Combating Climate Change and Global Poverty in One Fell Swoop
Native Virginian and Sierra Club member Tim Whitley was earning his MBA at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School when he attended two presentations that fortuitously connected two of his animating passions: combating climate change and alleviating global poverty.
Four years later, Whitley has founded Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (COTAP), an Oakland, California-based organization that empowers individuals to simultaneously take action on climate change and global poverty by funding tree-planting programs that create wages for the working poor in the developing world. Below, a family-run tree-nursery in Uganda that COTAP is helping finance.
COTAP, for which Whitley serves as CEO, connects individuals' carbon footprints—determined using COTAP's online carbon calculator—with accredited forestry projects in less-developed countries, creating "meaningful and measurable" economic benefits for some of the poorest people in the world.
The organization now has up-and-running projects in Central America and Africa, with several more in the works that will expand COTAP's presence to three continents.
Its initial project, in Limay, Nicaragua, above and below, was done in partnership with Montreal-based Taking Root, a non-profit organization that develops social reforestation projects in collaboration with small-scale farmers in Nicaragua.
The community of San Juan de Limay has now planted more than 200,000 trees over an area of 160 hectares (about 235 football fields), and the trees planted by the project have generated more than $145,000 for the community.
Two subsequent projects have since taken root in Africa. In Sofala, Mozambique, below, COTAP is partnering with Envirotrade in its Sofala Community Carbon Project, where last year more than 1,800 participating farmers earned nearly $250,000 in rural areas where annual incomes are less than $50.
In Albertine Rift, Uganda, COTAP is working with Ecotrust's Trees for Global Benefits project, which has supported more than 1,000 farmers in planting native trees and fruit orchards while sequestering nearly 105,000 tonnes (metric tons) of carbon dioxide annually. Below, the program coordinator in Kasese, Uganda, records and monitors new tree growth.
"I felt very strongly that the concept was half-baked without 501(c)3 status," Whitley says. "The COTAP transaction theoretically does so many good things, but it would be flawed if it weren't tax-deductible."
More than 90 percent of each donor's carbon revenues directly funds the projects, with over 60 percent going to wages, and the full amount of any U.S. donor's contribution is tax-deductible. Below, a resident of Limay digs a hole for a new sapling.
The germ of the idea for COTAP started in the fall of 2008 when Whitley attended a presentation by The International Small Group Tree Planting Program (TIST) that focused on the ability of forestry carbon-capture projects to reach and empower the rural poor.
"The transparency was very cool," Whitley says. "They had GPS data and were distributing planting wages to farmers via cell phones. The accountability was there, too, with carbon credits serving as the backbone for contracts between counterparties."
But he perceived TIST's organizational funding to be in a sort of nether zone. "They were either asking for traditional donations, or seeking carbon investment from banks or commercial buyers who basically regard any social/poverty benefits as 'nice to have' but not a priority."
The following spring, Whitley attended a seminar on village banking taught by John Hatch, founder of the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA). "Hatch really drove home the scale of rural poverty," Whitley says, "and I also learned that microcredit has limits because many people have essentially zero assets and are totally disconnected from markets for which they could produce and sell goods."
Estimates vary, but Whitley says several hundred million people live on less than $2 a day in rural areas of less-developed countries. "This is a poverty level that forces people to choose between food, health care, and education, and the poverty level where 11 million children die each year because they lack access to resources that most people in developed countries take for granted."
Below, Sofala resident Maria Monteiro, a single mother who is raising five children following her husband's death. She says that her earnings from planting trees through the COTAP/Envirotrade partnership are helping her "to climb."
The two business school lectures on tree-planting and microfinance provided the spark that enabled Whitley to "put two and two together," but it was still a long road before COTAP got off the ground.
Early on, he learned of several other startups that were working on a similar concept, but had failed or quit, even after raising substantial amounts of money. "It was kind of like going up Everest and seeing frozen bodies on your way up," he says.
Whitley learned about Kiva, a non-profit that helps alleviate global poverty through "microfinancing"—individual contributions of as little as $25—and how quasi-commercial philanthropic transactions can, in some circumstances, address market failures. But he wasn't satisfied with the existing crop of organizations offering carbon offset opportunities to individuals.
"Offsetting was universally treated as a single-dimension transaction," he says. "By also helping alleviate rural poverty, COTAP literally doubles the number of reasons for an individual to notice, be concerned about, and take action on climate change."
At right, a community primary health care center in Sofala, built by the community with money from the sale of carbon offsets.
Forestry, Whitley believes, is unmatched in terms of its reach and ability to change lives for the world's rural, working poor.
"COTAP is stepping in to perform the simple but powerful act of adding a very modest and fully transparent markup to the funds we pass on to our projects, so that we can share, project, and track the wages created. This is unheard of in the carbon offsets space."
Although COTAP will be self-sufficient from its fees, "from a venture capitalist's perspective, this is a sacrifice fly," Whitley says, invoking a baseball play in which the batter is retired but the team scores a run. "And that's the point, because literally hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people stand to benefit. They're on third base."
You can address your CO2 emissions while improving livelihoods for the world’s poorest people today at COTAP.org/donate.