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Can we fix it? How the Trees That Count movement is bringing a new meaning to seed funding

Trees are vital. They help us breathe, they’re fun to climb, give life to wildlife, provide shade at festivals and, as The Drawdown shows, they are also one of the answers to the beast that is climate change. Melanie Seyfort, marketing and communications manager at Trees That Count, speaks to Idealog about the project, its plans to help match supply with demand, and how New Zealanders – from an individual to the largest corporate – can get involved and reduce the country's carbon footprint. 

The premise of Trees That Count (TTC), which started in 2016, is based on a simple question: how many native trees would Kiwis need to plant to make an impact on climate change in New Zealand?

It’s a small team of five part-timers who are helping push this movement, but with over 11 million native trees recorded on the site so far, it’s one that’s making a big impact with trees donated, community plantings undertaken and land pledged.

And with the new Government pledging to plant one billion trees in the next 10 years (with help from the private sector), Fonterra undertaking riparian planting, Air New Zealand working with Government to scope a complementary private afforestation fund and Trump Forest (which recently announced that people from more than 60 countries have contributed over 1,000,000 trees) pushing against the ignorance of the US president, trees are in vogue in the fight against global warming.

Seyfort says by understanding what is already being planted in New Zealand the TTC team can understand how much carbon is being sequestered.

“We want to capture as much of the tree planting as we can across New Zealand…at its heart, this project is about having a place for everyone. It’s about creating a broad-based coalition…everyone can be celebrated for the contribution they’re making.”

It’s important to note only natives – those that are indigenous to New Zealand are counted for the project – such as kauri, puriri and rimu. Species must have the potential to reach a minimum height of five metres at maturity, be deliberately planted, and planted with the intention of being maintained till maturity.

This is because TTC is managed by the Project Crimson Trust, a conservation trust which Seyfort says has been working in native tree planting for years.

“Our reason is not only do natives sequester carbon but there’s a whole range of other benefits to New Zealand in terms of habitat restoration, being able to increase bird and insect life and restore areas to what they should be like. We’re not saying planting pines is bad but saying natives trees can do more good to the landscape than just carbon sequestration alone,” says Seyfort.

While TTC has been steadily making progress, it’s looking to do more – with an upcoming launch of a community marketplace for native tree planting, which Seyfort says is a New Zealand first.

“In order to achieve impact, we need to not only understand how many trees are being planted every year but accelerate this number. What we’ve learnt is that businesses want to fund native tree planting and they want to do that for a number of reasons, but in many cases, they want to do it for carbon offset within New Zealand.”

A funder is able to choose whether they want to target their trees to a particular region and/or target a particular problem area, such as cleaning up waterways.

Seyfort says she thinks it’s exciting that New Zealand businesses can support TTC either by simply funding trees, which are passed onto a community group to plant, right through to partnering with the team for official carbon offset projects through indigenous planting.

“Funders also get to demonstrate their impact and will get on our leaderboard [not yet live] and showcase the impact of their contribution. We then match that funding with people who want trees. This is a continual process and will support planting groups nationally to increase their work.”

While getting one’s hands dirty is important, so is technology in this project.

Seyfort says the tech team for TTC are founders of Give A Little, who have been amazing to work with.

“Their experience in how to build crowdfunding tools has contributed real innovation to our funding strategy. Whilst our vision is ambitious without amazing tech it won’t work.”

Speaking further about funding, Seyfort says most of the funding for Trees That Count comes from the Tindall Foundation, but TTC has also been working with Z Energy.

“Even though people would say Z is one of the greatest contributors to climate change, they know they are part of the problem and want to be leading the pack in terms of being part of the solution. Z has been working on innovative ways to become more sustainable and one of those is through a partnership with us planting native trees.”

The marketplace is also a way for TTC to become sustainable from a funding perspective, says Seyfort as being a charitable trust seed funding, as it has received from the Tindall Foundation is not a never-ending source.

Talking about the Government's billion trees project, Seyfort says TTC is excited and hope to play a part in it. There has been recent traction with the initiative with Pāmu Farms of New Zealand agreeing to plant up to 1000 hectares of land in the 2018 winter, as part of the government’s forestry-planting programme.

“With the very real challenges New Zealand agriculture is facing from climate change, planting trees as part of an overall New Zealand response to global warming also makes sense, and is long overdue,” says Pāmu chief executive Steve Carden.

There is currently some government involvement in TTC with the Department of Conservation a partner of the trust, with changes taking place in 2018.  

“This year D.O.C is not just an advocacy partner but are also funding trees. We were recipients in their latest Community Fund and we’re receiving $300,000 over the next three years to help establish another 12 community plantings,” says Seyfort.

She admits she doesn’t think there is any one thing that will solve climate change alone, but it will be the work of many.

“Trees will play a massive role in reducing our carbon emissions. There’s a huge amount of marginal land in New Zealand that can be replanted without it affecting any productivity.”

And it’s not just planting here, there and everywhere. The trees being counted and planted need to be in line with what the Emission Trading Scheme requires.

“…So that with confidence we’ll be able to start giving over the next couple of years carbon sequestration rates, so we can say we know those 11 million trees are in the ground and this equals x in terms of carbon sequestration.”

Looking to the future, Seyfort says there is another area TTC is working on: democratising the carbon offset market.

“This is because currently, it is difficult for someone small to have an official offset through native planting in New Zealand. We’ll be enabling businesses or individuals to crowdfund for carbon offsets … What we’re saying is why couldn’t we allow 10 funders to come together to fund the planting of a one-hectare block and receive their ‘share’ of the carbon? It’s a really amazing way to enable businesses to choose some part of their business they’d like to offset if they can’t afford to fully offset.”

While trees are not the only answer in this fight against climate change, TTC is offering a way for all New Zealanders to become involved in one way to make Aotearoa a better place.

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