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Planting trees to save the climate?

by Susan Jörges

„We plant one tree per product”, an organic chocolate bite company claims that cooperates with Eden Reforestation Projects. “With your help we have already planted 15.000 trees in Columbia”, is written on the website of a company that sells organic cosmetic products in recyclable glass bottles. Planting trees for every product sold seems to be fashionable. Product variety is expanding on all markets, and consumers are becoming more critical.  But is planting trees an effective solution for preventing climate change? Is climate change mitigation that easy?

sapling on the palm of a hand, picture by pexels

Photosynthesis is a natural mechanism that is essential for life on planet earth. Leaves use sunlight and water to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and produce oxygen as a waste product. In a world that struggles with an excess of carbon dioxide, planting trees for absorbing it from the atmosphere seems to be a genius idea that is also a current object of research. The good news: Newly planted trees can absorb a large amount of human made CO2-emissions, as scientists from ETH Zürich (1) found. They did research on nature-based solutions for climate change and wanted to know which trees, where on the world can absorb how much CO2. Their result: Reforestation of currently fallow land area could have a significant effect on reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to the study, Russia, the USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China have the highest potential for reforestation under existing climate conditions. However, the scientists also urge to take action now: It takes time until trees have reached a certain high and are able to absorb a significant amount of CO2.

Different Trees absorb CO2 differently – and they are only effective if they have a long lifespan

Researchers from Cambridge University (2) found out that different tree types store carbon dioxide differently. Long-lived trees, such as pines from high elevations or conifers found across the high-northern latitude boreal forests, can store carbon for many centuries. For their research they sampled material from living and dead mountain trees in Siberia and the Spanish Pyrenees from different ages. The researchers discovered that harsh, cold conditions cause trees’ growth to slow, but they also make trees stronger, so that they can live to a great age. Conversely, trees growing faster during their first 25 years due to higher temperatures die much sooner than their slow-growing relatives. “As the planet warms, it causes plants to grow faster, so the thinking is that planting more trees will lead to more carbon getting removed from the atmosphere,” said Professor Ulf Büntgen from Cambridge’s Department of Geography, the study’s lead author. “But that’s only half of the story. The other half is one that hasn’t been considered: that these fast-growing trees are holding carbon for shorter periods of time.” (3) Tree type, region and ground conditions are crucial for measuring the impact of planting trees.

forest seen from the ground; free use

Non-profit organizations like Eden Reforestation Projects, based in California, combine tree-planting with combating poverty and saving habitats for native species. Their mission: “Plant trees. Save lives”. By the year 2025 their objective is to plant a minimum of 500 million trees each year (4). Eden Reforestation has projects in Nepal, Madagascar, Indonesia, Haiti, Mozambique, Kenya and Central America, not in Siberia or Canada. Which trees are planted when clicking on the “Donate” button isn’t made evident. Combining reforestation with environmental help seems to be an ambitious and morally exemplary project. But to evaluate which impact the organisation’s efforts have on mitigating climate change would need more insights into tree-types that are planted and information about the local climate conditions.

The company Atmosfair evaluates planting trees to compensate CO2 critically and refers to the Leakage problem (5). Forests need to exist for at least 50 to 100 years to have a significant effect on climate change, even if the trees are cut down later. Especially in rural areas, where land property depends on traditions and different actors fight for landownership, no western project operator can guarantee that the forest will exist in five to ten decades. Considering changing weather conditions and climate catastrophes, planting trees for mitigating global warming seems to be a difficult task.

Planting trees as a marketing strategy

Not only “green companies” plant trees for their customers, but also companies from the automotive and fossil-fuel industry try to spice up their environmental efforts for saving nature and climate by planting trees. Next time you refuel your car at a Shell-petrol station you can spend 1,1 cent per litre to compensate emissions. According to the company’s website, between November 7th and November 15th, 2020 24,4 million litres of fuel were compensated, that makes more than 150.000 trees that have to be planted (6).
Shell supports reforestation projects in Peru, Indonesia and Schleswig-Holstein (Germany) certified with the Global Standard label that measures climate action and sustainable development outcomes. A promotional video illustrates Shells commitment to nature: “Today I had a great time with the state forest team of Schleswig-Holstein”, says the general manager of Shell Germany on his stroll through the German forest. Forest workers explain the ecological cycle and walk through German healthy mixed forest. Nice.
To find out why young, green companies cooperate with tree planting organisations, we have contacted two that promote their engagement on their website. But they said they have neither time nor resources for answering the questions.

Tackle the problem at the root

During the last years, a lot of companies were founded that propose different ideas for compensation. KlimAktiv uses donations to equip rural people in Ruanda, Kongo and Uganda with modern cooking stoves that emit less CO2 than traditional open fires. On you can choose your own tree-type (e.g. Avocado, Mango or Cocoa) and give it as a present for Christmas. Atmosfair supports the development of renewable energies and backs solar plants in Senegal. The association uses donations to buy EU emission certificates that are then taken out of the trading system.

Every action for combating climate change has to be appreciated. But sticking a plaster on a big laceration isn’t effective. Rather than thinking small and concentrating on compensation, we should think big and reduce carbon emissions by rethinking economy, industry and lifestyle. There will always be unavoidable emissions, but if the overall amount of emissions was smaller, no mineral oil company and no vegan, eco-friendly start-up would have to advertise planting trees for the climate.



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