against climate change and extreme weather events. Coral reefs in Mexico are being protected and regenerated as barriers for coastal communities experiencing extreme weather. Enlisting the support of local people to protect these projects delivers social and environmental benefits, while ensuring that there are vested local interests in their long-term sustainability.

Projects like these can help take data to a more engaging level with the option for strong visuals in communications reporting. But some providers are helping their clients take carbon offsetting and removal to another level.

One example which debuted at COP26 is from Earthly, a UK B Corp that has been working with a digital production studio to create an immersive fly-through digital living ‘island’ tailored to visualise each client’s carbon removal in terms of how they have elected to store them in nature.

Funding platform Crowdcube is already working with Earthly to offset the emissions of its digital platform to be able to bring its climate credentials to the fore for its community with digital renderings of mangroves and sea kelp.

For brands that feel more aligned with the capital markets, Nasdaq is helping listed companies by signposting its investment in Puro.earth, while another major financial brand, AXA-IM, has invested in ClimateSEED – a similar marketplace offering a range of projects for carbon offsetting and removal.

As well as securing the offsets, the capital generated by these intermediaries helps fund new technologies or scales existing businesses. Being able to share the growth and the impact of these projects beyond the level of carbon removals creates another opportunity for stakeholder engagement. The choice of carbon project can reflect what a brand aligns with, from wooden building elements (like logs), to enriching the soil with biochar, from protecting savannah that is important habitat for lions in Africa to bee-friendly nature reserves that protect biodiversity for food production.

One thing is for certain, Article 6 is giving us more ability to trust in the system at a global level, which hasn’t come a moment too soon for companies formulating their action plans, and for their comms teams with a new challenge to make the conversation around carbon count for more than just the numbers.

Narda Shirley is the co-founder of Wilful, a new taskforce communications agency which focuses on climate innovation. Built on the merger of its founding members, Cherish and Gong Communications, it works at the intersection of tech innovation and sustainability to help clients scale solutions to the climate emergency.

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