By Chris Lang
Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They are the most effective means we have of reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. But again and again, tree planting projects have created problems for local communities.
In a recent article in Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, journalists Sverker Lenas, Lisa Röstlund, and Elin Lindwall raise questions about planting trees as a means of offsetting emissions from burning fossil fuels.
We need trees
A recent paper in Nature notes that, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, only hope of keeping global heating below 1.5°C is to remove 730 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere before 2100.
Tree planting is one way of doing this. In 2011, the German government and IUCN launched the Bonn Challenge with the aim of restoring 350 million hectares of forests by 2030.
It sounds good. But the researchers writing in Nature found that almost half of the area that countries have pledged to plant is in the form of industrial tree plantations.
Even worse, the oil industry is keen to offset its emissions by massive tree planting and forest preservation schemes. Recently, Shell, Total, and Eni have announced their interest in trees – as a way of greenwashing their climate pollution.
Black carbon and green carbon
The article in Dagens Nyheter differentiates between “black carbon” – the carbon stored as fossil fuels, which will not interact with the atmosphere unless it is dug out and burned, and “green carbon” – the carbon stored temporarily in trees, soils, and peatlands.
Maria Johansson is a fire ecologist and researcher at Stockholm University. She tells Dagens Nyheter that,
Black carbon emissions – from the slow, geological carbon cycle, with turnaround times of millions of years – cannot be offset by green carbon in trees and ecosystems, which are part of the fast carbon cycle. We cannot guarantee that the trees will not die from diseases, or burn up, or that land use will not change.
The article in Dagens Nyheter refers to the July 2019 ETH–Zürich study that claimed that planting 900 million hectares of land with trees would absorb 200 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. The article notes the criticisms of the paper and quotes forest consultant Peter Holmgren, the ex-CIFOR head who also worked at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, as saying that,
It was an idea of a kind of mega compensation for the climate. The study received a lot of criticism because it was so basic and did not take into account local rights issues, and didn’t even try to think about the motivation to plant trees – it cannot only be to store carbon, there must be a provision for land use as well.
Climate positive burgers
In September 2019, the UN praised Swedish fast food chain Max Burgers AB for creating the world’s first “climate positive” menu. The company uses wind power in its restaurants, has a range of “green” burgers (vegetarian and vegan), and wastes less than 1% of its food.
Max Burgers also buys carbon credits from a tree planting project in Uganda. The Trees for Global Benefits project started in 2003, and more than 6,100 farmers are now involved in the project, that plants trees indigenous to Uganda, with the aim of promote biodiversity.
Max Burgers buys carbon offsets to cover 110% of the chain’s emissions – hence the “climate positive” claim. But when the company claimed in an advert that, “Every bite is good for the climate”, it received a complaint from Sweden’s Advertising Ombudsman.
A 2017 study, by researchers Elina Andersson and Wim Carton from Lund University, revealed problems with the project. Andersson and Carton interviewed 56 smallholders in the initial project area, over a period of two months.
Farmers in Uganda. Trees for Global Benefits
Several of the farmers are unhappy about the payments and about the lack of information. If the trees die of drought or disease, they do not receive any compensation.
The contracts are written in English. Few of the farmers speak English.
The project is run by an organisation called The Environmental Conservation Trust of Uganda (Ecotrust). The farmers describe the organisation to Andersson and Carton as “inaccessible”.
Some farmers have cut down their trees early. They are supposed to allow the trees to grow for at least 25 years, but they are only paid for 10 years.
Chris Stephenson is Plan Vivo’s director of operations. He is aware of the criticisms of the project. He hasn’t visited the project himself, but one of his colleagues did in 2016. He tells Dagens Nyheter that farmers only get paid for the first 10 years because that’s when they have the most investment costs.
Stephenson says that,
These researchers talked to less than one percent of the more than 5,000 farmers included in the project. It is clear that there may be examples of some participants cutting down their trees before they should, but the project is not compromised by a few trees being cut down. These farmers have voluntarily joined a program where they have set aside parts of their land that are not important for food security.
But how long the carbon will remain stored in the trees planted by the Ugandan farmers is unknown. Wim Carton tells Dagens Nyheter that,
In the event of an economic crisis or illness in the family, a farmer may be forced to cut down the forest prematurely in order to get quick money. Therefore, one cannot be sure that the trees will remain.
There is no plan for replanting once the trees are cut. And planting coffee or sugarcane is currently more profitable than planting trees.
Carton says that,
The contract does not state that they are paid to plant new trees. When we talked to project organisers on site, no one even looked at how the wood is used after harvesting.
Natural Climate Solutions to the rescue
Since 2008, Max Burgers claims to have planted a total of two million trees. Max Burgers’ sustainability manager Kaj Török tells Dagens Nyheter that,
The only way that there is today to bind carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is both third-party audited and certified, is tree planting. It is easy to have different objections, but without increasing the amount of trees in the world, it does not seem possible to reach the 1.5 degree target right now. I get tired of all the attempts to criticise the trees because they are the best we have right now.
In 2018, Török says, Max Burgers spent about US$1 million on emissions calculations and buying carbon offsets. About 0.25% of its turnover.
To justify tree planting in Uganda to offset emissions Török points to to Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot’s film about Natural Climate Solution. Török describes it as a campaign for WWF – and Dagens Nyheter links to the video on WWF’s YouTube account (which has now been watched almost 800,000 times).
This is precisely my concern about Monbiot’s support of Natural Climate Solutions. Here’s a Swedish fast food chain using Thunberg and Monbiot’s film to justify buying carbon offsets from a tree planting project in Uganda. The farmers who end up planting trees on their land have contributed the least to the climate crisis.