Nov 132020
Afforestation – Is it Greenwashing?

I’m starting a new series on my blog called “Is it Greenwashing?”. In my other posts on greenwashing (linked below) my examples have been fairly conventional, such as green packaging, or using words like “natural” in advertising. In this series, I look at green strategies that are touted as being beneficial for the environment, even painted as climate change solutions. While these initiatives certainly have benefits, they fall within the realm of what I think of as nuanced greenwashing. That is, they aren’t outright greenwashing, but they may be selling themselves as being more beneficial than they actually are, or are over promising as being stand-alone solutions to the climate crisis. In some cases, they could be doing more harm than good. In this first post, I consider afforestation – is it greenwashing?

Definitions:

Greenwashing is when a company uses marketing and claims to portray their product or ethos as more environmentally-friendly than it actually is. Afforestation means planting trees where they have not grown before. Reforestation is re-planting native trees to increase the number of trees in a native forest. Both methods have environmental benefits and drawbacks and both are nuanced in terms of potential greenwashing when it comes to climate changes solutions and biodiversity preservation.

Benefits:

Afforestation and reforestation can be beneficial in many ways, including:

  • Carbon capture
  • New wildlife habitat
  • Prevent/remedy soil erosion and desertification
  • Industry and employment
  • Can help with water conservation
  • Improved air quality
Politics and Industry:

It’s now commonplace for governments, corporations, and brands to use planting trees as a political tool and marketing tactic. Even the Trump administration has signed up to the One Trillion Trees Initiative (whilst bailing on the Paris Agreement and defunding the Environmental Protection Agency), and oil companies like BP and Shell invest in forest carbon offsets. As Simon Lovera of Global Forest Coalition pointed out in a 2018 article, forest carbon offsets offer no carbon mitigating guarantees because the trees planted might not survive to be a forest in 20-30 years. While I think it is positive action that governments and the oil industry want to invest in reforestation and carbon capture, it doesn’t solve the issue of emitting carbon and destroying biodiverse areas through development and agriculture. A more proactive approach would be to reduce carbon emissions AND replant trees. The economy remains the driving factor, not climate change solutions.

Tree seedlings
Conifer seedlings – photo by Daiga Ellaby
Drawbacks:

The problem with tree planting schemes is that they can result in monocultures with no ecosystems and poor biodiversity. Newly planted areas are susceptible to disease and erosion, and could very well end up as a crop/timber resource, rather than a conservation area. Furthermore, although afforestation is labelled as a cost-effective strategy to mitigate climate change, its economic potential does not always factor in food security and food systems in cases where agricultural land is commandeered for trees.

All about the trees

Another issue with afforestation and reforestation is that it’s all about the trees. Most people think of trees when they think of carbon capture, but other environments are beneficial. Grasslands have huge potential for carbon storage, as do wetlands and seaweed. The interplay between plant species and soil (microbes) is also crucial for carbon sequestration. It’s important to make sure that these already valuable carbon sinks aren’t compromised by afforestation projects, or overlooked in terms of funding and conservation.

Article on wetland mud’s role in carbon capture

Article on the role of grasslands in carbon sequestration

Seaweed helps trap carbon dioxide

Afforestation and reforestation schemes need to consider carefully what species are appropriate to plant in a region. An invasive species could accidentally be introduced with adverse effects. As Benjamin Neimark’s article in The Coversation.Com points out, some species such as eucalyptus are water intensive, and may negatively impact the water table and compete with native crops. Stewardship of the forest is also an important factor. If you don’t look after young trees and give them the correct nutrients and living conditions, they won’t thrive.

What can I do?

When you sign up to an off-setting or charitable scheme that says they will plant a certain number of trees with purchase, think about the scheme critically. If the Government or a corporation are using tree planting as a main component of their popularity agenda, question their motives.

I thought it would be beneficial to approach the question of whether afforestation is greenwashing by going back to primary school critical thinking 101 and consider the 5Ws: what, who, when, where, and why?

Tree Planting
Tree planting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Eyoel Kahssay
The 5Ws of Afforestation and Greenwashing:
What are they planting?

A diverse forest, or a plantation? Native or exotic species? Conifer or deciduous? All of these choices impact of the health of the land.

Who is doing the planting or is otherwise impacted by the afforestation?

Are planters being treated fairly? Is the effort helping the local economy so that the community can take social responsibility for stewardship of the land? Does the programme take into account indigenous land ownership and values? It is astonishing how many environmental and climate change solutions do not take land rights into account. Will it impact food systems?

When are they planting?

Do the brand provide a time scale for the tree planting promises? Do the project management team give a sense that they know when the best time to plant in that region is?

Where are the trees going?

Are they being planted in conservation areas, or are they seedlings being used to replant clear cut areas for future timber? Is the area suitable for trees? If a company is polluting or otherwise damaging a local environment, are the trees being planted in that area or elsewhere?

Why are the trees being planted?

Financial gain for companies who support reforestation, afforestation, and prevention of deforestation is known as the “economy of repair”. What’s the motive? Is it just corporate compensation for carbon emissions or is it truly a conservation effort?

All too often, old growth and ecologically-diverse forests are cleared for agricultural or industrial use. Even if these spaces are replanted with a range of trees, the forest is not the same as it was. A monoculture crop is not the same thing as a forest.

So, is afforestation greenwashing?

Well, it depends. While afforestation and reforestation are beneficial, they are not stand-alone solutions, and their impacts on the environment and community need careful consideration. In my view, they are considered greenwashing if a company or government is parading their tree planting claim as a main aspect of their sustainability agenda, but glossing over environmental damages and emissions they are creating and not seeking to fix.

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