Companies looking for a high-impact path forward on climate action are beginning to coalesce around tree-planting to offset their carbon emissions. That's a good place to start, but a massive number of trees are needed to make a dent in the climate crisis.
Unfortunately, the enormity of the required scale leaves the door open for the law of unintended consequences to kick in. Without careful planning, tree-planting initiatives could expose corporate sponsors to new reputational risks and won't necessarily help them meet their climate goals.
Tree-planting is a relatively common carbon offset activity, but to date it has been practiced on a modest scale. The idea of scaling up gained traction in July after a research group at Switzerland’s ETH Zürich University published an analysis of the climate mitigation potential for planting billions of trees on an area equivalent in size to the U.S.
On its surface, tree-planting on a massive scale seems like a simple and effective strategy for absorbing excess carbon and making good on climate action goals — and it is, at least on paper.
The study received a widespread and enthusiastic response in the media. However, last fall questions emerged over the amount of land actually available for planting new trees.
One key criticism was the study’s lack of consideration for populated areas, calculating that 2.5 billion people already live in areas considered for reforestation. Those areas include pasture lands, settlements and whole villages, as well as larger population centers.
Signs of trouble ahead are already in evidence. Last month, for example, Reuters reported that an ambitious tree-planting and wildlife conservation initiative in India has raised social and economic justice issues, due to its impact on indigenous people and villagers living in poverty.
Among the stories tracked by the New Delhi organization Land Conflict Watch is the use of India’s Compensatory Afforestation Fund to locate new tree plantations without considering the needs and livelihood of the current occupants of the land.
Companies looking for a “safe” carbon offset can avoid reputational risk by carefully screening tree projects for their potential to displace people and their livelihoods.
Even if that element is not in play, however, tree-planting is not a simple matter of dropping saplings into the ground.
While the Zürich University study provides food for thought, critics argue it deploys standards that are unsuitable for picking locations where planting new trees is environmentally feasible.
For example, the study used average temperatures as a benchmark, while failing to take temperature extremes into account. It also failed to consider soil conditions, including erosion and other degradation, that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a healthy forest to take hold.
Companies that embark on tree-planting initiatives also need to consider their own role in deforestation, or they risk being targeted with the greenwashing label. That includes influencing their supply chains to preserve currently forested areas.
The issue of deforestation was underscored last month when the United Kingdom-based organization Global Canopy released its sixth annual Forest 500 report on companies that wield the greatest influence over the world’s forests.
The report notes that voluntary action by corporations can be more effective than legislation, especially in countries where government policy is lax. More companies appear to be getting the message. Although 140 of the companies listed in the report have no commitment against deforestation, 86 others are setting a high bar.
The number of commitments is growing. According to the report, 25 companies introduced new commitments for specific commodities last year, including Glencore, Schwarz Group (the owner of the massive German discount grocer Lidl), and Restaurant Brands International (the owner of Burger King and Tim Hortons).
The report especially draws attention to Tyson Foods. The company had no deforestation policy until 2019, when it announced a partnership with Proforest and Global Canopy to undertake a deforestation risk assessment as a precursor to setting policies for its supply chain.
One final note of caution is in order for companies seeking a boost in their reputation from tree-planting: Foremost is the need for follow-up and third-party verification to ensure that the project is fulfilling expectations.
Last year, for example, the organization ProPublica found that a Brazilian carbon offset project failed when loggers cut down trees after the offsets were sold, one of several problems with forest-related offset projects.
Another factor to consider is whether or not the number of trees planted — whether thousands, millions or billions — is more impressive than the actual impact on the Earth’s carbon load.
Earlier this year, the publication Grist reported that nature-based offsets accounted for a global reduction of 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018. That sounds fairly impressive, but it pales beside the 37 billion metric tons of industrial carbon dioxide emitted that year.
Notwithstanding the initial hype over tree-planting, managing and preserving the Earth’s forests is a key element in the climate action toolkit. Rather than rushing in willy-nilly and going for the big numbers, though, companies can accomplish more by adopting a holistic approach that takes existing populations, environmental factors and supply chain issues into consideration.
Image credit: Johannes Plenio/Pixabay
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.