Auckland Climate Festival

ACF in Conversation: Jessica Brown at Co-Benefits

14.12.2021

Jessica Brown is the Founder of Co-Benefits. Michelle sat down with Jessica to discuss what led her to where she is now, how we can all consider climate action in a broader sense, and what she has learnt can be achieved through the power of the collective.

M. You are the Founder of Co-Benefits. Can you tell us a little bit about Co-Benefits and what inspired you to set it up?

J. Co-Benefits is a giving community for climate action, run by volunteers and on a mission to end the climate emergency through inspiring impactful every day giving. We do it by pulling together money from every day givers via our transparent online giving platform. We use it to fund climate action projects in communities where we can have the greatest impact and do the greatest good.

M. Incredible! What’s the process you’ve been through to work out that impact and how you’ll invest the money? 

J. At the moment, we invest in climate projects that sell carbon credits for financing and have a proven positive socio-economic impact – also known as the co-benefits. These are projects that aren’t able to go ahead without that funding and through carbon credits we’re able to track our impact. We rely on international regulatory standards like the Gold Standard to screen and verify the projects, then we go through a robust internal due diligence process to choose each project.

The main priorities for us are that each project is impactful in terms of emission savings per dollar, so really cost-effective, and also impactful in terms of socio-economic benefit. Another key criteria for us is it has to be located in a community that’s been designated highly at risk from the climate – super front line is where we are focussing our attention. We then put it out to our community to vote on which project they want to support. It’s always interesting to see what people go with – the last one we put out, the people chose 50/50 for both projects so we ended up supporting them both.

We currently support 9 projects from a bunch of different places including India, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Myanmar. We’ve got one in the Pacific we are putting out to our community for a vote in the new year – it’ll be nice to have something closer to home.

We are actually in the middle of producing a year one impact report. It will be very transparent, putting our decision making process out there, which I am excited about sharing!

M. What inspired you to set up Co-Benefits in the first place?

J. It’s been a long journey. I studied environmental science at uni, and geography at school. I was really passionate about the outdoors, and I worked in a climate consultancy when I first graduated. I left it in 2012 after COP19 in Warsaw. I had a real awakening to the corporate greenwashing that was taking place and our role in facilitating that so I decided to leave.

Fast forward to when I was living in Australia – the fires were burning, we weren’t allowed to go outside to exercise, and climate change felt so much more real and anxiety-inducing. At the time I was spending so much money buying all of these so-called sustainable products to solve climate change and I thought I was having a huge impact. Then when I calculated my emissions, I realised that I didn’t. There was so much internalised pressure to do all that on top of feeling anxious about the burning forests.

Co-Benefits was born because I was looking at ways to make a real impactful emission savings as an individual. I promptly realised that by focussing on myself as an individual, I was never going to have the scale of the impact that we need to urgently decarbonise, so I started looking at how to have impact much wider than myself and how I could help other people have impact much wider than themselves. I realised that helping fund climate action projects is a way that does so, and also has really beautiful socio-economic benefits and helps iron out some of the inequalities in the world. Hence, Co-Benefits.

M. How did you end up in the funding space? 

J. I read an article on how to donate to fight climate change effectively through effective altruism channels that was really inspiring to me. It looked at the common criticisms of offsetting, and posed really interesting thoughts around how it could be a cool opportunity for people who wanted to do something more than just reduce their own emissions.

And it seemed like an easy regulated space to act in, making it easy for me to ensure we were having real verified scientifically-proven impact.

It was also really important for me to be able to communicate people’s individual impacts back to them. Once I started to see the impact I was having and how outsized it could be compared to other things I was doing and stressing over in my life, I wanted people to experience that too. We created an impact dashboard on our website to show people exactly what projects they are supporting, how much CO2 saved is directly attributable to their donations, and what Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) they help to meet – the co-benefits side of the equation as well.  

M. You often refer to the term ‘intersectionality’ – can you explain what this means and why it’s important?

J. Intersectionality in the climate space is a way of thinking about the climate crisis as much wider than just an environmental issue – as a human issue too. It looks at the overlap between social justice issues and the climate, inviting nuance in how we each experience the world. And it’s all about advocating for the most vulnerable communities together with advocating for the planet.  For example, there is a clear link between the climate and the health of a community, the climate and access to clean water, the climate and people’s livelihoods, and even the climate and access to education. The fact it is all so interlinked means we can solve many issues at the same time. Gold Standard has done a lot of work trying to quantify that wider socio-economic value in economic terms – even though it’s obviously hard to do – but it is so critical.

It’s also helpful to think about intersectionality and what matters to the individual when speaking to them about climate action. Climate change is such a broad-reaching, all-encompassing issue that there is always something in it for everyone. For my dad it may be insurance premiums rising, for my mum it’s biodiversity loss because she is such an animal lover.

M. Recently you organised the ‘Balance (not Burnout)’ event as part of ACF21. How did that come about and what was appealing for you about being part of the festival?

J. In terms of the appeal of the festival, I liked that it was whole-of-society, wide-ranging, with a diversity of events that were looking to be hosted. I liked the idea of getting people thinking about climate action in the lead up to such a critical international event (COP26) – the timing was really beautiful. 

For us personally, it was in the middle of the Covid lockdown, it was coming towards the end of the year, when I was feeling really burnt out personally with juggling work and this, and everyone’s morale was low and strained. I thought that it’d be a nice opportunity for us to see if we could help our community feel a little less overwhelmed in other ways beyond the climate action they were already doing through Co-Benefits. I had been talking to The Space for a while about doing something together, so it just seemed like a perfect collab. Their ethos is about ‘inspiring growth’ so it felt good to be able to help people take a little pause in the middle of the festival. 

There was also the IPCC report that came out with the Code Red for Humanity and talks around COP26 being our last best chance which put a lot of pressure on people. And then there were studies that came out this year about the percentage of young people who felt that the future was doomed – approximately 56% – it felt like a needed thing. Ultimately you can’t take impactful action or care for the planet unless you’re looking after yourself and your own wellbeing. I liked the idea of educating people on self care being climate action too. As important as anything else! It helps you really appreciate what you’re fighting for as well.

M. What were the standout moments for you during the festival?

J. I really liked Just and Tika Transitions for Tāmaki Makaurau. David Hall is a powerhouse in the climate justice space! It was really cool to hear him and Catherine speak. Rod Oram calling in from COP26. I also really enjoyed the launch event and the Legal Drafting for Climate Action workshop – from a legal nerd perspective it gave me so many ideas for action that I had never thought of! The event hosts had thought so widely.

M. How important do you think partnerships are in addressing climate change and how has that translated into how you do things?

J. Climate change touches on everything, so partnerships go such a long way in being able to live that value of educating people on intersectionality. Making people aware of these little niches on how they can take action and what they can do in these little spaces – this is really important. Every partnership opportunity also makes it more mainstream. It gets people talking about it and I feel like even in the last year we have come so far from climate change being a depressing unspoken about thing to being really mainstream. October / November it was on the news every time I turned the radio on which was incredible! It’s never had that sort of coverage before. It feels like it has totally crossed over into the mainstream. I believe a large part of this is partnerships and everyone talking about it. This is exactly what we need to be doing! It also makes it a lot easier in the collaboration if you’re sharing the load and drawing on each others’ strengths. Great for the mental health element!

M. What are your reflections on COP26 and how do you keep optimistic in the face of these challenges?

J. I had a hard week after it. I wrote a blog post which was one way to process it. I felt exhausted from thinking so deeply and absorbing so much that was going on. And not being there, it’s hard to glean the hope when you’re isolated in lockdown by yourself reading the gloomy news. Obviously pretty disappointed with the targets that have been sent, and how we’ve thrown frontline communities, at risk communities and at-risk low lying Pacific communities and others under the bus with our unoptimistic targets – but the way to keep optimistic is to look at how mainstream it is becoming, how many people are talking about it, how many activists were there even though representation was definitely not great. How front of mind it had become for so many people; I even had my great aunt talking about it during the week. I don’t I’ve ever heard the word climate change come out of her mouth before! 

If you’re purely looking at it from a public engagement point of view, it’s been a win. A groundswell of support that has been growing for it. It feels like the media are covering it, everyone’s talking and posting about it, people are marching for it. It doesn’t feel as divisive as it used to be. I think there is hope in that! Hopefully this growing groundswell will start to shift the politics.

M. With climate change on our minds, what are you thinking about as we head into Christmas? Do you have any suggestions for others who may still be purchasing gifts for their loved ones?

J. Christmas is a hard one because it is a time of consumerism and a time of travel. That weighs heavily thinking about my travel emissions. 

I have been reading some incredible gift guides – from Juliet at the Great Eco Journey, Nicola at Mainstream Green, and Ethically Kate. So many crafty ideas creating things that might make a loving caring gift. 

At Co-Benefits we have the Gift of Climate Action Campaign that we recently launched to try out and see whether it’s something people are interested in. We are offering three climate action gift amounts:

  • $25 saves on average the same emissions as 20 native trees growing for 20 years and also creates co-benefits in the communities where our projects are located.
  • $70 saves the same emissions as the average car emits in a year
  • $200 you can save the same emissions an average New Zealander emits in an entire year. 

Everyone who buys one will get an email telling them which project their money has gone to. And you get a gift certificate to share with your giftee for the day!

They’re nice little gift ideas if you like giving back and not giving stuff! You know how Santa gives the lump of coal to naughty kids? I’ve been thinking of it as the negative lump of coal – it’s the opposite of coal for Christmas because they haven’t been naughty.

M. Any closing reflections you can leave us with?

J. Consider taking the break over Christmas and New Year as a time to care for the planet as well, so you can come back and do more from a rested place! Go off social media and enjoy time in nature thinking about the good stuff that we’ve got rather than the stuff we might be losing. It’s important to take that time to pause.

M. Thank you so much Jess for inspiring us today with your thoughts and reflections! We’re looking forward to partnering with you again in 2022.

J. Pleasure!

HOSTED BY MICHELLE KENNEDY

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