It is no secret that the global community needs to reduce their CO2 emissions in order to tackle climate change. But what can we do as individuals to compensate and reduce our CO2 consumption? The start-up ForTomorrow developed a concept of monthly subscriptions that allows us to live CO2-neutral. E&M talked to Ruth von Heusinger, founder and director, about the idea and concept behind the start-up.
How did you get the idea for ForTomorrow?
I myself have been working in the field of renewable energies and in European emissions trading for a long time. Most recently, I worked for atmosfair [German NGO which offers services related to offsetting of CO2 emissions from travelling], which operates the classic model of CO2 compensation. But it is not enough to compensate only single events like flights. In addition, the question reoccurred as to whether something could be done locally. Being active in developing countries does not directly change one’s own CO2 emissions. That is how the idea for ForTomorrow was born.
With the funds you receive from your subscribers you partly plant trees, and partly buy emission certificates from the EU. Why do you do that, and how does it work?
Above a threshold of around 25,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year, companies involved in steel production or coal fired power plants, for example, must participate in emissions trading. They have to buy CO2 certificates in order to be allowed to emit a certain amount of CO2 in turn. One certificate entitles the holder to emit one ton of CO2.
ForTomorrow is registered as a trading company, so we can buy CO2 certificates. One does not have to use these certificates but can also delete them. This removes a certain amount of emissions from the market, to which companies no longer have access. Here you have direct leverage on emissions that you otherwise have no influence on as a private individual. In this way, we reduce CO2 emissions in the EU and ensure that the price of CO2 certificates rises as a result of the shortage.
Can you tell us more about the subscription you offer?
The subscription is based on the CO2 consumption of an average European per year, which is about 9 tons. Half of this we compensate by buying and retiring European CO2 certificates, while the other half is compensated by reforestation in Germany. Subscribers also receive a monthly impact report with information on how many trees have already been planted by their subscription and how many CO2 certificates have been set aside. However, in Germany it is only possible to plant trees in spring and fall. The first trees have been planted in March in a former mining area near Leipzig.
In addition, subscribers can share how they are changing their lives in the Impact Report – for example, about their first electric car, or a long train journey instead of flying. There are already many ways to live more climate-friendly, but they are just not mainstream yet. We want to get people to think about CO2 consumption in the long term. To this end, we are currently working on setting up a login area with individual climate tips.
How many subscriptions do you have at the moment?
The subscription as a Christmas gift had quite an impact in December. One company, for example, bought subscriptions for all of its employees, which started in January. This brings us to over 600 people who live climate-neutrally with us. Among our subscribers are also smaller companies that compensate their CO2 emissions with us.
We still have a lot of catching up to do, especially in former coal-mining areas. But it is not enough to just take CO2 out of the air. We also have to reduce CO2 emissions in the long term.
The concept of planting trees has been criticized in the past years for its incapability to actually contribute to the reduction of CO2. Why not just buy emission certificates?
We need CO2 reduction with the help of emission certificates. But we also need to get the CO2 we already have emitted out of the air. We have looked at various possibilities – for example, experiments are already being carried out with algae, but it must be ensured that the CO2 remains bound in the long term. Another alternative would be to press CO2 into stones, but this is still very expensive and consumes vast amounts of electricity.
In the end, we decided to use trees because this has been very well researched and it is known how much CO2 is stored. The biggest problem here is also the time frame. The forest has to be protected from fires so that the CO2 bound in the wood as the trees grow is not released again. It takes time for a tree to grow and filter large amounts of CO2 from the air. That’s why we chose Germany, because forests here are better protected by the Federal Forest Act than in other countries. To get one ton of CO2 out of the air, we plant 4 trees.
There are around 4,000 trees per hectare of forest. We plant very densely to produce good forest soil and to retain water. This method takes into account that some of these trees will die as the forest grows. We cooperate here with the organization Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald (Protection Association German Forest), and plant certified mixed forests that are more resistant to parasites and the consequences of climate change.
We reforest on state-owned land, which ensures long-term sustainability. These forests are cultivated, but they are also replanted repeatedly, so that a stable balance is created.
Why plant trees in Germany, where a law protecting forests is already in place? Isn’t reforestation in other countries more important, for example in tropical forests?
Reforestation in other countries has developed historically: For a long time these countries had no climate targets, and thus projects that were carried out there could be counted for one’s own climate targets. That has changed when many countries adopted the Paris climate targets. Unfortunately, it is not yet clear exactly how international trading of carbon emissions credits will work, as countries are still arguing over Article 6 in the Paris Climate Agreement. For example, let’s imagine that all Germans plant trees in Nigeria to offset their own CO2 emissions. Then the Germans could say they are CO2 neutral, and Nigeria could claim the same. It is expected that Article 6 will be resolved at the next International Climate Conference in November.
Forests in Germany currently filter seven percent of CO2 emissions from the air. 33 percent of Germany’s land area is covered with forests, compared to about 70 percent around one thousand years ago. We still have a lot of catching up to do, especially in former coal-mining areas. But it is not enough to just take CO2 out of the air. We also have to reduce CO2 emissions in the long term.
Have you thought about expanding your concept to other European countries?
Definitely! We already have subscribers from the Netherlands, France, the UK and Switzerland. At the moment, the volume is still too small, but in France we are already involved in initial talks to also plant trees there. It would be nice to be able to reforest locally in the individual countries – especially since, for example, much larger areas would be available in France because it is not so densely populated. An expansion into agro-forestry would also be a possibility, especially because more and more people are eating a vegan diet and we need more nut trees.
Right now, one emission certificate costs 42 euros. How many certificates does the EU give out per year? How many certificates will you need to buy to actually have an impact on the companies?
In Germany, the certificates are auctioned off by the government; the revenues go toward measures to promote climate protection. The limit of CO2 certificates we can buy without endangering the system is around 800 million. Our climate subscriptions have been on the market for almost a year and so far, we have taken 858 emissions allowances off the market, preventing 858 tons of CO2 from being emitted. That’s the equivalent of shutting down a small coal power plant for almost 19 hours.
In 2021, 1.7 billion tons of CO2 will be released by allowances across the EU – although the figure could be reduced again under the new EU climate strategy. Fewer certificates are to be auctioned each year, so that ideally in 2050 none will be sold at all. We are doing our part to achieve this.
Thank you very much for this interesting talk!
We thank Ruth for her time. Answers may have been edited for brevity or clarity.
Photo licence: Cover photo by ForTomorrow.