Should we stop planting trees?
As Christmas fast approaches and most of us jet off to see family in different places - this wonderful time of the year may not be so wonderful for the environment after all as we travel by plane (one of the most polluting industries of the world). And as a new generation that is inspired by freedom, travelling and seeing the world emerges, using any spare income to travel has become top priority after the pandemic hit us — increasing air pollution and seriously affecting air quality globally.
But companies now offer a chance to offset our Carbon — is it worth it? Can we truly jet set around the world feeling less guilty for the planet?
Well, the answer, as with everything regarding sustainability, is rather…complicated but worth learning about given the latest IPCC report suggested the window of opportunity to avoid irreversible climate change is narrow and fast approaching.
How does one carbon offset their plane ride?
Carbon offsetting means reducing or removing CO₂ emissions through environmental projects (most popularly, tree planting) to compensate for the emissions produced elsewhere.
As to regards to flying, the concept is that you can voluntarily contribute to schemes that help capture CO₂ emissions elsewhere in the world by the same amount you produced from your flight – thus making your trip “carbon neutral”.
But what is the reality of carbon capturing? And does it work?
We have discussed carbon offsetting in our blog before - how difficult it is to actually achieve it and how it is often used by many industries as greenwashing so they can continue to produce emissions without guilt - shifting the latter to the consumer and well, making profit whilst doing so.
So here is a simple guide with short, simple answers to allow you to truly understand the difficulty of carbon offsetting.
- Can you truly offset your carbon footprint?
Yes. In theory you can scientifically offset carbon emissions however what we call “offsetting” doesn’t do much for nature.
Why? Because nature doesn’t work as a “balance” but rather “harmony” and the actions we take today cannot be accounted for the ones we take tomorrow.
Think of it this way: you can’t take a person’s life but then create another life tomorrow. Doing this will not create balance because it won’t
replace that person but rather just putting another one elsewhere. Makes sense?!
- The complexities of tree planting and why it doesn’t actually work:
Whilst the statement that trees capture carbon is correct, carbon offsetting programs don’t account for the complexities of how this is done.
Firstly, while trees capture huge amounts of carbon, they need to remain growing for a long time to be effective carbon stores. Additionally, when a tree is planted, we don't start seeing carbon retention and sequestration happening for at least 10 years, so there's a long lag time. And, often not accounted for, trees don’t keep on exponentially capturing carbon but rather reach a maturity age which caps their absorption capabilities.
Furthermore, trees must remain on the ground to retain that carbon out of the atmosphere and ensuring they aren’t cut down is difficult. Some experts go further to say that a forest must stay alive for at least 100 years to become a carbon sink - difficult, at best.
Secondly, many companies tend to focus on monoculture, which isn’t only inefficient to mitigate climate change but also is a missed opportunity to promote biodiversity, adapt against anthropogenic disturbances and provide economic benefits (but more on this later - it is a fascinating topic worth of its own article).
- The issue of “double counting”
Double counting carbon credits occurs most often when the host country of a carbon offset project sells offsetting schemes to other countries and both countries claim the carbon credit in efforts to achieve their goals.
Needless to say, this is highly problematic, as one of the parties is not actually doing anything for the environment.
With these issues in mind, how can we possibly be in charge of our carbon footprint and should we stop planting trees?
The answer lies on the simplified principles of sustainability: economic growth, social equity and environmental protection by reducing our impact on the planet at the start of everything we do. And whilst the practice of achieving these isn’t easy, we can take personal responsibility by taking mindful action and being deliberate about what we do.
Offsetting carbon is not a perfect endeavour but we suggest focusing on supporting companies that are net zero when appropriate or otherwise offsetting through other schemes that directly capture carbon with technology (sometimes directly at the production stage) which have been growing in popularity in the last few years (and are much more efficient) or perhaps switching to investing in clean-energy projects instead of planting.
As for trees, projects claiming to offset your carbon footprint are at best controversial: the importance of forests for our planet is vital but we must make sure the wide public is educated to understand what offsetting through afforestation & reforestation actually means and how this affects the planet positively (which must include education and accountability on monoculture, logging and duplicity) and an understanding that planting trees alone, won’t stop climate change.
We hope you found this insightful — our aim is always to educate and come up with solutions for a better world together and we will keep updating this article with further solutions and ideas as they come along.