Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


no short cuts when it comes to tackling climate change

April 2006

Planting millions of trees is no morning-after pill for industry’s carbon excesses, argues Jutta Kill

Can tree-planting ‘neutralize’ the climate damage caused by the emissions of an industrialized world? Over the past few years, the idea has found a large following. Show biz celebrities, companies, development institutions and even the World Bank, which has pledged to ‘offset’ all emissions caused by its staff on missions around the world, hail tree-planting as the win-win solution to global warming.

The idea is simple: we pay someone else somewhere else to cover their land with trees that will soak up the carbon dioxide released through our emissions from that bargain weekend shopping trip to New York or that big corporate conference. And who could object to planting trees?

Well, I do – at least in this case. This greenwash scheme reminds me of my grandma’s warning: ‘If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ So what’s wrong with using trees to soak up greenhouse gases? In brief, this: offset forestry confuses fossil carbon with biological carbon. It claims that X amount of emissions from burned oil, gas or coal can be considered as equal to Y amount of biological carbon in a tree. Carbon marketing firms say they can tell me exactly how many trees someone somewhere will have to plant and look after for 99 years to soak up the emissions from my round-trip to, say, Beijing.

But what if ‘my’ tree dies prematurely, releasing most of the carbon it was meant to keep locked up? Proponents of offset forestry assure me they can calculate the odds of this and insure against it. Will someone be monitoring the carbon performance of ‘my’ tree during the next century of increasingly aberrant storms, droughts and heat waves?

Landscape historian Oliver Rackham has the right perspective: ‘For its practical effect, telling people to plant trees is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.’ Dealing with just the increased carbon dioxide emissions we face over the next half century would require completely covering Europe – from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains – with trees. To soak up the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, one would need to plant an area the size of Devon and Cornwall every year – and look after it forever. And the next year another area that size would need to be covered, and the next...

Carbon offset forestry’s troubles don’t end there. Is ‘my’ carbon-absorbing tree in fact mine at all? Offset forestry is a new form of colonialism under which Northern companies claim new lands to ‘undo’ damage caused by fossil fuel.
Trees are no magic potion. The only way of slowing global warming is to make drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Jutta Kill works for SinksWatch, an initiative to track and scrutinize carbon sink projects

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