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Leon Kaye headshot

Can a Massive Wave of Tree-Planting Turn Around Big Oil’s Reputation?

By Leon Kaye
The effectiveness of corporate tree planting programs is subject to debate, but Shell is doubling down on reforestation, saying it will spend $300 million on forest restoration efforts over the next three years.

The effectiveness of corporate tree planting programs is subject to debate, but Shell is doubling down on reforestation, saying it will spend $300 million on forest restoration efforts over the next three years.

The restoration of the world’s forests has long been touted as a key tactic for fighting climate change, and many companies have heralded tree-planting efforts as part of their sustainability agendas. Whether reforestation is truly effective, however, is open to debate. One study released earlier this year suggested the planting of 1.2 trillion trees would absorb more carbon than all human emissions annually. Other research has suggested such efforts still wouldn’t go nearly far enough to limit global warming to the 2 degrees Celsius target set by the 2015 Paris Accords. Nevertheless, one oil company plans to double down on tree planting.

In a press release issued yesterday, Royal Dutch Shell announced it will spend $300 million over the next three years in ecosystems restoration. The plan includes remediation efforts in wetlands, nature conservation and, of course, reforestation.

The company said it will launch such efforts in the Netherlands, where Shell plans to partner with Staatsbosbeheer, an organization that manages natural habitats across the northern European nation. Despite the Netherlands’ reputation for being forward-thinking on all things sustainability, the country has had its share of deforestation struggles, partly due to an aggressive fungal disease that has felled many ash trees in the countryside. To that end, Shell announced it will spend almost US$20 million (17.4 million euros) on tree-planting programs across Dutch ecosystems over the next several years.

Other projects include a 300-hectare (741 acres) reforestation project in Spain, with other projects underway, or on the drawing board, as far away as Australia and Malaysia.

“Shell will play its part. Our focus on natural ecosystems is one step we are taking today to support the transition toward a low-carbon future,” said Ben van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, in a public statement. “This comes in addition to our existing efforts, from reducing the carbon intensity of oil and gas operations to investments in renewable sources of energy.”

This isn’t the first time van Beurden has made headlines with his approach to reforestation. Several months ago, he said investments in clean energy weren’t enough to achieve global emissions reduction targets. The alternative, from his point of view, was reforestation efforts the equivalent of another Brazilian Amazon.

The company made it clear its climate action plans are not just limited to reforestation. Shell claimed it will invest in 200 new electric vehicle charging stations across the Netherlands, with another 500 such charging points to be launched across the rest of Europe.

On one hand, Shell has earned its plaudits for being one of the first global energy companies to acknowledge climate change risks. The company envisions a low-carbon economy in the coming decades, and its leadership inspired some buzz with the suggestion that Shell would consider linking executive pay to achieving emissions targets.

But critics of the global fossil fuel industry will groan at this announcement, as it could certainly come across as an incentive to keep on driving:

“From April 17, customers who fill up at a Shell service station in the Netherlands will be able to drive carbon neutral through the use of nature-based carbon credits," the company said. "This will be done at no extra cost for customers who choose Shell V-Power petrol or diesel, while those who fill up with regular Shell petrol or diesel can participate for an additional 1 cent a liter.”

Other environmental leaders were more sanguine: Last year’s IPCC report was a wake-up call on climate: reducing emissions starts with fossil fuels,” said Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “Shell is the first in the industry to set near-term targets for the emissions of both its operations and its products; this is clear progress, but it also illustrates how much work remains to achieve Paris climate targets.”

Image credit: Sebastian Unrau/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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