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The Essential Interview: John Burton, World Land Trust

22 May 2015

Ever wondered whether carbon credits actually do anything? We caught up with the CEO of the World Land Trust to find out how you can reduce your travel emissions in an effective way

John Burton, the CEO of World Land Trust, has been a campaigning conservationist for most of his life, and – as editor and author of over 40 books on conservation and sustainable issues – there are few better people with whom to discuss green travel. At Essential Travel, we're proud to partner with and work alongside the World Land Trust, so we were delighted to sit down with John for a chat on environmental tourism, reducing your travel emissions, and whether or not carbon credits actually work. 

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As specialists in travel, we're always interested in ways that we can reduce travel emissions. Can you tell us a bit about the ways in which the World Land Trust deals with sequestering carbon? 
The primary method we use within our Carbon Balanced project is what’s known as "avoided deforestation". We can do plantations, we can plant trees, and we can do lots of things in that respect – reforestation – but the most efficient way is to stop deforestation. Tree-planting can be done, and we will do it where it’s good for recreating habitat, but it’s quite complex and quite expensive. So our choice method is always avoided deforestation. 20% of emissions worldwide come from deforestation and agriculture, so slowing that down is by far the most efficient and cheapest way of sequestering carbon. 

And for that reason, you’re involved with projects like REGUA? 
Yes – we use both methods there. REGUA is an area of Brazilian farmland and forest, and we funded the purchase of the forest as well as the degraded farmlands, which we’ve been slowly helping them to restore by reforestation. They’re planting 60 different species of trees there. It was all cleared getting on for 100 years ago – in the 1920s and '30s, mostly – and was turned into cattle pastures. By collecting the seeds from the forest, growing them in a nursery and then re-planting them out, we’ve been able to reforest large areas. We’ve also re-flooded wetlands, and of course wetlands also sequester carbon in the form of peat. 

"20% of emissions worldwide come from deforestation and agriculture, so slowing that down is by far the most efficient and cheapest way of sequestering carbon"

The REGUA reserve is four hours from Rio. Presumably that proximity makes it particularly desirable land? 
Depending on the traffic, it can be two-and-a-half hours to five hours. The main threat is wealthy weekenders in Rio buying the land, because there’s reasonable altitudinal grading there. If you go up to the top of the hills it’s relatively cool and pleasant, and it’s nice and close with lots of forest. Land prices have escalated there over the last ten years, particularly because of the attention focused on Rio [the World Cup and the Olympics] – they’ve become astronomically high. 

Does that proximity bring any benefits? 
Well, because of that proximity to Rio, it has a good tourist lodge built on it, which makes it our kind of showcase project for showing how you can do environmentally-friendly tourism and benefit the wildlife. It’s mostly birders that go there, because there are a lot of birds only found in that little forest – nowhere else in the world. But there’s plenty of other wildlife, and they have nice trails for mountain bikes and horse-riding. There are cayman and capybaras, and hummingbirds flitting around. So when we’ve got donors or competition winners – as is the case with Essential Travel [find out more in this interview] – then it’s the ideal place for them to get a real experience.

What do you think they gain from that, beyond a relaxing holiday? 
We’ve found that if you actually show people the rainforest, it enthuses them to do something about it. But there are lots of arguments for and against doing that. I mean, you can be so dark green that you don’t fly anywhere – it’s a decision people make. It’s a decision I personally haven’t made. I do still fly because, without going to see these places, I wouldn’t be able to save them. There’s a trade-off, basically. Simon Barnes, a well-known journalist who has written extensively on this, says that without people seeing it we won’t ever conserve it. You’ve got to give it a value, and often that value does depend on tourism. It’s a complex argument, and I can see right on both sides. 

"Without people seeing the rainforest, we won’t ever conserve it. You’ve got to give it a value, and often that value does depend on tourism"

So, where do you stand on the ‘offset you carbon for an extra £50’ button that a lot of airlines tie into their booking process? Does that actually work? Is there anything happening there? 
There’s something happening there, but I have a vested interest in criticising it because we offer an alternative system! A lot of those carbon credits are bought as cheaply as they possibly can be, and you can buy a tonne of carbon at about £3 per tonne. But to deliver carbon that cheaply, its got to be by something like eucalyptus plantations or alternative power systems. Our price for carbon is about £15 per tonne – more expensive, but we’re not just saving a bit of carbon, we’re saving all the biodiversity that lives in the area, creating infrastructure to protect it and making sure it’s conserved. So I wouldn’t say that those carbon credits are bad, but what we offer is distinctly better from a wildlife conservation point of view. If you just want to save yourself from a guilt complex, then they’re fine. 

Clearly, companies like Essential Travel get to learn a huge amount from a partnership with World Land Trust. But how does it work in the other direction? Do you get to learn much from those you partner with, too? 
Absolutely! Proportionally, we raise more money from the corporate sector than most other charities in Britain – about 60-70% of our income. I put this down to the fact that we work very closely with them – we don’t just treat them as a donor – we’re interested in the relationship. So, with companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers [auditors], we’ve been working with them on methods of auditing biodiversity. Puro Coffee is another good example. They source their coffee from areas where we have conservation projects. We work with them all the time, and we’ve built our brands together. Lots of charities try to isolate their corporate sponsors, but we try to get them to work together. If they’re all working with us, there’s a synergy there to start with, so why not work together?

How do you choose the companies you partner with? 
Well, we see what works for both sides. We’re working on the basis that, if someone wants to do something fairly green, they’re doing it for good motives, not just for “greenwash”. That’s fairly easy to check out. I always do due diligence on any company coming to us, and check out their credentials to make sure there are no hidden agendas – that they’re not just trying to pretend that they’re green! And it always boils down to individuals within the company. It’s always one person, like Jonathan Clarke at Essential Travel, who says, “I want to change the company.” It’s always a discussion as individuals rather than as corporate fundraisers. 

You started the World Land Trust in 1989. Has climate-related work such as yours become less of a struggle over the years? 
Back in ’89, fundraising was very, very easy. Rainforests were very much on the agenda. We had posters on the London Underground, and advertising worked! But the Gulf War collapsed that type of fundraising. It just went overnight, and it took a long time to rebuild. Today, it has become a completely different style of fundraising. Most of our fundraising comes through regular supporters who make a donation every year, corporate supporters and wealthy individuals. So I’ve seen big changes over the last 25 years.

To find out more about the work that John Burton is doing, visit World Land Trust. For more information on how to define your company's green travel policy in line with the work that the WLT is doing, get in touch with Essential Travel. Photo

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