By Chris Lang
At its meeting in Davos last month, the World Economic Forum launched a new initiative to plant one trillion trees. Even Donald Trump is on board.
During his speech in Davos, Trump announced that,
“We’re committed to conserving the majesty of God’s creation and the natural beauty of our world. Today, I am pleased to announce the United States will join One Trillion Trees Initiative being launched here at the World Economic Forum. One Trillion Trees.”
Apart from at the end of the speech, that was the only time during Trump’s 30-minute-long speech that the audience clapped.
“A big eye on our forests”
Marc Benioff, the billionaire founder of Salesforce, a Customer Relationship Management firm, was on the panel in Davos that announced the initiative. Benioff and his wife will provide funding for the One Trillion Trees initiative.
In his speech, Benioff said,
“We are certainly at a time of planetary emergency. We realise that our planet is getting warmer and we need to find ways and solutions, and we are all going to become number one, carbon net zero and reduce emissions, and number two, we have to sequester or eliminate the carbon that has been emitted into the atmosphere.”
Needless to say, Benioff focussed exclusively on number two. “We need to get a big eye on our forests so that we can use them to sequester this carbon,” he said.
Benioff spoke about a conversation he had with Jane Goodall at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September 2018. Goodall asked him what he was doing for the forests. “And I didn’t have an answer,” he said in Davos. “I didn’t know what to say. And I had it in my mind though, that it was a loop, that I needed to have something to say.”
Goodall was also on the panel in Davos. Predictably, no one mentioned the impact of the Jane Goodall Institute’s REDD project in Tanzania on local communities. Here’s how one villager described the violent evictions that took place in 2012 as part of the REDD project,
“I was beaten there with my wife and my children also were beaten. Thereafter, they cut all the bananas, all the palm oils, they left nothing there. There inside, there were like ten bags of this rice paddy, they burnt everything, they burnt the maize, they burnt the house, then they had nothing left.”
Benioff continued his speech by giving thanks to Al Gore, “who is a critical part of this”. At a World Economic Forum trustee meeting in August 2019, Gore spoke about what Benioff described in Davos as,
“The incredible research done at ETH University, right here in Zürich, by Tom Crowther. Tom would you just stand up and be recognised. Tom did the incredible work for the trillion tree vision, his team is doing extraordinary things and took artificial intelligence and low-hanging satellites and other fourth industrial revolution technologies and is showing us where these trillion trees are going, and also the amount of carbon that they can sequester, and the mathematical models and the environmental models.
“And the research was then published in many scientific journals, including Scientific American, Science, and others, and Al Gore said, ‘Have you seen this research from Tom Crowther?’
“And I was like, ‘No I haven’t.’
“‘It’s like about the forests.’ And I said ‘Well I’m actually thinking about the forests, because I was just with Jane.’“
When he read Crowther’s paper, Benioff said, “What? One trillion trees will sequester more than 200 gigatons of carbon. We have to get on this right now. Who’s working on this?”
“Incorrect scientifically and dangerously misleading”
Benioff seems to be unaware of the criticism that ETH-Zürich’s research attracted. In October 2019, Science published four technical responses and three letters in response to the paper. All but one were extremely critical of the research.
One technical response stated that,
The claim that global tree restoration is our most effective climate change solution is simply incorrect scientifically and dangerously misleading.
Another technical response concluded that,
Although ecological restoration, if carefully implemented, can have a role in mitigating climate change, it is no substitute for the fact that most fossil fuel emissions will need to stop to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.
Crowther has pulled back from his claim that one trillion trees could sequester 200 gigatons of carbon. In September 2019, Crowther was interviewed by The Economist. He said that,
It’s not like 200 gigatons are really going to come out of the atmosphere immediately, it would be amazing if we even reached 10% of that full potential.
More than 200 companies already interested
In his speech, Benioff thanked the World Economic Forum. “I don’t think there’s another organisation on the planet,” he said, “that actually could take this research that coincidentally was done just a couple of miles from here, and start to execute this and to be able to convene the world leaders.”
That’s probably true. The World Economic Forum has no democratic mandate to worry about. It’s a club of neoliberal, rich people who have spent decades avoiding, re-writing, and doing away with government legislation. It is the perfect organisation to carry out a land grab the size of Australia.
“We’ve already seen interest from two to three hundred companies, just in 24 hours to join our 1t.org programme,” Benioff said.
“You know, who’s against the trees? I mean everyone’s for the trees. The trees are a bipartisan issue. Everybody’s pro-tree. I haven’t met any anti-tree people yet. So that’s very good. So Jane, you’ve done a great job. And every one of us can join this movement. And every one of us can make a commitment to plant trees, whether it’s individually or organizationally, whether it’s a government, whether it’s a non-profit an NGO, whether it is a business. Salesforce is committed to planting 100 million trees over the next 10 years.”
In her speech at Davos, Greta Thunberg criticised exactly this sort of naive view that trees will save the planet. She pointed out that,
“Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed, and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature.”
Of course, had Benioff taken the trouble to carry out any research into the impacts of industrial tree plantations, he would know that many local communities and indigenous peoples are opposed to tree planting.
For decades, World Rainforest Movement has documented the struggles of local communities against tree planting initiatives – including tree planting that is supposed to help address climate change.
The CO2 Alibi
In 2006, I wrote a report for World Rainforest Movement about a tree planting and conservation project on Mount Elgon in Uganda. The project was developed by a Dutch company called the FACE Foundation (now renamed as Face the Future). The project aimed to plant trees on an area of 35,000 hectares and conserve forests to offset emissions from flying and from a coal-fired power plant near Rotterdam.
But the communities living around Mount Elgon National Park were not consulted about any of this. Many were brutally evicted to make way for the carbon project. Land rights disputes erupted.
The Ugandan Wildlife Authority responded with force against the communities living around Mount Elgon. One villager told me he was beaten and taken to the police. Another man showed me wounds he’d received on his chin, where UWA rangers had hit him with a rifle. Another had a broken hand, a result of being beaten by UWA rangers. Another man was laid down flat on the ground and had a heavy stone placed on his back so that he could not move.
One of the villagers opened up an envelope containing bullet shells. “The bullets were shot by people trying to kill us,” he told me. “Some people have died. Others have been injured.”
The Dutch documentary TV series Zembla made a documentary about Mount Elgon – “The CO2 Alibi”. When the documentary was made, the FACE Foundation had planted three million trees.
While the documentary is more than a decade old, it is more relevant than ever: