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Plantations as sinks: the carbon fraud at its worst

Plantations as sinks: the carbon fraud at its worst

This month’s issue of the World Rainforest Movement Bulletin includes the following article about the problems of carbon offset tree plantations. The article gives the example of a offset plantation burning and releasing the carbon six years later.

At a time when emissions need to be reduced dramatically (and not just stablised) this is a risk the world cannot afford to take. Offsets from carbon stored in existing, standing forests are even worse. Not only does the offset allow the polluter to avoid meaningful action to reduce its emissions, if the forest burns down then the net emissions are double what they would have been if there had been no trading: the emissions from the burning forest plus those from the polluting company.

Plantations as sinks: the carbon fraud at its worst

World Rainforest Movement Bulletin 145, August 2009

While for the majority of humanity climate change spells disaster, a few corporate-minded people perceive it as a good business opportunity. The way they see it, climate change is about carbon emissions and carbon can be traded as a commodity in the global market. This market – so they say – can be worth billions or even trillions of dollars and they expect it to bring them huge profits. Never mind if this market has any value at all in terms of halting climate change; the only thing that counts is its value as a profit making investment.

The problem is that these people have power and are very influential at both the national and international level, where laws and agreements are tailored to suit their wishes. Such has been the case in the Convention on Climate Change and its related Kyoto Protocol, which caved in to their pressure by accepting the carbon market as one of the “solutions” to climate change. Thus the so-called “Clean Development Mechanism” was approved as a means of “offsetting” CO2 emissions.

Additionally, governmental support to “free market” approaches have allowed those same actors to set up a voluntary carbon market where people are duped into believing that by paying some money they can be free from the guilt of their CO2 emissions –for instance, in air traveling. The “carbon neutral” market was thus born.

Both the “official” and “unofficial” carbon markets have included tree plantations as one of the possible mechanisms for “offsetting” emissions.

WRM has produced abundant information on the impacts of tree plantations in general, has produced analyses on why plantations should not be considered as carbon sinks, has detailed the reasons for opposing the carbon market and has explained why “carbon neutrality” is a fraud. All that information is easily available in our web site.

We would now like to focus on only one issue, which is in itself sufficient for the exclusion of tree plantations as carbon sinks: the risk of fire.

Imagine the following situation. A polluting company in the North pays a “carbon neutral” seller that promises to “offset” its emissions by planting trees. Let`’s assume that the trees are in fact planted and that they do absorb the entire amount of carbon emitted by the polluting company. Six years later, the plantation goes up on fire. The result will be that the burnt plantation will have released the entire amount of carbon that it was supposed to “offset”. Which means that the plantation’s only use was to allow the polluting company to avoid investing in what is most necessary from a climate perspective: cutting emissions.

The above is a real situation scenario, because the most common types of plantations –eucalyptus and pines – are naturally prone to fire. Both types of trees are highly flammable in natural stands – fires in fact help them to out-compete other species – and are even more flammable in large-scale fast growth plantations because they create a very dry environment under their canopy, ideal for the spread of fire.

Additionally, the social conditions they create also make them arson targets in many places where local people have been affected by them. Although not a proven fact, some fires in places as distant as Chile and Swaziland, are said to have been initiated by local people displaced or impacted by plantations. Some 10 years ago, in Venezuela, plantation and pulp company Smurfit employees had orders to search local people near its plantations and to confiscate matches and lighters for fear of arson. And the possibility was very real, because most of the locals did in fact wish to set the plantations on fire and expressed it openly.

For both social and environmental reasons, plantations are constantly going up in flames all over the world. Some of the cases that have received more news coverage include plantations – and forests – in Australia, Spain, Portugal, Chile, South Africa, Swaziland. But it is sufficient to do a simple internet search to find many more plantation-related fires in countries with large areas of tree monocultures.

The obvious conclusion in relation to plantations as carbon sinks is that it is very unwise – not to say plain stupid – to use them for storing carbon. Plantations as sinks have only one positive aspect: they portray the carbon market fraud at its worse.

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  1. Wonderful stuff! How correct that the carbon game at the moment is just that a game. A game of making profits or offsetting guilt. The guilt associated with making profits from polluting the finite resources that are rapidly dwindling in the world.
    However in reporting this the author has fallen foul of the very crime that they are blaming others for. That is sensationalism and one sided reporting.
    Alright, as an example we do NOT plant any tree plantations at all. So the poor and indeginous peoples of the world make their money from the only avenue open to them which is cutting down the forests directly outside their homes. They can get easy money from a mahogany, teak or rare tropical species with a chainsaw and a willing buyer. How do we satisfy the global need for timber?
    By saying NO! Please let us not be so niave

    We need to encourage tree plantations whilst at the same time ensuring that the carbon offset is validated and accounted for. The reporters in these pages are simply trying to scare the public and create a ‘Monster’ for the public entertainment.

    The Solomon islands is bare. New Guinea is not far behind. So the answer is to remove any incentive for a forest to be planted and for jobs to be created. Wonderful stuff!
    Lets keep the poor people poor!!

    I would rather say ” Plant more trees! The more the better!. Let governments create incentives. Let the consuming developed societies create incentive. Plant more managed forests so that the last virgin forests in native reserves are protected and economically unviable to cut down. What you are stating is that tree plantations are simply bad. Which is simply one sided and biased reporting the likes of the governmetns and media that you are fighting in the first place.
    Don’t become like them
    Report a balanced and true picture. Which goes like this.
    Bankers and corporations are offsetting their guilt and polluting penalties by planting trees. They should instead be investing in rational and well managed forests that remove the impacts on natural forests and can adequately protect the forests from fires.
    You have swung to the extreme on the other side and by doing so remove any incentive or ‘Solution’ to those who are disenfranchised by the current fraud.
    You in effect remove hope.
    Any hope of solving the environmental armagedon in the pipeline.

    Be who you dreamed of being when you were an innocent child not an angry and frustrated person

  2. Thanks Paul. The article is about industrial tree plantations as carbon offsets. There is no mention of wood supply in the article. But the argument that plantations relieve pressure on native forests is a favourite of plantation proponents, and there is little or no evidence to prove it. Brazil is an excellent example of a country with rapidly expanding areas of industrial tree plantations. If plantations were relieving the pressure on natural forests then the rate of deforestation should decrease as the area of plantations increases. Even some World Bank staff have had to accept that plantations do not take pressure off forests:

    Plantation incentive policies have sometimes been justified on the grounds that plantations might have ameliorating effects on destructive natural forest use by providing an alternative source of wood. To date, however, plantations have had no discernible global impact on reducing deforestation.

    Let’s assume that plantations are established as carbon offsets, the carbon absorbed by the trees from the atmosphere is accurately measured, that the project is additional (that it would not have otherwise taken place) and that there is no leakage (that forest destruction simply moves somewhere else). All of which are big assumptions, but for the sake of argument let’s say that all of that is possible. And that the plantation stays there for the 200 years or so that the CO2, emitted by the polluting company that buys the offsets, remains in the atmosphere. The problem is that this is still not going to address climate change. As George Monbiot pointed out in a recent article, carbon offsetting simply cannot address climate change:

    Carbon offsetting makes sense if you are seeking a global cut of 5% between now and forever. It is the cheapest and quickest way of achieving an insignificant reduction. But as soon as you seek substantial cuts, it becomes an unfair, impossible nonsense, the equivalent of pulling yourself off the ground by your whiskers. Yes, let us help poorer nations to reduce deforestation and clean up pollution. But let us not pretend that it lets us off the hook.

    And this is not about keeping “the poor people poor” as you claim. Industrial tree plantations do not relieve poverty, they increase it. That is why World Rainforest Movement supports organisations such as the Movement of Landless Rural Workers in Brazil and Via Campesina in their opposition to the spread of industrial tree plantations.

  3. I think that use of carbon credits is a sensible direction for plantations depending on the species involved (and obviously the previous land use). A key element is the end use of the timber and its life cycle analysis. Teak, for example being most frequently used in solid form and because of its inherent resistance to decay will act as an effficient and long term sink compared to other rapid carbon release species. The voluntary carbon market should differentiate between the quality of the sequestration and should recognise the difference between timber plantation species.

  4. Teak planted tomorrow will not start sequestering significant amounts of carbon for 10 years or so. Wake up and smell the coffee, John, we simply don’t have time any more for the offsetting game.

    Planting trees is almost always a good thing to do, for many reasons, but it isn’t going to help get us out of the carbon mess we’re in.

  5. @John Gilliland – Thanks. I note that you are that Operations Director at Tectona G Capital. According to the company website, “Tectona G Capital is a tropical high-grade hardwood investment management company, specialising in greenfield teak plantations as an alternative asset class for institutional investors.” Thanks for providing the link to the company’s website.

    Last month, Tectona G Capital launched a timber fund aiming to raise US$130-US$200 million, that would “invest in Forest Stewardship Council certified green-field teak plantations in Brazil and Panama”.

    In order for any plantation to create carbon credits, it has to be additional. Tectona G Capital finances teak plantations – how on earth can any teak plantation that your company finances possible be anything other than business as usual?