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Tree planting or greenwashing: when do the two collide?

Across the UK’s upland areas – be that in Wales, Cumbrian farms or the Highlands of Scotland – land prices are rising as businesses and investors swoop in and buy them up, all in the name of carbon capture.

How does that work? Well you will most likely have noticed that tree-planting is both highly fashionable, and also a big business. Thousands of companies, from breweries, printer manufacturers and airlines to Instagram and Pokémon Go, have taken it upon themselves to promise their customers that they’ll plant trees on their behalf. It’s an easy way to feel less guilty about our capitalist culture. Feeling a bit bad about the carbon emissions of your Easter getaway? There’s an easy way to balance that out. Simply plant a few trees (or get someone else to do it for you) and Bob’s your uncle, carbon crisis averted.

But is it really that simple? An article on the BBC website earlier this week discussed how phantom forests are used for greenwashing. It tells of a plan in the Philippines, called The National Greening Programme. This was an attempt to grow 1.5 million hectares of forest and mangroves between 2011 and 2019 – but a report has now found that in the first five years 88% of it had failed. In shallow coastal waters where mangrove seedlings were planted, ninety per cent of the seedlings died.

This is far from the only example of failed tree-planting projects. In India, an area the size of Denmark has been planted with tree plantations since the 1990s – but forest cover isn’t increasing as it ought to be.

Internationally, the problem is the same. "Many of the plantations have been promotional events with no follow-up action that is really needed to grow trees" says Tina Vahanen, deputy director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In Mozambique, it’s even been alleged that mature forest has been felled to make space for new tree-planting promises – although the companies behind the new plantations deny this. The BBC witnessed a Eucalyptus plantation being harvested however – a process which far from capturing carbon, creates carbon emissions through the felling of trees and then the export of timber.

The Bonn Challenge describes itself as “a global goal to bring 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.” The BBC found that to date, 210 million hectares have been pledged. But only 27million hectares of tree cover had been established by 2020. That’s a long way from 150million – let alone 350 million.

Similarly, Trillion Trees was launched in 2016 as a united force between BirdLife International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the WWF. Their aim was to ensure a trillion trees were saved, protected or restored by 2050. Their own impact report for 2021 shows that 38.6 billion trees have so far been protected or restored. That’s only 3.86 per cent of their target.

So what of the UK’s tree planting plans? What makes them any more likely to succeed than other similar projects across the world? Tree planting does have its place – and with their natural capacity to sequester carbon, of course they have a part to play in capturing carbon. But simply buying up land and mindlessly planting trees surely can’t be the answer. Conservation charity the John Muir Trust have explained that planting dense conifers on an industrial scale can harm habitats and create more carbon in some cases. And aside from the viability issue when it comes to keeping the trees alive – and, therefore, the entire concept behind these ‘greening’ plans, there are numerous other issues related to land prices and local communities.

A recent report by the Scottish Land Commission revealed that in the past year, half of estates in Scotland were sold to corporate bodies, investment funds or charitable trusts – pricing local people out of the market. In Wales, dozen of farms have reportedly been sold to make way for afforestation projects, including one bought by British Airways so they can “carbon offset” their flights. Mark Carney recently described the carbon trading market as a “wild west”. Can anyone, hand on heart, say they disagree with him?


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