Planting trees against climate change has never been easier. When searching the internet, buying condoms or drinking coffee, you simply get a complimentary tree with your order which is then planted mainly in countries of the Global South to absorb tons of CO2. At least that is what the advertising promises. There are also hundreds of tree-planting projects nowadays for greenhouse gas compensation of flights, entire companies or personal footprints, which promise to compensate the emitted carbon dioxide.
We at fairafric also use such projects to offset our ecological footprint. But this is precisely why it is important for us to take a critical look at the issue. What kind of difference does planting trees really make? What does science say about it? Which measures and projects make sense, and which are simply greenwashing?
What difference does planting trees really make?
We need trees to slow down 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 this much emission, we would need up to one billion hectares of newly planted trees in addition to the existing forest areas. So it actually sounds like a good idea that so many companies and initiatives are now planting trees.
Unfortunately, it is not that easy to stop climate change. One of the biggest problems is that trees with a certain height and size are needed for reasonable CO2 absorption and processing. For the amount of carbon dioxide a tree is able to store, and thus how much CO2 it filters from the air, depends on its biomass. Let’s take two trees as an example: a 35 m tall and 50 cm thick spruce stores about 2.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. A beech with the same dimensions can absorb up to one tonne more CO2 because it has a higher wood density. The size and species of tree therefore play a considerable 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 a little easier, as they often grow much faster and form more biomass.
So-called “reforestation” projects of course do not plant metre-high trees, but seedlings, which initially absorb very little carbon. In order for them to grow and eventually store larger amounts of CO2, they need a suitable environment and protection from deforestation, animals and extreme weather conditions. The condition of the soil and the density of the 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 have grown 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 are turned into rangeland. The burning or logging of the trees would then release the stored amounts of 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 aim of reforestation projects should always be to give space back to nature and thus also provide new space for animal and insect species. However, if trees are planted that grow poorly or suppress the growth of other plant species, this can even have rather negative consequences for the area. As the German broadcaster 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.
There are many organizations that deliver these conditions for good tree and forest growth and not only reforest new areas, but also create jobs and new sources of income in the mostly rural regions. Unfortunately, there are also many companies that completely disregard these factors. The best way to find out which ones are not a marketing scam is by detailed research and personal enquiries.
Genuine environmental protection or modern selling of indulgences?
But what private individuals or companies that want to compensate for their CO2 emissions by planting trees? Can this – if implemented correctly – 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 their ecological footprint. Nowadays, especially large corporations like to use their tree initiatives as a kind of modern selling of indulgences. They commit environmental sins along their supply chain and then buy their way out of them by purchasing tree planting certificates or giving away seedlings that supposedly compensate for 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 real environmental protection cannot work like this and climate change will certainly not be stopped. Both consumers and companies must make an effort to avoid emissions and environmentally harmful practices in production and everyday life as much as possible. This would often prevent the deforestation of valuable primeval forests in the first place.
It should also be taken into account that companies that support tree planting projectsdon’t just maximize profits and improve their image. Many suppliers are also earning a fortune with the tree business. As journalists Zita Zengerling and Desireé Fehringer found out, some companies offer a planted tree as a personal gift – for around 60 euros. But the corresponding seedling costs only a few cents and hardly any money is invested in the further care and protection of the small trees.
So, both as a company and as a private person, you have to look our for a few things in the “tree business”. Fortunately, there are also many good organizations that work transparently and with a lot of passion for the environment.
Why do we plant trees with fairafric?
As mentioned at the beginning, we at fairafric have also decided to plant trees. We are currently doing this through two projects. Firstly, there is our coconut seedling project. Since 2018, we have been planting small coconut trees in cooperation with Yayra Glover Ltd. and the cocoa farmers. The aim is to provide them with an additional source of income besides cocoa cultivation and to promote their agricultural land through more diversity.
The second tree planting project which we support, is 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-saving way possible, some emissions are simply unavoidable. And as long as this is the case, it is important to us to at least completely offset them by investing in our planet. NatureOffice has proven to be a particularly great partner for this. The climate protection agency finances itself primarily by preparing life cycle assessments for companies, drafting environmental strategies or carrying out certifications. This is exactly what they also do for us once a year. All CO2 values that are produced in Ghana as well as in Germany or while shipping our chocolate are calculated. These can then be offset with the help of various climate projects, most of which are financed by the agency’s profits. Planting trees in Togo is the company’s prestige project.
But how does natureOffice ensure that its trees compensate for certain amounts of CO2 and are not cut down in the near future? CEO Andreas Weckwert explains: “To check how much CO2 our trees can actually store, we carry out a tree inventory every 5 years and measure every single tree.” The biomass and storage capacity can then be determined according to the measurements. They also take measurements against the possible 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 security fund in case one of the areas ever falls victim to fire or illegal logging.” In addition, they protect their areas with the help of the local population and thus also create new jobs.
What is also particularly important to Weckwert: “It is not just about planting a single tree that compensates for a certain amount of CO2, but about creating healthy ecosystems, providing habitats and preserving biodiversity.” It is not the individual tree that is important, but the whole forest. To create such diverse habitats, natureOffice does not plant just one tree species, as many other organisations unfortunately do, but up to 28 species per area. The strategy has allowed nature and animals to flourish freely and they now have reforestation areas in Togo with 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. First of all, when people talk about planting trees, what they really mean are seedlings. A seedling does not automatically do any good for the environment and often it does not even become a tree that can actually capture carbon dioxide. Many factors have to be taken into account 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 CO2 values – all this plays a major role. That is why, as a company or private person, you have to get to grips with the issue before you advertize it or buy a product based on marketing promises.
But if you find a suitable organization that puts their heart and soul into their projects and critically reflects and communicates their 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 – whatever we do.
We therefore think, whether companies or individuals: Plant trees – but do it right!