What’s the best way for SMEs to offset their carbon footprint?

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The latest IPCC report says some climate changes are irreversible, but there’s hope in cutting emissions, and SMEs want to get on board too.

We’ve all heard pledges from big companies and governments to plant millions of trees and become carbon neutral. For some, those are corporations taking into account their responsibility in the climate fight, but for others, it’s just greenwashing.

On their side, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) also want to do their bit, but in line with their much more limited resources and in a more realistic way, and that includes offsetting their carbon emissions.

For example, Arobase Creative is a small creative studio based in Bristol, with a relatively minor carbon footprint. Nonetheless, it wants to do what it can, and works with Ecologi, whose projects include providing bio-digesters for organic waste in Vietname, funding protection programs in the Peruvian Amazon, and repairing waterholes in Africa. So far, Aerobase Creative has planted 298 trees with Ecologi’s help.

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy,
99.9% of companies fall in the SMEs category, generating 52% of the UK’s GDP. Therefore, it is clear that the government overlooks their role in becoming carbon neutral by 2050. It’s estimated that their footprint comes mostly from energy consumption (electricity and heat), transport, and waste management.

Once companies shift to renewable energy suppliers, make their vehicle fleet eco-friendly, and sort their waste properly for recycling, there are still some carbon leftovers. But there are many things an SME can do to offset its carbon footprint: support low-carbon schemes, conservation projects or, sometimes overrated, planting trees. Usually, they rely upon third-party companies for the latter.

ZeroSmart helps businesses of all sizes, as well as individuals, reduce their carbon footprint. John Munn, its managing director, says: “The vast majority of our business customers are small local businesses and freelancers. The majority are in e-commerce, but we also have some business services and environmental businesses across all sectors. For example, we are currently in talks with a bank to offset their workforce, which would be tens of thousands of employees and over 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.”

Its flagship project aims to improve cookstoves in Eritrea. In the rural areas of the East African country, more than 90% of the energy for cooking comes from burning wood and charcoal. This heavy dependence on wood fuel has contributed to Eritrea losing 55% of its forest cover since 2000. Each stove saves at least 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

eritrea cookstovesZeroSmart certifies businesses as a climate-friendly workforce supporting projects independently verified by the UN, Gold Standard or Verra. Although SMEs’ resources will be limited compared to big corporations, it’s essential they play their part because as a collective, they have far more resources together than any corporation. “By working together, small businesses can have a big impact,” says Munn.

To overcome the climate crisis, planting trees is not enough. Many believe that a highly managed reforestation scheme is not half as effective as rewilding. Fred Pearce, an environmentalist writer and author of A Trillion Trees, says if we step back and give space, nature will plant trees, and it will do it better and for cheaper.

Helen Neave’s family business, Make It Wild, started as a piece of land in Yorkshire to give space back to nature. Now, that single bit of land has expanded. She and her husband bought the land and planted 20,000 trees. After that, it kicked off and wildlife came back. “In five or six years, we have many insects, birds, and mammals that were not there before.”

She also sells green credentials among local businesses. However, she doesn’t like to use the term “carbon credit” as it implies government schemes and bureaucracy.

“We’re very different from those pure carbon offsetting businesses who plant rows of fast-growing non-native trees. We don’t do that. Instead, we plant a random group of trees naturally.”

Photo: Helen Neave

The Neaves grow over 25 species, from oaks and silver birch to wild cherries and white beans. They also have 20 acres of ancient woodland, ponds, wetland and meadows. Moreover, ponies and rare Belted Galloway cows visit them occasionally for grazing.

“There are many, many more wildflowers than there used to be, because the cows and ponies graze in a sustainable way, and it becomes a better [carbon] sink.”

Neave recognises that planting trees or rewilding aren’t silver bullets. Firstly, she encourages SMEs that work with her to reduce their carbon emissions as much as possible and then offset what is unavoidable.

But she is optimistic as many big organisations like the NHS look after the sustainability strategy in this supplier chain. “I don’t want to sound like: ‘Carry on doing what you are doing, plant some trees, and everything is going to be fine,’ because I don’t really believe so. I think we have to have a radical change as well.”

Juanele Villanueva
Juanele Villanueva
Juanele Villanueva is a freelance journalist passionated with Environment Affairs. He is originally from Spain and started to be interested in the Environment and sustainability when he was in his masters at the University of Salford. His goal is to share stories which change the general belief that being eco-friendly is just for wealthy people. Moreover, the vegan diet is the easiest step that everyone can do to reduce its environmental footprint. He is also interested in conservationism, recycling, renewable energies and environmental policies