Off-setting our carbon footprint is a way for many of us to feel we are doing our bit to save the planet from the ongoing climate emergency. Tree planting schemes have become a popular way to do this. At corporate level, big companies do the same kind of thing to offset the environmental damage they cause, often by signing up to green policies that are committed to reforesting the planet. But in many cases this is perceived as “greenwashing” – where corporations are simply adopting a veneer of environmental responsibility.
Since climate change science first emerged in the 19th century, no other ecosystem has received more political attention globally than forests, thanks to their capacity to absorb CO² from the atmosphere.
The trouble is, the focus of this attention is on carbon, not forests. Carbon has overshadowed forests in climate policies, leading to practices that appear to be “green” while harming forest ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
It might be difficult to see how tree-planting and conservation could cause any harm. But when driven by the wrong motivations they can deplete ecosystems, threaten biodiversity, displace communities and delay direct action to cut carbon emissions.
Here are five ways carbon-centric policies have actually helped to damage the world’s forests.
1. The carbon market
Carbon trading was created as a last resort to deal with unsuccessful attempts to reduce emissions. It allows polluters to buy carbon “credits” from avoided, reduced or offset emissions elsewhere to compensate for their overshoot. But in reality, this practice has become standard procedure for many businesses to avoid efforts to curb their carbon emissions.
The carbon credit supply sector has been compromised by vague accounting methods, irregular credit certification, and double counting schemes. Which means the strategy has not only failed to reduce concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere, but actually made legal pollution a reality, undermining the need for change.
2. Conservation that excludes
Preserving carbon sinks – anything that absorbs more CO₂ than it emits – by preventing deforestation is crucial. However, the model of conservation developed in the colonial era, influenced by the idea of a “pristine” nature, has historically marginalised indigenous and local communities.
Since the carbon market was established, carbon has been added to the list of commodities that promote the displacement of traditional communities and limit their access to forests. For instance, the UN programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) has, in some cases, failed to protect indigenous communities from new forms of land-grabbing by states and businesses.
3. Tree-planting schemes
Afforestation – which creates new forests – and reforestation (AR) schemes have gained momentum for being a nature-based way of removing CO² from the atmosphere. However, not all ecosystems benefit from tree-planting. What’s more, many AR schemes have been combined with commercial interests, even though natural forests store more carbon than plantations whose trees are harvested regularly. Plus natural forests tend to yield more social and environmental benefits.
According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, 45% of planted forests globally are composed mainly of one or two tree species for commercial purposes. The same trend is observed in the Bonn Challenge pledges, a global climate change mission to restore 350 million hectares of forest by 2030.
The lack of distinction between native forests and commercial plantations may conceal the decline of the former and advance of the latter, which threatens biodiversity. Besides, large-scale plantations can disrupt the soil’s fertility and drain rivers and lakes because of their enormous water consumption.
4. Biofuel’s carbon neutrality
Bioenergy is produced from organic materials known as biomass and has been promoted as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels. However, its neutrality is strongly contested. In fact, under certain circumstances biofuels can increase rather than reduce CO₂ emissions.
Expansion of bioenergy crops (such as soy and palm oil) are a growing driver of deforestation worldwide. Likewise, the increasing use of wood as fuel has contributed to loss of forests and driven demand for plantations. The FAO points out that wood pellet production for power stations has rocketed in recent years, mainly due to the demand from bioenergy targets set by the European Commission.
5. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage
Most scenarios recently produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rely almost entirely on the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Yet estimates of the carbon benefits of BECCS vary widely, there are concerns about its safety, and its feasibility on a large scale is still unproven, expensive and energy intensive. BECCS also requires a massive production of biomass (either trees or crops), which increases pressure on land and water demand and poses risks for food production, biodiversity and land ownership rights.
What we need to do now
While reducing CO₂ concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere is imperative, looking at the world’s current environmental emergency from a narrow, carbon-centric view cannot promote the transition to a truly sustainable and just future. Forests are not carbon warehouses. Besides a capacity for carbon storage, they provide essential ecosystem services to all life on Earth. Those include the regulation of the water cycle, soil formation and protection against erosion, air purification and temperature regulation, pollination, and pest control.
Around 80% of the world’s terrestrial fauna and flora inhabit and produce our forests. These woodlands are also rich in human culture, and home to most of the world’s remaining indigenous tribes. Instead of promoting business-friendly offsetting juggles, states must recognise the tenure rights of indigenous and local communities to protect and restore forests while focusing on actively restructuring the economic system.
We need to see beyond the carbon smokescreen to understand that the planetary emergency we face is about more than climate change. It is about mass extinction, agrochemical and plastic pollution, human rights, global inequality and the obsession-with-growth trap. To protect the world’s forests and ourselves, we need system change, not a mere carbon fix.
Jessica Enara Vian receives funding from the University of Strathclyde for her doctoral studies. She is also a member of the UCU trade union.