Carbon offsetting is sometimes regarded as a distraction, but an approach being trialled on French apple orchards is using blockchain to ensure farmers are removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit
The apple orchards of Normandy’s calvados country would normally be surrounded by vibrant, green meadows, punctuated with splashes of wildflower colour. This year the fruit fell early from thirsty trees, landing on pasture parched to a dull ochre.
“Everything was brown,” says drinks entrepreneur Tim Etherington-Judge, recalling the recent summer visit to one of his partner orchards – a moment that brought his climate ambitions sharply into focus.
A former Greenpeace volunteer, Etherington-Judge set out three years ago to make what he hoped would be the world’s most sustainable spirit brand, after growing disillusioned with what he saw as a culture of greenwashing in the drinks industry.
Ploughing more than two decades of drinks business experience into his mission, he partnered with Stephanie Jordan – the daughter of a Burgundy-based winemaker – to launch spirits brand Avallen, which makes the apple brandy known as calvados.
The draw of traditional French apple orchards was no happy coincidence: while regenerative farming is fast becoming a buzzword, it is ingrained in calvados production, where strict rules under the French government’s appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system outlaw monoculture, pesticides, fertilisers and irrigation.
Last year, Avallen’s sustainability drive was vindicated by an environmental impact assessment that revealed that producing its brandy actually removes CO2 from the atmosphere.
Ever restless, the company is now marrying the carbon capture potential of its orchards with cutting-edge technology to sell carbon credits, with the goal of funding more tree planting, more regenerative agriculture, and ultimately, better soil health.
“Apple farming is not the most profitable business in the world,” says Etherington-Judge. “There are no apple farmer billionaires. A lot of them are struggling and there is pressure to switch to more profitable products like corn. We wanted to incentivise them to keep growing apples, maintain their good practices, and even improve them.”
Avallen’s foray into carbon offsets comes through voluntary carbon markets (VCMs), where credits are traded by companies and individuals acting off their own backs, outside of the mandatory cap and trade systems used by governments to balance their carbon budgets. Whether you’re a traveller buying carbon credits against a fight, or a company using offsets to meet net zero goals, you’re trading on a VCM.
Apple farming is not the most profitable business. There are no apple farmer billionaires
For the time being, VCMs remain unregulated. So while Avallen’s calvados comes with the assurance of Etherington-Judge’s drinks industry pedigree and AOC certification – and pours a clear, pale amber – carbon offsetting has been accused of occupying far murkier waters.
The need for ‘additionality’ has been a key stumbling block – put simply, a company’s sequestration project should be capturing additional carbon over what it would have done anyway. One study found that Indian windfarms developed with cash from carbon offset credits would have been built regardless, thus negating any savings.
Equally, carbon offsetters want the surety that projects will deliver a quality solution – inappropriate tree planting, for example, can disturb carbon-rich soils and disrupt the sequestration potential of natural grasslands.
Without regulation, VCMs rely on good faith and transparency. To that end, Avallen partnered with pioneering trading platform Dovu Earth to handle its carbon credit sales, and to host the data, which is verified by an independent third party.
Dovu is headquartered in the tiny mid-Wales town of Llanwrtyd Wells, where founder Irfon Watkins grew up in a farming family. In an unusual move, Watkins has brought blockchain-like technology – an innovation usually associated with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin – to carbon credit trading.
Blockchain, which is a decentralised digital ledger used to facilitate transactions across a peer-to-peer network, is notoriously energy hungry. Bitcoin consumes as much energy annually as Argentina. So, Watkins uses an alternative known as ‘hedera hashgraph’, a ledger and associated currency thought to be as much as 250,000 times more energy efficient than bitcoin. On the platform, digital carbon credits are time stamped at the point of creation, and again when they are redeemed, preventing duplication and double counting.
While Watkins says engineered solutions such as direct air capture technology have a role to play in the race to net zero, he believes nature-based projects – particularly around soil’s natural ability to sequester carbon – will win the day.
You just need to give nature-based projects the tools and frameworks to build trust, and then get out of the way
“It’s mixing up trees with animals in the same felds, having a no-plough policy so that you have a continuous crop cover, which keeps carbon in the ground,” he explains. “When you pick that soil up in your hand, it’s clumpy like soil used to be. There are worms and other creatures crawling around – it’s increasing biodiversity.”
Dovu’s partner farms are expected to use funds from carbon credit sales to implement sustainability improvements or projects that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, thereby meeting the ‘additionality’ sticking point. They also face rigorous audits and must sign a contract agreeing money can be clawed back if they fail to deliver.
After a successful trial run with their distillery partner – which will use the funds from carbon credit sales to plant new apple trees – Avallen plans to roll the concept out to more orchards across Normandy.
“You just need to give nature-based projects the tools and frameworks to build trust, and then get out of the way,” says Watkins. “That’s really the key to achieving global scale.”
Main illustration: Lauren Hall