In just a few weeks since its launch last month, 3,500 people, companies and organisations have clicked into the Cool Earth website and contributed sufficient millions of pounds for one of the UK’s newest non-governmental organisations to buy more than 25,000 acres of threatened rainforest in Brazil and begin changing its use to ensure a sustainable livelihood for local communities.
Anybody with £35 to spare can protect half an acre, confident of doing something to tackle global warming.
Every year, deforestation releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all 301m citizens of the US, the most carbon-wasteful people on earth. Every acre of rainforest saved from the chainsaws and bulldozers keeps 260 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, the charity says.
Johan Eliasch, the Anglo-Swedish co-founder of Cool Earth, says: “We want to roll this out globally. That means we would have a Cool Earth initiative in every major country. We need to find people in each country who want to join the initiative.”
That’s mighty big talk for a new boy on the NGO block. Yet Cool Earth has put together a very credible advisory board. Sir Nicholas Stern, the London School of Economics professor and author of the Stern Report on climate change, is a board member, together with William Cohen, a former US Defence Secretary; and Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, the President of Iceland.
Business leaders on the board include Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of global advertising group WPP; Maurice Greenberg, chief executive of US investment fund group CV Starr; and Mark Ellingham, founder of Rough Guides, the travel publisher.
Cool Earth is the brainchild of Frank Field, a Labour member of the UK parliament and social reformer, and Mr Eliasch, a sportsman turned businessman who is also deputy treasurer of the UK’s Conservative party.
Mr Eliasch was a skier of International standing. He went on to acquire several sports equipment businesses which he combined within Netherlands-registered The Head Group.
The company, listed in Vienna and New York, makes tennis, ski and diving equipment. In 2006 it generated net profits of €4.4m on revenues of €377m. Besides being Head’s chairman, and a significant shareholder, Mr Eliasch has sufficient personal resources.
“I was tired of hearing politicians talk about climate change but do very little,” he says. “I love trees. I looked for a piece of rainforest and found one I liked, owned by a logging company.”
Though he doesn’t confirm it, he is reported to have paid £8m for 400,000 acres of Brazilian rainforest. He stopped the logging, destroying 1,100 jobs, but hired some workers back as rangers. He gave open access to local communities for sustainable harvesting of nuts and Acai berries, now being hailed as an antioxidant ”superfood”. He says his forest provides a livelihood for 1,500.
When Mr Field read of that personal initiative, he realised that an umbrella organisation could channel the money of ordinary people to buy far larger acreages. They met, agreed on their shared vision, and set up Cool Earth, an entirely separate initiative, hiring a former Morgan Stanley investment banker and one-time aide to Mr Field, Matthew Owen, as director.
Cool Earth does not want to be seen as a carbon-offset scheme, yet many businesses are “exploring ways of using the mechanism”. One consumer goods company is looking at a scheme to offer consumers a choice of premium-priced packaging whose carbon ”cost” is matched by Cool Earth acreage.
The toughest challenges for Cool Earth, says Mr Owen, are handling the level of interest it has stirred, and putting in place economic arrangements that will sustain forest areas long-term. “Buying forest is dead easy,” says Mr Owen. “Preserving it is much more difficult.” Thanks to the convergence of ideas from business and charity, Cool Earth may have found a way to do both.