On whale poo and carbon offsetting as a service

On whale poo and carbon offsetting as a service

How whales can be crucial in the fight against global warming and how Livework helped set up a whale carbon plan that’s not your average offset scheme.

🎧 Listen to Erik via Spotify

Livework has partnered with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) to design a new fundraising proposition based on whales’ amazing capacity to sequester carbon from our atmosphere. Livework has been bringing customer insights, value proposition development and journey design to this process. The result is an MVP that went live last week and will be presented at COP26 this week. This is the story of this adventure and how we got to where we are today. It is a story featuring whale poo, the pros and cons of offsetting, microbial algae and lots of great people with big hearts and sharp minds. Enjoy the read or the audio by clicking the button above!

Livework has partnered with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC)

It must have been at the end of 2019 when I was discussing with some fellow Liveworkers what to do with our carbon footprint. We had just embarked on a radical journey to put sustainability firmly at the heart of our service design practice. Yet here we were traveling around the globe, heating offices, and eating plastic-wrapped lunches. We decided to start tracking our footprint, fly less, take the train more, and have healthier homemade lunches. And we decided to look into offsetting.

Now, a lot can be said about offsetting so let’s take a bit of closer look. There are two general types of offsetting: compliance offsetting is the compulsory purchase of carbon rights by companies on ‘official’ carbon markets against an established carbon price, in order to obtain the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere. Voluntary offsetting is when you and I feel we need to take responsibility for our footprint and donate to causes that develop carbon sequestering initiatives like maintaining forests or carbon reduction initiatives like replacing wood or coal cook stoves with cleaner ones.

‘And what could possibly be wrong with that?’ we asked ourselves. Well, a lot, some research showed. The compliance market is a whole field of study in itself, that is extremely complex and extremely interesting, but outside of the scope of this article. So, let’s initially focus on the voluntary carbon market. A market said to grow towards $1 bln this year and towards $200 bln by 2050, having shown a 264% growth in 2018-19. So, there’s serious money going into carbon offsetting. The issue with offsetting, as argued, is largely twofold:

  1. the destination of your cash is shady
  2. spending money on offsetting is not helping our net zero cause.

Both are partly true:

There’s no point in planting trees and claiming they’re a carbon sink: they won’t start sequestering carbon for another 10 years. Some forests don’t benefit from planting at all, they just need to be left alone. And with all the deforestation and forest fires, the Amazon has recently turned into a carbon source and is no longer a sink. So, there’s a lot of discussion about whether your hard-earned cash is actually well spent. But this shouldn’t stop you from looking for ways to remove carbon or other greenhouse emissions from the air. And as we’ll see later in this article, there’s so much more than just trees.

The other argument revolves around the fear that offsetting is green washing and actually gives people an excuse to keep on polluting. The narrative is that rather than offsetting you should stop polluting in the first place. This is indeed a risk and therefore offsetting should always be combined with mitigating (see the journey we describe later on in this article). But as Paul Hawken makes very clear to us in his project Drawdown, we simply cannot afford to focus on carbon reduction alone. We have to actively remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere if we want to get anywhere close to the Paris agreements. Carbon reduction is like reducing the running tap water in an overflowing bath: the bath may not overflow as much but it’s still filled to the rim. Carbon reduction is an essential part of stopping global warming. The bathtub is too full.

But let’s get back to 2019. As we were discussing the pros and cons of offsetting and diving into the magical world of carbon credits and tree planting schemes, I drew two careful conclusions:

  1. Geez, wouldn’t it be great to design a really nice offset experience from the customer’s point of view?
  2. And geez, all these tree planting schemes are dull and untransparent and a dime a dozen. Where’s the innovation?

Then, during my research, I stumbled upon two articles and lightning struck.

The first article was by a scientist called Joe Roman called Whales as Marine Ecosystem Engineers. As I’ve always held a deep love for whales I read on and discovered to my surprise that whales are amazing carbon sinks. Literally because when they die, they take about 33 tons of carbon (in the case of a great whale) to the bottom of the ocean to stay there for centuries. But also, more indirectly because their poop (yes whales do poop and believe me they do so with conviction) fertilizes the oceans forests: phytoplankton.

Where there’s whales, there’s phytoplankton and where there’s phytoplankton, carbon gets sequestered (permanently removed from the air). I was amazed by the miracles of nature and by the intricate role whales play in ocean ecosystems. I fell in love with the power of blue carbon (all ocean-based carbon sinks like mangroves, seaweeds, mud beds etc that together sequester more carbon than all the rainforests combined) and read on and on.

How whales sustain life on earth and fight climate change

The second article that made me very excited was by a very impressive and amiable man by the name of Ralph Chami, who works for the IMF and is now one of my heroes and a crucial partner in the project that this all culminated in. What Ralph has done, and please listen to this podcast where he explains it much better than I can, is correlate the science around whale carbon sequestration with the value of carbon on the carbon credit market, thus arriving at the economic value of a whale.

The phytoplankton discussed before is responsible for capturing about 37 billion metric tons of CO2, an estimated 40 percent of all CO2 produced. You’d have to plant quite a few trees for the same effect: 1.70 trillion to be precise – that’s about 4 times the amazon rainforest. Next to that they produce about one half of the world’s oxygen. Every other breath you take you have phytoplankton to thank. And for phytoplankton, you need whales.

Ralph and his team arrive at a value for an individual great whale of a whopping $2.000.000 (you’d need around 30.000 trees to reach the same kind of carbon value). But does that mean you can go shoot a whale and cash it at the bank? Nope. What’s really great about this valuation is that it only pertains to the services a live whale unknowingly provides to us. A whale that is going about its business feeding, migrating, calving, and being all majestic and amazing.

How much is one whale worth

So, we have the science correlating whale populations with a pretty accurately validated number of tons of carbon sequestered. And then we have the economic value of that carbon removed from the atmosphere, effectively enabling us to assign a value to whales for the services they provide. And that’s when it gets really exciting. Because when something has value it will find its way into legislation. And when things are part of the law, they can be financed, insured, invested in, and treated as economic assets. Again, listen to this podcast for much more on this.

Now when we say ‘economic assets’ we are not talking about credit default swaps or some other abstract financial derivative. We are still talking about whales, with emotions and amazing social sensitivity. Whales have personality and culture, and we should never just see them as numbers on a balance sheet. But what Ralph and his team have achieved is that they have framed whales and whale conservation in a way that economists and investors and bankers can understand and work with. Whales have become an asset worth investing in. Because you can use your offset money to plant a tree but it’s much more effective to use it to conserve a whale (I can say this because I’m not a scientist, but all this is science in progress and to be validated).

How do you conserve whales? How do you prevent whales from dying? It’s commonly understood that the current whale population is only about 25% of what oceans could healthily sustain. In other words: we killed 75% of whale populations, and oceanic ecosystems would only benefit from bringing that number back to 100%. It’s not like too many whales would be bad for the fish or something. No. bring back the whales and oceans will thrive.

So how do we do that? There are a few key things that need to change:

  1. Stop entanglement in fishing nets. This requires a very costly and intensive lobby with the fishing industry to not toss discarded nets overboard and avoid bycatch. See Seaspiracy for a gripping account of the challenges involved.
  2. Avoid ship collisions. Make it attractive for shipping lines to avoid whale pods and introduce fines when collisions do happen. Litigation, international policy and insurance incentives can play a huge role here.
  3. Stop pollution and clean up the oceans. A costly but very crucial part of whale conservation: whales are sensitive creatures that need healthy oceans, with lots of food and biodiversity to make them thrive and be happy. Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done here.
  4. Stop hunting. The recent Faroe Island slaughter was the last straw. We really do not need dead whales; we need live ones. With a live value of $2 million, certainly trying to sell some whale meat isn’t a viable business model any longer.

So, there’s a lot of work to be done and all this work needs money. And that’s the beauty of it all: offsetting generates just this kind of money. It really is a win-win deal: companies that want to be part of the solution to climate change can invest in a cause that’s engaging, exciting and effective, enabling them to not only offset but to learn and be part of an innovative solution to climate change at the same time. NGOs like WDC benefit from the offset money because it enables them to fund more strategic long term conservation activities that they wouldn’t be able to fund otherwise. Science benefits because in depth research into the various correlations and unknowns in whale carbon sequestering can be funded. Financial institutions benefit because they can develop new financial instruments that are relevant for their customers and genuinely contribute to halting global warming. Local coastal communities benefit because they are empowered and incentivised to take good care of their coastal ecosystems. We all benefit because we get to live in a healthier world that our children can prosper in. And obviously the ocean, and the whales that call it their home, benefit, by being left to themselves, not running the risk of being entangled in discarded fishing nets, not colliding with ships, not being caught for meat, not losing the power to communicate with their loved ones because of the noise pollution in the water, not having to scrape by for food that can’t flourish because of all the plastic in the water.

After having read these articles, the amazing potential of a whale-based carbon offset scheme flashed before my eyes. My research started to overlap with the first covid lockdown. This meant I had time because some of our clients withdrew their work with us, and I had energy because I wasn’t traveling around all the time anymore. So, I assembled a first thought deck where I sketched out the potential target groups, the value proposition, some engagement journeys and a back of the napkin business case. Then I went online and looked for whale conservation NGOs that could operationalise my ideas. When I stumbled upon Whale and Dolphin Conservation, one of the key players in this field, I was charmed right away. These people clearly knew what they were talking about, they were global, they were talking about the green whale and whale culture, they had very strong operations and a very solid lobbying and marketing machine.

One afternoon I just called them up and told the person I got on the phone my story. The voice on the other end of the line said: “that’s VERY interesting. Let me put you through to our CEO”. Now I don’t remember the name of this first contact but whoever you were: THANK YOU!!! Because 2 seconds later I was talking to the CEO of WDC, Chris Butler-Stroud, an amazingly friendly, wise, patient and committed man, whom I immediately hit it off with. That first conversation was like coming home: here was a man so visionary and enthusiastic and open to my ideas, that I immediately felt that we were at the beginning of a very exciting journey. Chris is an amazing storyteller and visionary and I spent many hours enthralled by his wisdom. But what he told me that March afternoon was that WDC had felt the potential of whale carbon and the urge to do something with it for a long time. They just hadn’t gotten around to it. My deck and my ideas were just what they needed to push ahead and set things in motion.

So we had the following ingredients lined up: a good idea for a revolutionary new offsetting / fundraising proposition, a global pandemic, an NGO with the urge to innovate but no money to spend on consultancy, a consultancy in covid crisis mode (at the time – not any longer fortunately) but with a firm belief in the value of experience design for sustainability, an ever present climate crisis, an offset market in turmoil and whales at 25% of their potential population. And somehow, we made it work.

What I find interesting about our collaboration is that it was based very much on trust. Trust from WDC in us and our ideas: they had never heard of service design, but they intuitively felt we were bringing a human-centered, collaborative and creative approach to the table that they had deep confidence in. Trust from Livework in the deal I made with WDC, that was effectively half an A4 saying we would help them in exchange for the learning and marketing opportunity we’d get from being their launching partner. Trust from my colleagues in me and my strange pro bono adventure, letting me explore this new opportunity partly in Livework time and even involving some colleagues. I think from WDC side there was just a lot of excitement and enthusiasm to be finally really working structurally on something they felt was very core to their principles. And from Livework side we had been discussing how great it would be to initiate our own service ideas and be an actual partner in a consortium rather than a contractor. We felt that this was an opportunity to bring something to life we really believed in, as co-founder.

We got to work. And it was by no means me or Livework alone working on this. First, I met the rest of the WDC team like Abbie, Sophie, Tracey, Ed, and later Good ‘Good Ed’ who became program manager of the Climate Giant initiative. All super bright and committed people who have been a true joy to work with. The collaboration was very open and explorative. We explored target groups, did field research, looked at the pros and cons of offsetting, explored the status of the science and discussed the roadmap towards a full-fledged offset proposition. We worked on positioning, branding, engagement models, customer journeys, and feedback systems. It was great meaningful work. Deloitte got on board and were essential to moving the program forward with their Expertise on Ocean Climate Finance and network and access to the Gravity Challenge. Ralph Chami himself got on board with his friends from Blue Green Future, having by that time introduced Rebalance Earth, a consortium that had introduced a very intelligent carbon scheme for African bush elephants in a similar way we had in mind for the whales. Also, we worked extensively with the amazing brand strategist Reuben Turner from Rewild and the creative geniuses from Raw in London.

Save the whale, save the world

We started to make some really good progress. We developed an approach that actively frames offsetting as a service. We started by ditching the word ‘offsetting’ because of all its negative connotations and the feeling it gave us of negativity. Instead, we used words like investing in nature, recovery, and being part of the solution. We wanted our service to be an integral part of a company’s sustainability journey. We thought of our service as appealing to those companies and individuals who don’t want to just plant trees like anyone else but who are actively interested or involved in the ocean. Being connected to the cause makes the whole investment so much more worthwhile. We also agreed that the proposition should be engaging for those interested in the science and the financial models, but first and foremost we wanted to tap into what people feel when they see a whale, and their response when they hear about their role in climate protection. We wanted to create a carbon scheme that focuses on our emotional bond with nature, and that engages people with natural recovery by giving them an active, optimistic role. We wanted a real engaging and emotional offsetting experience, not just a dry financial transaction with scientific back up. Also, we wanted our target customers to feel that they were part of the journey of developing and fine tuning this emerging solution. Customers would be partners in a community, actively supporting the research into more scientific evidence and the discovery of new solutions in whale conservation like satellite monitoring of whale migration and technology to avoid ship strikes.

We envisioned the end-to-end customer journey

For that purpose we envisioned a customer journey that took partners along from first awareness through gripping campaigns, to helping them orient on the proposition in a way that would suit their interests, to helping them choose a package that would fit their context, to welcoming them to a community of like-minded investors, to actually make the investment through a convenient subscription, through staying up to date and getting feedback on their impact, through to becoming part of a community hosting engaging events and activities where members could track the emerging science and conservation activities and actively contribute through exchanging knowledge, volunteering, and mitigation.

All of this got us here, today. Launching what was collectively dubbed the Climate Giant Project. With a launch movie, a webinar, an event at Cop26, a consortium of parties involved and Livework very proudly part of it all as one of the launching partners together with water filter company Britta and pet insurance company Animal Friends Insurance.

As Livework we want to be actively involved in shaping solutions to climate change that have real lasting impact and that re great to experience and engage with. We are very grateful that WDC and the Climate Giant consortium have given us the opportunity to do so.

This is what Chris Butler Stroud, CEO of WDC, has said about our collaboration:

“Conservation of the Ocean and its remarkable inhabitants, whales and dolphins, is not just the product of commitment and effort, but often needs inspiration. Just occasionally you meet a company with a team of amazing people who can take an idea and open one’s eyes to the possibilities of what can be achieved. Working in partnership with Livework has not only helped WDC accelerate our Green Whale work, but it has also shown us that companies can be committed to a vision that delivers value for all its stakeholders. Livework has shown us that business and civil society can, and should, have ambitions to create a business environment where value can be created and all can thrive, including our shared, ultimate stakeholder, Nature itself. I continue to look forward to working with the dynamic team at Livework as, together, we help shape a positive future for ocean conservation.”

Watch out for WDC and our allies at the Water and Climate pavilion at Cop26 in Glasgow.

Watch out for WDC and our allies at the Water and Climate pavilion at Cop26 in Glasgow