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A lack of due diligence is spoiling tree planting offsets

Despite growing controversy, the easiest way for a giant conglomerate to continue creating dangerous emissions is through offset programs. In reality, when it comes to tree planting, some such projects are doing far more harm than good.

Uncovering instances of greenwashing these days can be achieved with a simple Google search… and a generous helping of common sense.

Take, for instance, French oil giant TotalEnergies – which proudly declared last month that it will be planting 40,000 hectares of trees as part of its expanding offset ambitions.

Only problem is, a more thorough examination of these plans quickly outs them as exactly what they are: poorly assembled, and lacking any real care. Are we being too harsh? Nope, not at all.

TotalEnergies has selected central African region Bateke Plateau as the base for its ‘eco’ initiative, and plans to fill sparse regions with acacia trees.

Predictably, there has been a grave absence of due diligence, however, and several experts have highlighted a grave mismatch in environment and tree species. According to those who know the field (if you will), this will likely have adverse effects that far outweigh any climate benefits.

This alarming instance is merely a fly in the ointment too, when you consider the full scale of the problem. In the past 30 years, tree planting has increased by 288% – mostly spurred by commodification crops like global wood and rubber supply, as well as controlled reforestation.

On the latter, a growing sense of conscious consumerism has companies scrambling everywhere to appear socially responsible. And, what’s easier than genuinely transforming outdated and harmful business practices? Offsetting them with something considered the opposite of those things… and boy is it popular at the moment.

For context, COP26 delegates recently agreed on rules for a new global carbon market which could be worth £180bn by 2030, and a huge chunk of this will inevitably be connected to reforestation efforts.

Current projects are largely spearheaded by stubborn fossil fuel proprietors, who have jumped on tree planting as their primary means for filling green quotas, despite their lack of genuine care or knowledge on the subject.

14% of offset trees in the tropics have reportedly been planted in arid zones – habitats like savannas and grasslands – which have dry biomes and prevent most trees from thriving in any capacity.

Not just an issue of waste, incompatibility between tree species and environment has previously been shown to destroy existing wildlife, disturb soil balance, and even release concealed ground carbon into the atmosphere.

While you don’t see any of this within most companies’ ecological brags, the trees they plant are rarely monitored afterwards.

Around just 5% offer updated information on how trees are progressing, and a biologist in the Philippines recently found that 80% of trees in a government conservation scheme didn’t survive.

Many touted projects that got underway years ago are yet to have sequestered any carbon whatsoever, according to geology expert Mathew Fagan. Meanwhile, their parent companies continue to pump out emissions by the metric ton.

He did, thankfully, point out that some organisations are doing it right – such as One Tree Planted. Working with local ecologists, it manages small scale projects using indigenous species and has positive results long term.

There will be hundreds of others who genuinely take care of their offsets and make a genuine difference, but it just goes to show; in our hunt for greenwashers, we need to up the ante even further.

 

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