Why All Forests Are Not Created Equal

not all tree-planting is good for the climate: Instead of re-evaluating our environmentally destructive habits, carbon offsetting simply encourages us to consume our way out of the climate crisis guilt free.

Last month, when Elon Musk tweeted his intention to donate $100 million to the best carbon-capture technology, many responses captured my own thoughts exactly. We already have several examples of amazing carbon-capture technology all around us, why do we need new ones? As I write, I am currently admiring a beautiful specimen of carbon-capture technology, called Sambucus nigra, more commonly known as an elderberry tree. Although the Tesla billionaire was quick to share his reasoning for specifically human-made carbon-capture solutions, trees have increasingly been recognised as potential solutions in the fight against climate change.

I am currently admiring a beautiful SPECIMEN of carbon-capture technology, known as an elderberry tree.

The recent recognition of trees’ potential is seen in the rise of flight emission offset programmes. Tree planting as a way of offsetting carbon emissions from flights is both advertised as a separate service by third party companies where the onus is on the customer to arrange it themselves, though major airlines, such as British Airways and EasyJet are increasingly doing it of their own accord. Although hailed as “one of the principal ways in which UK aviation can achieve net zero carbon by 2050”, others, such as the director of the Friends of the Earth Scotland, Dr Richard Dixon, and the director of the British climate action group Possible, Max Wakefield, have pointed out the flaws of this approach. Carbon offsetting has some major logical flaws, as it can act as a social licence to carry on with a business-as-usual mindset in the middle of a climate crisis. Instead of re-evaluating our environmentally destructive habits, carbon offsetting simply encourages us to consume our way out of the climate crisis. This approach is highly problematic. Another major issue is that tree planting is more complicated than might first appear.

Firstly, in order for tree-planting to work as an offset for carbon emissions, the trees actually have to survive for several decades, anything from 25 to 40 years, before they become effective carbon sinks. The problem therefore is viewing trees as instant fixes to carbon emissions, especially when considering that many trees struggle to make it to 25 years. This could be due to fires, draughts, and countless other climate change exacerbated issues. This potentially forms a vicious cycle where trees that never make it into adulthood are used as carbon offsets, generating more emissions that are then “offset” by trees, and so on, and so on.  

Instead of re-evaluating our environmentally destructive habits, carbon offsetting simply encourages us to consume our way out of the climate crisis.

Besides the potential natural disasters, there is also the problem of intentional deforestation, prompted by cattle ranching, logging, mining and agricultural activities. Conventional methods of re-foresting, planting straight-lines of monocultural trees close to each other, are especially vulnerable to forest fires and draughts. Not only do the tree rows suck up moisture from the ground, making the ground drier, but they also provide pathways for the fire to spread. Therefore, if tree-planting is done a way which leaves them especially vulnerable to fire and draughts, it can mean that carbon emissions are released back into atmosphere before they have even been fully offset in the first place.

Not only does it matter how re-foresting is done therefore, but it has also become clear that it is not always the best solution for every region. Often more important than re-planting is protecting the ecosystems we have in the first place.

For example, a 2016 wildfire in the Canadian town of Fort McMurray, dubbed “the beast” for its unpredictability and severity, was found to have been aggravated by the reforestation efforts taking place in the area. As the local peatlands had been transformed into forests by planting spruce trees, the spruces dried up the peatland. This, in turn, meant that the region became much more vulnerable to wildfires and draughts.

There were similar issues with California wildfires of recent years, where the rows of planted trees acted like “matchsticks,” to detrimental effects. This is especially problematic combined with the cap-and-trade policies in the state of California, which (at least, theoretically) encourages afforestation to offset carbon emissions.

rows of planted trees acted like matchsticks.

Why is it especially problematic? Well, because a policy encouraging planting trees as a response to carbon emissions happening right now assumes that those trees will continue to grow, undisturbed, for the next several decades. If these trees are planted conventionally in rows, as is the current standard practice, they can lead to worsened wildfires, turning the forests from carbon sinks to carbon emitters, rendering the whole idea of an “offset” pointless.

Instead of focusing on “carbon offsetting” as a fix-all solution, it is important to both protect the pre-existing forests, as well as ensure that any afforestation is done in a way that works for the local environment. This is important not just due to forests acting as carbon sinks, but due to the importance of old-growth forests as places of biodiversity as well as cultural and spiritual value.

Unfortunately, this protection is still largely not in place. Every year, an area of tropical forest the size of Denmark is lost. Instead of advocating for ambiguous tree-planting programmes (which may or may not even take place in the first place) and spending resources on re-foresting initiatives (which may worsen the state of the environment) why not focus on not causing any more damage than has already been done, before it is too late?  

Art by Holly Brown

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