So, we have the science correlating whale populations with a pretty accurately validated number of tons of carbon sequestered. And then we have the economic value of that carbon removed from the atmosphere, effectively enabling us to assign a value to whales for the services they provide. And that’s when it gets really exciting. Because when something has value it will find its way into legislation. And when things are part of the law, they can be financed, insured, invested in, and treated as economic assets. Again, listen to this podcast for much more on this.
Now when we say ‘economic assets’ we are not talking about credit default swaps or some other abstract financial derivative. We are still talking about whales, with emotions and amazing social sensitivity. Whales have personality and culture, and we should never just see them as numbers on a balance sheet. But what Ralph and his team have achieved is that they have framed whales and whale conservation in a way that economists and investors and bankers can understand and work with. Whales have become an asset worth investing in. Because you can use your offset money to plant a tree but it’s much more effective to use it to conserve a whale (I can say this because I’m not a scientist, but all this is science in progress and to be validated).
How do you conserve whales? How do you prevent whales from dying? It’s commonly understood that the current whale population is only about 25% of what oceans could healthily sustain. In other words: we killed 75% of whale populations, and oceanic ecosystems would only benefit from bringing that number back to 100%. It’s not like too many whales would be bad for the fish or something. No. bring back the whales and oceans will thrive.
So how do we do that? There are a few key things that need to change:
- Stop entanglement in fishing nets. This requires a very costly and intensive lobby with the fishing industry to not toss discarded nets overboard and avoid bycatch. See Seaspiracy for a gripping account of the challenges involved.
- Avoid ship collisions. Make it attractive for shipping lines to avoid whale pods and introduce fines when collisions do happen. Litigation, international policy and insurance incentives can play a huge role here.
- Stop pollution and clean up the oceans. A costly but very crucial part of whale conservation: whales are sensitive creatures that need healthy oceans, with lots of food and biodiversity to make them thrive and be happy. Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done here.
- Stop hunting. The recent Faroe Island slaughter was the last straw. We really do not need dead whales; we need live ones. With a live value of $2 million, certainly trying to sell some whale meat isn’t a viable business model any longer.
So, there’s a lot of work to be done and all this work needs money. And that’s the beauty of it all: offsetting generates just this kind of money. It really is a win-win deal: companies that want to be part of the solution to climate change can invest in a cause that’s engaging, exciting and effective, enabling them to not only offset but to learn and be part of an innovative solution to climate change at the same time. NGOs like WDC benefit from the offset money because it enables them to fund more strategic long term conservation activities that they wouldn’t be able to fund otherwise. Science benefits because in depth research into the various correlations and unknowns in whale carbon sequestering can be funded. Financial institutions benefit because they can develop new financial instruments that are relevant for their customers and genuinely contribute to halting global warming. Local coastal communities benefit because they are empowered and incentivised to take good care of their coastal ecosystems. We all benefit because we get to live in a healthier world that our children can prosper in. And obviously the ocean, and the whales that call it their home, benefit, by being left to themselves, not running the risk of being entangled in discarded fishing nets, not colliding with ships, not being caught for meat, not losing the power to communicate with their loved ones because of the noise pollution in the water, not having to scrape by for food that can’t flourish because of all the plastic in the water.
After having read these articles, the amazing potential of a whale-based carbon offset scheme flashed before my eyes. My research started to overlap with the first covid lockdown. This meant I had time because some of our clients withdrew their work with us, and I had energy because I wasn’t traveling around all the time anymore. So, I assembled a first thought deck where I sketched out the potential target groups, the value proposition, some engagement journeys and a back of the napkin business case. Then I went online and looked for whale conservation NGOs that could operationalise my ideas. When I stumbled upon Whale and Dolphin Conservation, one of the key players in this field, I was charmed right away. These people clearly knew what they were talking about, they were global, they were talking about the green whale and whale culture, they had very strong operations and a very solid lobbying and marketing machine.
One afternoon I just called them up and told the person I got on the phone my story. The voice on the other end of the line said: “that’s VERY interesting. Let me put you through to our CEO”. Now I don’t remember the name of this first contact but whoever you were: THANK YOU!!! Because 2 seconds later I was talking to the CEO of WDC, Chris Butler-Stroud, an amazingly friendly, wise, patient and committed man, whom I immediately hit it off with. That first conversation was like coming home: here was a man so visionary and enthusiastic and open to my ideas, that I immediately felt that we were at the beginning of a very exciting journey. Chris is an amazing storyteller and visionary and I spent many hours enthralled by his wisdom. But what he told me that March afternoon was that WDC had felt the potential of whale carbon and the urge to do something with it for a long time. They just hadn’t gotten around to it. My deck and my ideas were just what they needed to push ahead and set things in motion.
So we had the following ingredients lined up: a good idea for a revolutionary new offsetting / fundraising proposition, a global pandemic, an NGO with the urge to innovate but no money to spend on consultancy, a consultancy in covid crisis mode (at the time – not any longer fortunately) but with a firm belief in the value of experience design for sustainability, an ever present climate crisis, an offset market in turmoil and whales at 25% of their potential population. And somehow, we made it work.
What I find interesting about our collaboration is that it was based very much on trust. Trust from WDC in us and our ideas: they had never heard of service design, but they intuitively felt we were bringing a human-centered, collaborative and creative approach to the table that they had deep confidence in. Trust from Livework in the deal I made with WDC, that was effectively half an A4 saying we would help them in exchange for the learning and marketing opportunity we’d get from being their launching partner. Trust from my colleagues in me and my strange pro bono adventure, letting me explore this new opportunity partly in Livework time and even involving some colleagues. I think from WDC side there was just a lot of excitement and enthusiasm to be finally really working structurally on something they felt was very core to their principles. And from Livework side we had been discussing how great it would be to initiate our own service ideas and be an actual partner in a consortium rather than a contractor. We felt that this was an opportunity to bring something to life we really believed in, as co-founder.
We got to work. And it was by no means me or Livework alone working on this. First, I met the rest of the WDC team like Abbie, Sophie, Tracey, Ed, and later Good ‘Good Ed’ who became program manager of the Climate Giant initiative. All super bright and committed people who have been a true joy to work with. The collaboration was very open and explorative. We explored target groups, did field research, looked at the pros and cons of offsetting, explored the status of the science and discussed the roadmap towards a full-fledged offset proposition. We worked on positioning, branding, engagement models, customer journeys, and feedback systems. It was great meaningful work. Deloitte got on board and were essential to moving the program forward with their Expertise on Ocean Climate Finance and network and access to the Gravity Challenge. Ralph Chami himself got on board with his friends from Blue Green Future, having by that time introduced Rebalance Earth, a consortium that had introduced a very intelligent carbon scheme for African bush elephants in a similar way we had in mind for the whales. Also, we worked extensively with the amazing brand strategist Reuben Turner from Rewild and the creative geniuses from Raw in London.