Why ancient apple orchards are at the cutting edge of carbon capture

Carbon offsetsetting can sometimes be viewed as a distraction. But, one approach being tested on French apple trees is to use blockchain to ensure that farmers are removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they produce.

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 from thirsty trees early and ended up on a dry pasture.

“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 AvallenThis is what makes apple brandy 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 Monoculture, pesticides, fertilisers, and irrigation are outlawed by the AOC system

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.

Calvados production is heavily influenced by regenerative agriculture. Skylar Zilka

The company is never satisfied and is now using the carbon capture potential of its trees to sell carbon credits. The goal is to fund more tree plantings, more regenerative agriculture, better soil health, and ultimately, more tree planting.

“Apple farming is not the most profitable business in the world,” says Etherington-Judge. “There are no apple farmer billionaires. Many of them are struggling, and there is pressure for them to switch to more profitable crops 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 isn’t the most lucrative. Apple farmers are not billionaires.

VCMs are not yet regulated. 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 constructed with carbon offset credit cash would have been built regardless. This negates 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.

Some brands are trying to make carbon offsetting a more transparent business. Guy Bowden

VCMs can rely on transparency and good faith without regulation. Avallen partnered Dovu Earth, a pioneering trading platform, to manage its carbon credit sales and host the data. The data is verified by an independent third-party. 

Dovu’s headquarters are located in Llanwrtyd Wells in mid-Wales, where founder Irfon Watkins was raised 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, a decentralised digital ledger, facilitates transactions across a peer–to-peer network. It is notoriously energy hungry. Bitcoin uses as much energy as Argentina each year. 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. Digital carbon credits can be redeemed on the platform and are time stamped at their creation and again at redemption, which prevents 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.

It is enough to give trust-building tools and frameworks to nature-based projects and then get out of their 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 must also undergo rigorous audits and sign a contract stating that they will return any money they don’t 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

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