Planting trees - good for the environment or just for marketing?

Bäume pflanzen - gut für die Umwelt oder nur fürs Marketing?

Planting trees to combat climate change has never been easier. When searching the Internet, buying condoms or drinking coffee, today you simply get another tree on the house, which is then planted mainly in countries of the Global South to absorb tons of CO2. At least, that's what the advertising promises. There are now also hundreds of tree-planting projects for greenhouse gas compensation of flights, entire companies or the personal footprint, which promise to compensate for the CO2 emitted.

We at fairafric also use such projects to neutralize our ecological footprint. However, this is precisely why it is important for us to take a critical look at the issue. How much does planting trees really achieve? What does science have to say about it? Which measures and projects make sense and which are simply greenwashing? These are the questions we would like to explore critically and transparently here.

What is the real benefit of planting trees?

We need trees to slow climate change, and we really need a lot of them. According to a study by the Zurich University of Technology, trees could absorb up to two-thirds of the CO2 emissions caused by humans. Reforestation is therefore one of the most effective means of combating climate change. However, in order to absorb so many emissions, we would need up to one billion hectares of newly planted land in addition to the existing forest areas. So it actually sounds quite reasonable that so many companies and initiatives are now planting trees.


Unfortunately, it's not that easy to stop climate change. One of the biggest problems is that trees with a certain biomass are needed for reasonable CO2 absorption and processing. This is because it depends on this biomass how much carbon dioxide the tree stores and thus how much CO2 it filters from the surrounding air. Let's take two native trees as an example: A 35 m tall and 50 cm thick spruce stores about 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. A beech with the same dimensions can absorb up to one ton more CO2 because it has a higher wood density. The size and the type of tree therefore play a significant role. Age is also very decisive, because trees need years to decades to reach these dimensions, depending on the species (in the case of spruce, for example, 100 years).
Trees in the tropics have it somewhat easier, as they often grow much faster and form more biomass.

So-called "reforestation" projects, however, do not plant meter-high trees, of course, but saplings, which in turn initially absorb very little carbon. For them to grow and eventually store larger amounts of CO2, they need a suitable environment and protection from deforestation, animals and extreme weather. The condition of the soil and the density of planting are also factors that need to be taken into account. In order to ensure that the trees grow well, it is therefore necessary to work together with the local population.

The question of what happens to the trees once they grow up is also very important and requires good cooperation. If the reforestation areas are not protected in the long term, there is a risk that they will eventually be felled for their wood or fall victim to arable land and other uses. Fires or clearing would release the stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

Finally, the type of tree also plays a role. Not every tree species is suitable for every soil or promotes natural growth in a region. The goal of reforestation projects should always be to restore space to nature and thus also provide new habitat for animal and insect species. But if trees are planted that grow poorly or suppress the growth of other plant species, this can actually have rather negative consequences for the area. As the NDR recently showed in a documentary on the subject, it is sometimes even better to simply leave the areas completely to nature, which can then often regenerate itself in all its diversity.

In the meantime, there are many organizations that observe the conditions mentioned here for good tree and forest growth and not only reforest new areas, but also, if necessary, create jobs and new sources of income in the often rural regions. Unfortunately, there are also many companies that completely disregard these factors. By more exact investigating or inquiring, these can be unmasked however often fast.

Genuine environmental protection or modern indulgence trade?

But what does it look like when private individuals or companies want to compensate for their CO2 emissions by planting trees? Can this - if implemented sensibly - really work?
Again, the answer is neither a clear yes nor a no. First of all, the following should be made clear: offsetting greenhouse gases by planting trees-or other projects-should never be the only thing a person or company does to minimize his or her ecological footprint. Today, large corporations in particular like to use their tree initiatives as a kind of modern-day indulgence. They commit environmental sins along their supply chain and then buy their way out of them by purchasing tree planting certificates or giving away saplings that supposedly offset the amount of CO2 emitted. Famous examples can be found on websites of reforestation organizations such as treedom.com. Listed here are Nespresso, H&,M, Samsung and Co. with a wide variety of initiatives that are supposed to reflect their environmental awareness.

But this is no way to protect the environment properly, and it certainly won't stop climate change. Both consumers and companies must make an effort to avoid emissions in production and everyday life as much as possible. This would often prevent the deforestation of valuable virgin forests in the first place.

It should also be taken into account that not only companies that have trees planted are happy to do so in order to maximize profits and improve their image. Also many offerers earn themselves in the meantime with the tree business a golden nose. As journalists Zita Zengerling and Desireé Fehringer found out, companies offer a planted tree as a personal gift, for example - for around 60 euros. The corresponding seedling, however, costs only a few cents. Hardly any money is spent on the further care and protection of the small trees.

Both as enterprise, and as private person one must pay attention thus to some in the tree Business. Fortunately, there are also many good organizations that work transparently and carefully and don't just throw around nice-sounding numbers.

Why do we plant trees with fairafric?

As mentioned at the beginning, we at fairafric have also decided to plant trees. Currently, we are doing this through two projects. First, there is our coconut seedling project. Already since 2018, we have been planting small coconut trees in collaboration with Yayra Glover Ltd. and the cocoa farmers around Amanase. This is to provide them with an additional source of income besides cocoa cultivation and to promote their agricultural land through more diversity. You can read more about the project here and here.

Our second tree planting project, which we support, is located in Togo and is managed by the climate protection agency natureOffice. For more than three years we have been working with them to offset our CO2 emissions. Despite the controversy surrounding offsetting and tree planting, we decided to take this step. Because even though we strive to produce in the most resource- and energy-efficient way possible, some emissions are simply unavoidable. And as long as that is the case, it is important to us to at least fully offset them. NatureOffice has proven to be a particularly great partner for this. The climate protection agency finances itself primarily by creating life cycle assessments for companies, designing environmental strategies or carrying out certifications. This is exactly what they do for us once a year. All the CO2 values that are produced both in Ghana and in Germany or on the way of our chocolate are calculated precisely. These can then be neutralized with the help of various climate projects, most of which are funded by the agency's profits. Tree planting in Togo is the company's project of the heart.

A tree nursery of the Project Togo. More information about this is available at: https://www.natureoffice.com/klimaschutzprojekte/project-togo/projektdetails

But how does natureOffice ensure that its trees compensate for certain amounts of CO2 or are not felled? Managing Director Andreas Weckwert explains, "To check how much CO2 our trees can actually store, we conduct a tree inventory every 5 years and measure every single tree." The measurements can then be used to determine the biomass and, from that, the storage capacity. If you want to know exactly how it works mathematically, you can read about it here. They also hedge against any destruction of the trees. "Only 80 percent of the trees in a single planting area are used for our calculations. The remaining 20 percent serve as a kind of backup fund in case one of the areas ever falls victim to fire or illegal clearing." In addition, they protect their areas with the help of the local population and thus also create new jobs.

What's also particularly important to Weckwert is that "it's not just about planting a single tree that offsets so-and-so's CO2, but creating healthy ecosystems, providing habitats and preserving biodiversity." It's not the individual tree that's important, he said, but the whole forest. To create such diverse habitats, natureOffice plants not just one species of tree, as many other organizations unfortunately do, but up to 28 species per area. The strategy has allowed nature and animals to flourish freely as a result, and there are now reforestation areas in Togo that contain as many as 94 plant species.

In conclusion, what can be said about tree planting?

"Buy our product and we'll plant a tree" - unfortunately, climate protection is not that simple, as we have seen. For one thing, there is hardly ever any talk of a whole tree, but rather saplings. This is not automatically good for the environment and often it does not even become a tree. Many factors have to be considered and communicated with transparency by the respective companies and organizations in order to really make a difference by planting trees. Tree species, planting region, protection of the areas, the correct calculation and accounting of the CO2 values - all this plays a major role. That's why, as a company or private individual, you have to get to grips with the subject well before you advertise it or buy a product based on marketing promises.

But if you find a suitable organization that puts its heart and soul into its projects and critically reflects and communicates its actions, a great deal can be achieved for environmental protection. CO2 that has already been produced can be filtered out of our environment better than with any other method, biodiversity is promoted and social impact can also be created in the process.
Last but not least, the hype around tree planting creates awareness. It shows us that we urgently need trees and forests and that we should always keep our ecological footprint in mind when we act.

We therefore think, whether companies or individuals: Plant trees - but do it right!