"We're growing native trees for woodland restoration, but the right kind of financing isn't ready"
We visited Renwick Drysdale at Kilrie Trees as part of our #LandUnlockedTour to find out about the world’s first verified carbon negative tree nursery.
Renwick Drysdale studied Ecological Economics at Edinburgh before coming back to farming and getting interested in agroecology. Kilrie Trees started out in 2016 and evolved from a business focused on forestry, arboriculture and tree surgery into the business it is today, which Renwick describes as ‘the world's first verified carbon negative tree nursery’.
Renwick Drysdale, founder of Kilrie Trees
To understand the role that Kilrie Trees plays, it's useful to understand how a business (any business) might approach ‘going carbon neutral’. As Renwick explains, “If a company wants to go carbon negative, the first step is getting an accurate picture of their carbon emissions by carrying out a carbon audit. The second step is to halt any avoidable high emissions activities. The third is to make their remaining activities more efficient. And finally, there will be a small portion of unavoidable emissions that remains. This is when they come to us to offset. It is important that we are the last link in the chain.”
Renwick is keen to point out that it is critical that businesses reduce emissions as low as possible and only ‘off-set’ the residual portion that is impossible to eliminate entirely – rather than thinking they can simply continue business as usual and ‘off-set’ the carbon used.
He points out, “People think … we can reduce our emissions to zero. That's not possible, there will always be a residual amount. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere has increased and is increasing. So even if we are emitting zero carbon at the moment, we have to get that below zero. So, on a personal, business and national level that has to happen…it's important to go beyond just efficiency and go to removal I think as well.”
While the business case for his work is clearly a huge motivation for Renwick, it is when he talks about his trees that he really lights up. “Carbon is such a small part of the benefit of a tree…. [with our clients] we really try and get into the different compositions of trees, the different species. A stand of Sitka spruce has a very different profile to a native broadleaf woodland with clearings. A stand of Sitka spruce has high timber value, and can sequester carbon, both of which are very useful and necessary, (particularly as timber becomes increasingly noted for its advantages over steel and concrete when it comes to emissions). But when you look at the other co-benefits, so things like biodiversity, flood risk mitigation, air purification, water purification, and the amount of carbon sequestered, native species and native compositions perform significantly better than commercial woodlands.”
Renwick is keen to point out there are innumerable other benefits, “[Trees] obviously create a habitat for a lot of insect life … on a farm, you start to realise (particularly across all the oil seed rape), the more pollinators there are around, the better the crop does. And particularly fruit farmers, they'll find that as well.” But he recognises there are challenges as well to shading ground and limiting planting space, and that farmers may be nervous about letting livestock into expensively planted areas of tree growth. He says, “If you plant a seedling which is 40 centimetres high and then you let a bull into the field, it’s tricky.” He notes that Scottish Forestry have told him that they aren’t getting the uptake they want on agroforestry grants and that some of this may be down to farmers worrying about the complications of grazing amongst trees and the challenge of having land unproductive while the trees grow to a decent height.
Renwick is optimistic that governments may see the potential in encouraging farmers to plant native woodlands if they can get carbon credits. “Let's have a look at what can be done with trees. What other options are there? Some farms will plant wildflower meadows, some of them will plant bee mixes, some of them will plant shrubs, some of them will farm them better - all of which are good things. But trees are increasingly becoming, I think, an area in which a farm can generate a bit more income.” But he also sees equal measures of scepticism as excitement among the people he talks to. He is worried about the impermanence of soil carbon credits and thinks trees give a more straightforward carbon sink, but is keen to see what could be achieved in other areas – like peatlands.
To Renwick, one of the biggest areas that policymakers need to tackle is helping farmers to finance this kind of work. “Anyone who tries to do anything just sort of almost loses the will to live by the end of it,” he says wryly. “We came up with a business plan and we were very happy with it and so were the banks that we spoke to. We brought in our accountant, we got the business case, cash flows all sorted. So we're sitting there thinking, okay, this should be easy.” But, of course, what Kilrie Trees found is that the standard high street banks and agricultural banks could only see the fact that this was a ‘new’ farming practice - which put their project into the category of ‘speculative’. Renwick goes on, “They would say things like, we love the team, we love the business plan, the numbers make sense, we know it's going to work, but for us, it's just not possible because it's a speculative investment.”
The new Kilrie Trees nursery is a start-up business that struggled to find bold investors.
In the end, after many wild goose chases and near misses, the team fully funded the project with private investment. Renwick is thrilled with the financing they’ve got because he feels the private investors have come on the journey with Kilrie Trees, but was frustrated by the time wasted. Renwick says it was “horrific the way that [the banks] weren’t able to get to a clear answer fast…” and notes that although Kilrie might have been able to access green funding, as an alternative, it often comes with unmanageable levels of reporting. “From a start-up business’ perspective, you just don’t have the bandwidth to write a report every week. You end up needing an employee just to speak to the bank.”
Renwick points out, “We need dramatic change in food production and land use. If you want to see dramatic change, [businesses] have to design food production or tree production or land use change systems that are dramatically different to what exists currently. But that puts it in a category of risky.” So it is vital that governments incentivise banks to take these risks on this kind of work and ensure that businesses have access to quick capital. He suggests that there are existing organisations like Zero Waste Scotland and Scottish Forestry doing fantastic work, Renwick says, “Just dial them up, I would say they work, so dial them up.”
Although Renwick worries about the lack of political will to drive through change, he is optimistic about the future for Kilrie Trees, “It's exciting, it is definitely exciting. It's exhausting. But it's just at that point where there's a huge amount of interest. And, you know, we're bringing in young, interested, dynamic people who care about what we're doing. And that's fun to be a part of.” He notes the fact that “a lot of people have a huge tie to the countryside and … people’s livelihoods depend on it,” so it's complex and messy but hugely important. He concludes, “It has to be done right. It's a hard balance to strike but we're quite enjoying the challenge of getting that right.”