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How one carbon offset program is changing lives

By Jessie Ho • April 22, 2021Big Ideas

People often think about carbon offsets as vague things — if they think about them at all. They feel like a near-arbitrary amount of money spent to make ourselves feel better in response to a carbon debt, perhaps while traveling. It can be difficult to imagine the tangible, much less human, impact of a carbon offset.

What do carbon offsets do? What is a carbon offset program?

At its most basic definition, a carbon offset is a donation which compensates for emissions created by daily life—driving to work, using electricity, taking a flight, and so on—by canceling out greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else on the planet. The money goes towards funding programs that aid in initiatives that develop renewable energy, capture methane from landfills, or deal with deforestation.

The most common way to use or pay carbon offsets is when you’re travelling—according to the David Suzuki foundation, the carbon impact from a single flight can be the equivalent of driving for an entire year. (If you’re curious, you can try calculating your carbon footprint with the WWF.)

You might be surprised to know that even something as innocuous as reading can have a carbon footprint. Physical books, of course, are made from paper which comes from trees, and require more fuel to ship and store. Meanwhile, eReaders take up less physical space but use electrical components to make and to recharge. Your carbon footprint as a reader would actually depend on how much you read—for heavy readers, eBooks are actually better for the environment.

Regardless, even if we’re not flying very much these days, purchasing carbon offsets has been gaining popularity as a way to fight climate change in everyday life for conscious consumers. What’s more, aiding these programs is not only good for the planet—the benefits extend towards people, too.

How do carbon offsets help the environment?

One such program, TIST, or The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program, is changing the lives of communities and improving the environment through its commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. On the ground in Kenya, the donations that come from carbon offsets go towards afforestation efforts, providing incentives for local farmers. It’s a tree-planting initiative—but also so much more.

Dorothy Naitore is a Kenyan farmer with TIST, as well as trainer, auditor, and a member of the leadership council. She says that the benefits to the farmers are “huge.”

“Let’s forget about the incentive we are getting from carbon [for a moment],” she says in a Youtube video explaining TIST’s benefits. “We are encouraging farmers to plant trees, which have many rewards.”

“Like with the fruit trees—most of our farmers have mangoes. The mangoes sell at market for 20 shillings per piece. We also encourage them to plant nut trees like macadamia. When you plant macadamia trees—one kilo of macadamia in Kenya now can sell for 120 shillings.”

She goes on, “Other trees can provide fodder for cattle. Some people had one cow [when they started with TIST], and now they’re rearing three. We also have some people who have planted herbal medicinal trees like prunus africana (the African cherry tree), which can also be harvested to be sold on the market.”

The program started in Dorothy’s community in 2005 — since then, the trees have grown and flourished, and so has the community. “People are harvesting fruits, fodder, firewood,” says Dorothy. “Trees bring us many benefits, from even shade in our homestead to protecting from wind, to soil erosion control, and the fertility of the soil.”

And on the ground in Kenya, the farmers are trained about the impact that their work—planting trees—has around the world.

“Most people, when they hear ‘carbon business’ tend to think that it is a complicated business,” says Dorothy. “But when we train our farmers [and talk about hawa taka, which is carbon dioxide in Swahili], they really come to understand that what we are doing in tree planting is cleaning that carbon dioxide so that it does not go into the ozone.”

“We also give them the kitchen example. Most of the women here use firewood to make their meals. When your kitchen is new, the iron sheets are clean. But the more you cook using the firewood, the soot turns the iron sheets black, and sometimes the sheets get holes. We tell the farmers that this is exactly what happens with the ozone [layer] because of the activities we are doing like making our meals, driving our cars, or running factories. So the farmers get to understand a complicated business [in a simple way].”

In Kenya, TIST farmers commit to planting 5,000 trees within five years—or at least a thousand trees a year, which are quantified annually. The farmers also receive annual carbon pre-payments for each tree established—plus, 70% of the net profit when credits are sold.

How do carbon offsets help people?

Last year, TIST turned 20 years old—and celebrated planting 20 million trees over that time period. Through the afforestation process, TIST is benefiting the people in these communities in a whole new way.

The farmers come together weekly in Small Groups to discuss farming improvements and best practices, and how to plant trees on currently unused plots to make the most of the land. What’s more, each Small Group also rotates their leadership regularly, so that every member gets the opportunity to learn leadership skills and teamwork. Multiple Small Groups then come together monthly in Cluster Meetings, which host up to 200-400 members of the local community. These meetings often host health training, as well as offer resources for building clean burning stoves.

“Now people have more [social and leadership] experience,” says Dorothy. “Even if our leaders are not in the Cluster Meeting [for example], you get community members working together, sharing ideas to uplift their living standards.”

To learn more about the work TIST is doing, visit program.tist.org. Rakuten Kobo is also thrilled to announce a new partnership with terrapass to offset 100 per cent of the carbon emissions created by shipments of devices ordered from our store. It is the first step in a much longer journey toward carbon neutrality for Kobo.

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