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Don’t rely on planting trees to be carbon-neutral, scientists warn

Image credit: Rachen Buosa/Dreamstime

Taking better care of nature to cut emissions will only work if companies simultaneously slash their own emissions and focus on boosting biodiversity, not just planting trees, scientists have said.

A broad range of companies, including some fossil fuel firms, are promoting and adopting tree planting and other “nature-based solutions” as a smart and easy-to-grasp way to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

More than 560 companies, including giants such as tech firm Microsoft and retailer Walmart, urged governments to put in place stronger policies to protect nature and fight climate change, and guide business efforts toward those goals.

Many of the companies, part of the Business for Nature coalition, said at New York Climate Week events that they were pressing ahead with their own green actions, from adopting clean energy to offsetting their carbon emissions by adding trees.

But biodiversity and climate experts have warned that in the corporate rush to cut emissions to net zero, too many nature projects are proving ineffective or even counterproductive. As a result, they have called for tighter standards to ensure investment goes to what actually works.

“It’s vitally important to understand this potential can only be achieved with rapid and aggressive decarbonisation,” said Nathalie Seddon, who directs the Nature-Based Solutions Initiative at the University of Oxford.

Seddon added that a surge of new tree-planting initiatives, in particular, will be “hugely problematic” if it drives the creation of commercial tree plantations rather than the rejuvenation of natural forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems. “People like trees,” she said. “You can physically plant them in the ground ... There’s a romance around trees.”

She said that solely establishing plantations “isn’t a climate solution”. This is because the trees are often intended to be harvested and used, which can release the carbon they store.

Worsening forest fires, pest plagues, and simple neglect also can mean plantations do not last long enough to do the job promised, she and others stressed. 

To tackle this issue, Seddon has called for green investments that focus on restoring land to “what was there before human interventions” and are done with the approval and guidance of local and indigenous people.

The planet’s forests and other ecosystems today absorb almost 30 per cent of climate-changing emissions, with oceans taking in another 24 per cent – levels that could grow if natural systems are restored and expanded, she added.

Nigel Topping, Britain’s high-level champion for the delayed COP26 climate summit, said pledges to boost nature “can’t just be used as a sticking plaster over business as usual” and should follow – not replace – ambitious emissions cuts by companies.

Seddon warned that failing to slash emissions would undermine both carbon offsetting efforts and the natural systems that act as planetary life support. “We continue to erode biodiversity at our peril,” she said.

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