By Chris Lang
“Planting trees is now advocated by a wide range of stake-holders, often in the form of large-scale, monoculture tree plantations. In the current form, these will aggravate, not improve, the climate and biodiversity crises.” That’s from a new briefing by Greenpeace rejecting the one trillion trees campaign that was launched last month at the World Economic Forum.
In a press statement about the briefing, Greenpeace Germany’s forests and climate campaigner, Dr. Christoph Thies says,
“Companies like Shell, Total and Eni are collectively responsible for some of the most devastating environmental destruction in human history. The idea of treewashing the climate crisis with promises of large tree plantations is anything but benign. Planting tree monocultures with one hand, while the other hand is pumping oil out of the ground, is like putting a bandage on the same arm that is being amputated.”
To stay below 1.5°C temperature increase, we need to drastically cut emissions AND massively remove CO 2 from the atmosphere. The potential for natural ecosystems — particularly forests — to absorb this excess carbon is now widely recognized.
The offsetting myth
Greenpeace highlights plans from polluting industry to “offset” its impacts on the climate with tree planting. Oil companies including Shell, Total, BP, and airline companies including Air France and EasyJet are investing in tree planting to offset emissions from burning fossil fuels.
“Planting trees does not cancel out emissions from fossil fuels,” Greenpeace notes. Part of the problem is the time lag. Burning fossil fuels puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today. There is a time lag of between 10 and 20 years after trees are planted before they build up significant amounts of biomass to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Tree planting is not a guarantee of long term carbon storage. Trees can burn, die and decay, or be cut down. When this happens the carbon stored is released back to the atmosphere. Fossil carbon is permanently stored below ground – as long as it is not extracted and burned.
Plantations are not forests
Greenpeace highlights the Bonn Challenge, under which governments are to restore 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands by 2030. But a recent analysis found that almost half of the area committed so far will be monoculture tree plantations. Only one-third will be natural forests.
Greenpeace writes that,
Large monoculture tree farms under the guise of ‘forest restoration’ cannot be considered a solution to climate change. Natural forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere for decades or even centuries. In contrast, plantations are harvested at regular intervals, “which means almost all the carbon stored in the trees goes back into the atmosphere, as the plantation waste and wood products — mostly paper and chipboard—decompose.”
Land rights and evictions
Greenpeace points out that “most natural and cultivated landscapes are already in use by local peoples”. Establishing industrial tree plantations to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would require vast areas of land. “At the expense of whose homes or in lieu of which other natural environments should these tree-planting schemes take place?” Greenpeace asks.
When agricultural lands are converted to plantations, local communities lose their livelihoods and their food sovereignty. Industrial tree plantations rely on heavy pesticide use that can run off and pollute nearly rivers, threatening communities’ drinking water and their health.
“The starting point for natural solutions to climate change and species loss must be a focus on rights-based protection and restoration of natural ecosystems,” Greenpeace writes.
Indigenous Peoples must “play a decisive role” in landscape-level land-use planning. Social justice is crucial. As is good forest governance and the “meaningful participation of local communities in decision-making”.
Greenpeace recommends that tree planting should only be used where natural regeneration cannot achieve results. A broad mix of native species should be used. “Monoculture tree plantations can be very harmful for the environment and people,” Greenpeace writes.
Climate finance must not go to establishing tree plantations, but rather on, “clean and renewable energies, rights-based ecosystem conservation and restoration, ecological farming, and community-based economic options”.
Greenpeace also recommends a change in carbon accounting to differentiate between forests and monoculture tree plantations. Increases in the area of tree cover (including plantations) cannot be counted against deforestation.
Greenpeace concludes that,
Ultimately, the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems has tremendous potential to fight global heating and biodiversity loss. But planting tree farms will only deepen the crisis.
PHOTO Credit: “Planting Tree Farms No Panacea for Climate Crisis”, Greenpeace, March 2020.