Tabitha Whiting
Tabitha WhitingContent & Growth Marketing
The problem with tree planting projects as a way to fight climate change
The problem with tree planting projects as a way to fight climate change
When companies want to do something about climate change, donating to tree planting projects is often the default. Unfortunately, this rarely has the impact you're looking for.
April 4, 2022

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When businesses decide they want to do something about climate change, tree planting is commonly the method they reach for.

It seems an obvious way to do good. Support projects involving planting trees, enable carbon emissions to be removed from the atmosphere. Simple. Plus, trees as a climate solution is a familiar concept for a customer to understand in marketing campaigns or during the checkout process. Win win. 

Unfortunately, though, not all tree planting campaigns will have the positive climate impact businesses are looking to have – the type of project supported makes a big difference when it comes to outcome:

  1. Tree planting projects
  2. Carbon offset forestry projects 

Tree planting projects

‘One tree planted with every order…’, ‘this Earth Day we’re launching our tree planting programme…’, ‘add £1 to your order total to plant a tree with us…’.

Messaging like this is typical where businesses are supporting a tree planting project, donating money – often a portion of the revenue from a sale – to a provider to plant saplings (young trees) on a piece of land. But, with tree planting projects like this, there is no verification process in place to ensure that the trees are actually doing good.

Trees don’t reach maturity

In theory, as a sapling grows into a mature tree it will capture and store carbon emissions. But it takes trees at least 10 years to reach the point when they absorb and store the maximum amount of carbon from the atmosphere. 

This means that when planting trees we need to know that they are going to survive to maturity to remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. That requires careful management to keep the sapling protected from disease, lack of water, sunlight, or nutrients, animal damage, wildfires, and much more. It also means ensuring the land it’s planted on doesn’t change use or ownership in the years and decades to come, to avoid the tree being cut down.

Only one species of tree is planted

In some cases, planting trees can also do more harm than good, and so it’s important that projects are also taking other issues into account when planting. With tree planting, the biggest issue is the types of trees that are planted. 

Often lots of trees of the same species are planted together to optimise on cost and space, enabling the biggest number of trees possible to be planted on a patch of land. Single species tree planting like this can be incredibly damaging to the biodiversity of the land.

In a well-developed ecosystem several species of plants and animals are interconnected, dependent on one another for survival. A classic example is bees, which pollinate several species of flowers and enable them to reproduce. When monocultures are created there is a lack of biodiversity, which can have a chain of negative effects. At its worst, this can even contribute to the loss of certain species through extinction.

To avoid this the right types of trees need to be planted in the right place. There should always be a mix of species which is appropriate to the land being planted on, taking the existing local ecosystem and the native trees within it into consideration. It needs expert involvement and proper planning to be done well – and with most tree planting projects, there’s simply no way of knowing whether this is the case. 

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Carbon offset forestry projects

When a business buys carbon offset credits from a forestry project, instead of paying for a certain number of trees to be planted, they’re paying for a number of tonnes of carbon emissions which that forestry project will remove or avoid – meaning that they can be more sure that the climate impact will actually take place.

Plus, unlike tree planting projects, carbon offset projects go through a verification process by trusted, independent standards such as Gold Standard, Verified Carbon Standard (Verra), or Puro.Earth

This process means that actual climate benefit is measured (in tonnes of carbon emissions avoided or removed) against a defined baseline. It also means that the quality of the project is being checked and verified through concepts such as: 

  • Permanence: that the positive impact made will not be reversed. With trees, for instance, this means ensuring that the trees aren’t cut down in the future.
  • Additionality: that carbon benefit is made in addition to what would have happened if the project didn’t issue carbon offset credits.
  • Leakage: where the positive impact made by a project is counteracted by an equivalent negative action elsewhere. For instance, deforestation is prevented by an offsetting project, but the company that was planning to cut down trees on that land simply moves to another piece of land and causes deforestation there instead.
  • Double counting: a carbon offset credit is claimed more than once.

Most carbon offset forestry projects even only issue their carbon offset credits after the trees have been growing for over 10 years, when the carbon removal can be measured and proven. These are known as ex-post credits.

Ultimately, all of this ensures that the project does have the real-world climate impact which it intends to, removing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere – which is essential to climate change mitigation (as outlined in the IPCC sixth assessment report). So it’s a much much better option if you’re a business that wants to do environmental good. 

Next steps

At Lune we’ve included several high-quality, verified forestry projects across the world in our library of carbon offset and removal projects. 

From afforestation of old farmland into a durable, biodiverse forest at the Langonnet Forest in France, to the conservation and management of the Rimba Raya forest in Indonesia which was previously destined to be bulldozed and turned into a palm oil plantation. 

Interested in learning more about our library of carbon offset and removal projects and how we choose which projects to support? Want to explore switching out your company’s tree planting campaign to have true, long-lasting climate impact through contributing to carbon offset and removal projects? Get in touch on [email protected], we’d love to chat. 

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