“Anything less than excellence is greenwashing”: in conversation with Celia Francis, CEO and co-founder at Ponterra

The biodiversity crisis is an urgent and irreversible side-effect of the climate emergency. “Nearly three-quarters of the animals that existed in 1970 don’t exist today,” Celia Francis told me, “and out of 58,000 tree species, 17,000 are threatened, endangered, or going extinct.”

Celia Francis is CEO and Co-founder at Ponterra, a groundbreaking organisation addressing this very crisis. Founded in 2023, Ponterra develops and operates nature restoration projects that reverse climate change, bring back biodiversity, and uplift rural communities. Crucially, Ponterra’s work gives global corporates a highly impactful way to meet their sustainability goals, through offering high-quality carbon credits to offset their emissions.

Last Tuesday, it was fantastic to sit down with Celia and hear more about how Ponterra is setting new industry standards for carbon removal projects, what global businesses can do to play their part in avoiding the catastrophic impact of global warming, and the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.

Our conversation started from the beginning. Celia began her career in the technology industry, starting in product management and going on to run three companies as CEO, before a conversation with her daughter in 2020 inspired a change of focus.

“I think lots of people are inspired by young people, and that’s certainly my experience,” she reflected. “My young daughter asked me a simple question: what are you doing about climate change? And it was that conversation that led me to funnel my skills and expertise into tackling the climate emergency.”

But where to start? Like many people, Celia looked to the link between nature and the climate. “As a human species we’ve done a huge amount of irreparable damage to the planet – no matter how much decarbonisation we do as a society, we still face the biodiversity crisis. Like many others, I’d read the Crowther Report, which poses the big solution to address both these issues: to plant 200 billion trees around the equator.”

By reforesting to this extent, scientists predict that we can cool the planet by two degrees, as well as partially restoring the world’s biodiversity. While this might sound like an obvious – if daunting – solution, the challenge, Celia told me, is doing it well.

“By reforesting to this extent, scientists predict that we can cool the planet by two degrees, as well as partially restoring the world’s biodiversity.”

“I spent a few years in different organisations, joining tech companies in the space as well as founding the Art of Forests, a professional community for organisations that are planting at least a million trees annually. By 2023, I had come to the conclusion that there had been a lot of experimentation, but not a full appreciation of how much nature restoration costs to do well. Reforesting properly takes huge amounts of resources, highly professionalised teams, and up-front investment. I found I had a very, very clear idea of what was missing, and of what we needed to do to make progress more quickly.”

And so Ponterra was born, with the aim of reforesting land and restoring biodiversity at a never-before-seen scale. Now, just fourteen months after launch, Ponterra has closed its first deal, partnering with Microsoft, Carbon Streaming, and Rubicon Carbon for a 10,000 hectare nature-based carbon removal project in Panama.

The project is highly ambitious, involving planting native forest on land twice the size of Manhattan. It is expected to remove more than 3.2 million tonnes of carbon over 30 years, by restoring degraded cattle-farmed lands in the Azuero peninsula. Reforestation activities will bring back native forests, with an emphasis on enhancing ecosystem health, providing economic opportunity for communities, and encouraging the return of endemic wildlife. In total, the project will bring back more than 75 native tree species, plant 6 million trees, employ 300 local people, and provide over $70m in community benefits.

“In total, the project will bring back more than 75 native tree species, plant 6 million trees, employ 300 local people, and provide over $70m in community benefits.”

“There are people who are critical of the voluntary carbon market,” reflected Celia, “but right now it’s the only effective system we’ve got – and it’s working. These high-quality projects require an up-front investment, but there’s capital ready to be deployed for offsets like this. And the organisations like Microsoft, which are buying the most high-quality credits to fund projects that actually restore nature for the next hundred years, are the organisations making the most progress towards net zero. We’re clear that anything less than executing our projects really, really, well is greenwashing.”

I wondered what sets apart the corporates taking the boldest steps in the move to net zero carbon emissions? “It’s usually down to a visionary CEO or Chair of the Board,” said Celia, “someone who has the bravery to play the long-game, and to do things differently to what was done in the past.”

Looking ahead, collaboration will be critical. “We need probably 200 organisations like Ponterra, each with their specialist area or focus, and for major businesses to come together to invest in these projects.” Excitingly, this is happening: in May, tech companies including Microsoft, Meta, Google and Salesforce launched a ‘buyers alliance’ for businesses looking to purchase large quantities of carbon credits. Named the Symbiosis Coalition, the group has set the target of contracting up to 20 million tonnes of high-quality carbon removal credits by 2030.

Celia is clear that businesses lie at the heart of the solving the climate emergency. “I’ve met with politicians, I’ve met with academics, and I’ve met with inter-governmental agencies, but the people I’ve met in corporations who are working on sustainability teams, and pushing this issue onto the Board agenda… those are the people who are making this happen. Today, it’s the commercial organisations who are taking the most action. They’re the ones with the capital who are making up-front investments and committing to the future. From where I’m standing, they’re the heroes.”

liana.osborne@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup