Sunday, 23 October 2005

Carbon sequestration and tree planting

Soon after the World Land Trust started taking an interest in carbon sequestration as a means of combatting global warming the critisisms started. The critics argue that planting trees and preserving forests is a "cop out" allowing the polluters to continue polluting. It was, they argued, far more important to reduce emissions and become more energy efficient. And I agreed.

However, over the past few months I have begun to seriously question the relative importance of emissions reduction versus preserving forests and reforestation. The latter is complex and controversial, since it depends on a variety of factors such as where the planting is taking place, the species used, and the ultimate use of the trees. But to me preserving standing forests is clear cut and conclusive. With something like 20% of carbon dioxide still resulting from forest clearance, forest fires amnd other destruction, anything that can be done to reduce this figure must be a benefit. That to me is demonstrable and self evident.

What is not so clear are the benefits of emissions reduction, and improved energy efficiency. As far as I can see, this will not actually lead to any overall reduction in the levels of non-renewable energy being consumed. It will simply change the patterns of use. A very simple model that I have used from time demonstrates on a local, domestic level what is involved internationally. If an ordinairy consumer reduces their energy consumption, uses an energy efficient car, cuts out pointless journeys, they can easily end up saving £500 or £1000 in the course of a year. So whoopee they can then spend that £1000, on what? A holiday in Sicily? Whoosh. All that energy in air travel etc. And even if it isn't spent on air travel, virtually everything we do and buy these days consumes energy. If Britain and the rest of Europe halved their imports of oil, it's all the more for China and India -- it won't be left in the ground for future generations.

That is why I now think the biggest single priority for the future of the planet is saving every last acre of forest, swamp and wilderness that we can. Acre, by acre, hectare by hectare, pound by pound, euro by euro and dollar by dollar.


  1. Just for the sake of argument: While I agree that many individuals will probably spend any money they save by becoming more energy efficient on activities or products that are bad for the environment, surely it should be possible to avoid this, in theory, by more education and government funded initiatives aimed at making people and companies even more green? For example, a business that saves money by cutting down on electricity and transport costs might receive advice to enable them to better insulate their offices, installing double glazing and convert company vehicles to run on greener fuel. In theory saved money could also be invested into improving the general work conditions, which would benefit everybody even if not strictly of environmental benefit. Similarly individuals could get help into making their entire lifestyle greener. And ultimately money saved could be used to support the wider environment, which is where tree planting etc. would come in.

    Obviously this wouldn't work unless there were also high taxes on using fossil fuel, and financial help from the richest countries to help China and others bypass the most environmentally damaging solutions.

    In the end this carrot and stick method would require huge lifestyle changes from everybody and that all governments agreed on taxing fossil fuels, which means it will almost certainly never happen, but it's a theory anyway. In real life I agree completely - save as much wilderness as we can possibly save, before it is too late. I just feel that energy conservation and other waste minimisation should be encouraged anyway, as a step towards greener living.

  2. Helena hit nail on the head. Education is the key. Unless people start connecting day-to-day activities with burning carbon and damage to the environment, directing our efforts and resources into rainforest preservation as apposed to emissions reductions could be a very dangerous thing. Although land purchase is an extremely valid method of preserving species against imminent threats, it will not secure it against the destruction that will be caused by climate change in the future. Remember that rainforests and coral reefs are threatened by climatic alterations too. It is important to think of conservation in the long-term. If the planet is allowed to warm by 6ºC in the next century, the equatorial rainforest reserve we bought in 2005 may be nothing but savannah in a hundred years time.

    Carbon sequestration projects are only valid when used under the guise of protecting endangered species and habitats against immediate threats, and the World Land Trust is the only organisation currently pushing this idea.

    Although unpopular, huge life-style changes are necessary and, I believe, the only real way in which we can truly combat these problems. We have become cosy and complacent with our home comforts and lavish jet-setting lifestyles. But I do believe we have the ability to change. During the Second World War the government introduced a system of food rationing and people ?mucked in? and generally got on with life. Perhaps the time has come for carbon rationing?

  3. While I agree with the highly prioncipled comments by my colleagues, the reality is that we live in the real world governed by ubnrealistic people. Centraliswed planning such as existed in UK during World War II and under communism would allow for such changes to be made. But we live in a capitalist dominated world where the profit motive is paramount. As a consequence we now have inummerable energy indistries all competing to sell us as much energy as possibloe, as cheaply as possible. Personally, I feel helpless to do any thing about this. But I do feel that preserving as much fores as possible is one possible answer .. see my blog of 14 November for more on this.

  4. 20 years ago I established a charity named Plant a Tree in Africa, with the help of some friends. Whilst tree planting and conservation, especially in Africa, could make an appreciable contribution in carbon sequestration, we should not forget the important role trees play(particularly nitrogen fixing species)in sustainable development and the reduction of poverty.

    By donating to PATIA you can help offset the contribution your daily activities make towards global warming and help to reduce poverty in Africa. Please visit our web site at

    Mike Thomas

  5. Mike Thomas and PATIA seem to be duplicating what the World Land Trust is doing, but on a very small scale. While tiny prjects, such as those run by PATIA have their place, I believe that to be cost effective tree planting needs to be on a significantly larger scale. Since writing the original blog, the World Land Trust has increased its tree planting activities significantly and by mid-2006 now has an annual budget of over £250,000 ($450,000) p.a. a year, mostly from coporations, but also from individuals. This enables us to utuilise the economies of scale when gathering seed, growing them and planting them.

  6. I have picked up two comments which mention Plant a Tree in Africa.
    As the chairman of the charity I would like to respond to the comments I have read so far. Both PATIA and the Future in Our Hands Education and Development Fund (see supporting a project to cut down 2 million eucalyptus trees in the Cameroon where they have had a devastating impact on the lives of rural women by depriving them of land close to their homes, lowering water tables and reducing crop yields. These trees are being replaced with nitrogen fixing species for agro forestry and expand (on a small scale) areas of natural forest.
    The World Rainforest Movement highlights the damaging effect of tree plantations of eucalyptus,pine,acacia and palm on the lives of poor people. A new threat is now posed by the trend to invest in such plantations in the South as a means to offset greenhouse gas emissions (see Tree Plantations:Impacts and Struggles ISBN 9974 574 23 4). In addition to this, areas of natural forest are being cleared and potential crop growing land utilized, for growing biofuels (crops to feed cars instead of people!).

    I believe there are two ways we can look at solutions to global warming - from the top down and from the bottom up. The best example I have seen of the former is that in the CAP and SHARE system of carbon trading (see Tree planting may be one reflection of the latter approach but is not a particularly adequate one. As a very first step I believe that most individuals must scrap their cars and forego long distance holidays. The appropriate response is for the affluent to live more simply and give financial support for those projects that help preserve human life support systems and relieve poverty. The UK government seems to be focusing on support for projects in poor countries that are supposed to reduce to offset carbon dioxide emissions caused by the affluent. Also it dose not appear to be favouring support tree planting in the UK for this purpose. Whilst tree planting in the UK will not play any significant role in sequestering CO2 directly, surely it will have a substantial indirect mitigating effect by reducing the amount of timber imported? Has the world gone crazy?

    I dont think anything I have said here is in oposition to the comments made so far. I agree wholeheartedly with the contention that it is vital to preserve areas of natural forest (and expand them).
    I just wanted to clarify our stance on these issues as the representative of FIOH UK and PATIA.

    Mike Thomas

  7. Thanks for this -- no I think we are all in broad agreement. The only thing I might disagree with is the concept of the affluent giving up their lifestyle. Not a hope of a snowflake in hell. Well individuals might as a group, trhe affluent will not. And by affluent I mean the whole population of western Europe and the entire population of North America. In global terms we are all exceedingly affluent, all consuming vast amounts of energy, and every single addition to these populations is a consumer in waiting.

  8. Planting trees cannot offset carbon. It's bad science and thus harms the environmental message.
    Plenty of good evidence reported in New Scientist magazine (UK). Leading experts on climate change are in agreement as are tree and forestry experts.

  9. This is I think an oversimplistic statement. And there is plenty of evidence to support reforestation, in the tropics, as one way of sequestering carbon. But, the WLT is very clear that avoided deforestation is by far the best way of reduing carbon emmissions, AND conserving biodiversity. None of the other methods of reducing carbon emmissions have this benefit.