FEATURE: Three new staff members are part of the story for digital carbon offsetting platform, trace, which is helping individuals and companies join the net zero transition, including measuring the carbon emissions of people working from home.
Catherine Long, co-founder and chief executive of trace, says ultimately her goal is to go out of business.
It’s not the usual mindset for a tech entrepreneur, but Long says in the carbon offset game the best outcome for the planet means becoming redundant rather than allowing companies to continue creating emissions.
“We see carbon offsetting as an incredibly powerful tool to reach net zero, but they shouldn’t be used in isolation. There should always be a strategy in place to try and avoid emissions first, or at least reduce them, and then offset the rest,” Long said.
Long, and business partner Joanna Auburn, initially started trace as a way for individuals to calculate and then offset their personal carbon footprint, but in December last year expanded the service for businesses as well.
The move paid off, with revenue increasing by close to 100 per cent on average every month since then, and usership growing to over 1000 individual subscribers and 50 business customers.
The businesses trace caters for are mostly companies with between 100 and 200 staff members, who aren’t able to employ additional workers specifically for achieving net zero aims.
“Often they’re technology industry companies or startups with a young workforce who want to work for a company with purpose. They want to see their company achieve net zero,” Long said.
How carbon offsets work
Carbon offsets are certificates applied to projects that actively reduce or remove carbon from the atmosphere, verified by international standards bodies such as Gold Standard and Verra.
Each certificate is equivalent to one tonne of carbon dioxide and prices vary depending on the cost of implementing the project.
For instance credits in Australia tend to be more expensive due to a higher cost of land and labour here than in other jurisdictions.
Also affecting price is supply and demand, with demand increasingly rapidly in recent years and some projects proving more popular than others. “People sort of resonate with ones that have a good story to tell and have a nice co benefit around the UN SDGs,” Long explained.
Trace smooths the cost of their credits over their portfolio enabling them to offer a relatively reliable cost of around $15-19 per credit tonne for individuals.
While the cost of companies’ offsets will vary dramatically based on their operations, Long said for an office-based company with a limited supply chain aside from catering and technology services, going carbon neutral usually costs below $5000 each year
Long said her company is highly selective in the projects they fund, ensuring firstly they do what they say they’re doing, are ethically managed, and that they would not exist without the issuance of those carbon credits.
“And then finally that there’s a good story to tell, because underlying every carbon credit is actually a really highly impactful climate project, and we want to bring that to life so that people feel good about it.”
Trace’s current portfolio of offset projects:
–Mount Sandy Conservation, Australia. Indigenous land restoration using native methods
–Sustainable savanna burning on Tiwi Islands, Australia. Empowering traditional land owners to manage fire risk boosting the native biodiversity of the Tiwi Islands
–Bushland Biodiversity restoration, Australia. Enhancing biodiversity and permanently protecting Victoria’s forests
–Clean Water Supply, Rwanda. Providing clean drinking water to Rwandan communities reduces the need to boil water for drinking which requires cutting down trees
–Community Wind Farms, Taiwan. Generating sustainable energy from wind for this island nation
–Generating clean wind energy, India. A cross-state initiative to generate clean energy from wind power
–Tree planting, Asia. Harnessing local communities to replant forests around the world
–Community Geothermal Energy, Turkey. Generating clean, sustainable energy for this community
–Tree planting, Australia. Restoring the native forest of the Tootanellup reserve.
Long said projects such as providing clean drinking water in Rwanda come with added social benefits in addition to reducing atmospheric carbon.
“Those kinds of things we love because you’ve got not only the climate action benefit, but the community benefit which supports broader UN Sustainable Development Goals,” Long said.
Carbon offsetting landmines to avoid
Long acknowledges that calculating emissions, be it for companies or individuals, is a flawed process and can really only scrape the surface of supply chains and embedded emissions.
“It’s tricky. For individual footprints we don’t go that deep because the variables are just too broad. It would just be never ending. And then getting people to engage, would be really difficult, you’d lose their interest,” Long said.
The same goes for companies. Where data is available Long said trace does include supply chains, data centres, and even catering emissions, however they are up front in acknowledging there will always be emissions that are missed in the calculation.
“We’ve spent the last six to 12 months really trying to simplify that process. And we recognise by doing that we’re never going to be 100 per cent accurate. Our belief is that by making that process too difficult, you’re just putting in place barriers to action. So our entire mission is trying to remove those barriers.”
However, she added this doesn’t mean companies can become complacent or they risk going down the path of greenwashing or even false marketing.
“A lot of businesses have publicly announced that they’re carbon neutral. But actually, they have only measured and offset the scope of say their head office and not included any of their supply chain for their products or services,” Long said.
“If it’s because it’s too difficult to measure, that’s fine, but be upfront about that to your customers, otherwise they’re going to stop trusting you.”
What good is a carbon neutral office if everyone is working from home?
Among trace’s largest corporate customers are Lendlease, a long time proponent of carbon neutrality that faced the challenge of recalculating its company emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic when suddenly their brand new carbon-neutral Barangaroo offices emptied out.
“They’d spent a lot of their time and effort trying to make their offices sustainable through renewable energy and efficient buildings and so on. And then all of a sudden, as their staff started to work remotely during COVID that meant their emissions were suddenly distributed across the world,” Long explained.
Lendlease brought trace on board to run employee engagement and education programs via their tech platform.
Depending on how much flexibility workers retain moving forward, Long expects the difficulties to continue for a large range of companies that will have to track workers emissions if they are to claim to be net zero.
“It would be remiss of a company to say, ‘the emissions of our office space is 100 tonnes. But actually our staff work from home four days per week.”
Calculating individual emissions
By answering just 14 questions on the trace app, individuals can calculate what makes up their carbon footprint across categories including energy use, travel, diet and waste. They are then offered tailored advice on how to reduce their impact.
According to Long, before covid reduced travel emissions the average Australian’s carbon footprint was around 20 tonnes a year, compared with an average of about 12 tonnes in the UK and 15 in the US.
Since covid, Australians’ average emissions have dropped to around 15 tonnes each year, with air travel easily accounting for over 25 per cent of many individuals’ carbon footprint, particularly if they travel a lot for work.
Despite this reduction, Australia remains one of the highest polluters per capita in the world.
“Australia is right up there, which is driven partly by the fact that we do drive and fly a lot, when we’re allowed, because we’ve got a huge landmass to cover.
“Also our goods and services have to come from overseas a lot of the time. And then finally, unfortunately, our electricity grid is still predominantly fuelled by fossil fuels in most states.” Long said.
To help reduce their emissions, the main pledges trace users commit are switching their energy provider, reducing waste and cutting down on unnecessary energy usage at home.
“A lot of this just comes down to behavior change. So eliminating the amount of single use plastics, not having the lights and aircon on all the time if you don’t need to, making sure you separate out food waste, which creates a lot of methane if it goes into landfill.”
A powerful tool and its growing capacity
With demand picking up as more countries and companies join the push to go net zero, trace has recently employed three full time staff members in addition to Long and business partner Joanna Auburn.
It’s not quite the going out of business Long desires and she says in fact, until such time as carbon emissions can be eliminated altogether, offsets will remain an essential part of the global sustainability movement..
Almost a voluntary tax
“Obviously, there needs to be a concerted effort from industry, government and individuals to try and reduce,” she said.
“I think the power from my perspective in offsetting is not only the impact what they deliver immediately, but also the fact that they actually act almost like a tax to that company, or that individual, which incentivises them to make changes to reduce their footprint.
“If their footprint is smaller, the cost to offset is smaller. So I think it’s a really powerful tool in this transition.”