Greenwashing: corporate tree planting generates goodwill but may sometimes harm the planet



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Missing the wood for the trees.
iDraw/Shutterstock

Benjamin Neimark, Lancaster University

Trees do a lot more for us than you probably think. Their roots prevent soil from eroding, their canopies provide shade and their leaves decompose into nutrients for crops, which feed livestock. Trees provide homes for a diverse range of wildlife and tree crops, such as coffee, rubber, and hardwoods, support countless livelihoods and entire economies. Trees also mark boundaries and hold immense spiritual, cultural and social value for smallholder communities around the world.

In the 1980s, charities proposed planting more trees to halt “desertification” in the Sahara Desert. This involved “afforestation” – planting trees where they had not grown for a while and “reforestation” – replacing recently lost tree cover.

Today the idea is growing strong, and an array of private companies from adult website Pornhub (yes, Pornhub) to clothing brand Ten Tree are using trees as a marketing tool.




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Saving face or saving forests?

Businesses can offset their environmental impact by planting trees or supporting other forms of habitat restoration, so as to “pay off” the damage they cause locally. As climate change escalates, trees are in vogue for their potential to soak up the carbon dioxide we keep putting in the atmosphere.

The United Nations (UN) has even adopted a scheme for offering local communities and governments some sort of financial payout for saving trees from deforestation. This “economy of repair” has been adopted by some of the largest companies in their commitments to corporate social responsibility. One such programme is the Green Belt Movement – a Kenyan conservation NGO started by the late professor and Nobel Prize recipient Wangari Maathai.

Tree planting around the Sahara Desert has overwhelmingly relied on local efforts rather than businesses.
Niels Polderman/Shutterstock

Maathai’s original mission was to empower local people, particularly women, to overcome inequality through leading forest restoration and resisting the expanding Sahara Desert. Despite the involvement of charities and businesses, research has suggested that in programmes like these, it is farmers and local people, not companies, which make the biggest contributions to planting new trees. Since local people also inherit responsibility for them, it’s important that projects devised by outside parties are planned and executed wisely, and in the community’s interest.




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While some may argue that tree planting is a win-win for the environment whoever does it, offsetting is just another way of corporate greenwashing. Environmental damage in one place cannot somehow be fixed by repairing habitats elsewhere, sometimes on the other side of the world.

Here are some of the ways in which indiscriminate tree planting can cause more harm than good.

Plantations are not forests

Diverse forests are often cleared for agricultural production or industrial use, and replaced by uniform stands of the same species selected because of their ability to grow fast.

Tropical forests in some cases take up to 65 years to regrow and their diversity cannot be replicated by a monoculture of reforested plots.

Ecologically illiterate

Reforestation and afforestation schemes must decide which species are appropriate to plant – native or exotic, multi-purpose or fast growing, naturally regenerating forests or managed plantations. Sometimes the wrong species are selected and Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) is one such poor choice.

Eucalyptus is usually chosen because it is fast growing and economically valuable. Yet, it is exotic to many places it is now planted and requires lots of water, which drains the water table and competes with native crops.

In Europe, replacing broad-leafed native oak trees with faster growing conifers has meant that forest cover on the continent is 10% greater than it was before the industrial revolution. However, the new trees are not as good at trapping carbon but do trap heat more efficiently, contributing to global warming. Clearly, tree planting without due caution can do more harm than good.

Trees need care – lots of it

Tree species take a long time to grow and need continual care. However, tree planting schemes usually “plant and go” –- meaning they do not put resources into managing the trees after they are placed into the ground. Young trees are particularly vulnerable to disease and competition for light and nutrients and if not cared for, will eventually die.

Newly planted tree saplings may need three to five years of frequent watering to survive.
A3pfamily/Shutterstock

Trees are political

Trees planted by states or private donors may choose sites without consulting local communities, ignoring any of their customary land rights and management regimes. This locally-owned land may be in fallow or have different economic, cultural or spiritual uses.

Blundering into planting in these places may exacerbate tensions over land tenure, spreading disinterest in tree care and stewardship. Dispossessed locals may move to existing forests and clear land for food production. Tenure rights over trees are also not always owned by whole households either, but divided between gender. Planting trees and asking questions later may sow tensions over land ownership for long after the project departs.

It’s no surprise that trees are on the green economy agenda, but this does not necessarily mean that planting them is “green” or helpful for social harmony. Allowing trees to regrow naturally is not always effective either, as trees are unlikely to survive on their own. Community involvement is therefore crucial.

This means real consultation over site and species selection, property rights over the trees, their products, and the land they grow in and who takes on the labour to keep the trees alive after they are planted. If companies are serious about planting trees then they need to care about the communities that live with them and not just their own reputations.The Conversation

Benjamin Neimark, Senior Lecturer, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Antarctica’s ‘moss forests’ are drying and dying



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Lush moss beds in East Antarctica’s Windmill Islands.
Sharon Robinson, Author provided

Melinda Waterman, University of Wollongong; Johanna Turnbull, University of Wollongong, and Sharon Robinson, University of Wollongong

The lush moss beds that grow near East Antarctica’s coast are among the only plants that can withstand life on the frozen continent. But our new research shows that these slow-growing plants are changing at a far faster rate than anticipated.

We began monitoring plant ecosystems 18 years ago, near Australia’s Casey Station in the Windmill Islands, East Antarctica.

Casey Station is on East Antarctica’s coast. Click map to zoom.
Australian Antarctic Data Centre

As we report in Nature Climate Change today, within just 13 years we observed significant changes in the composition and health of these moss beds, due to the drying effects of weather changes prompted by damage to the ozone layer.

Living on the edge

Visitors to Antarctica expect to see a stark landscape of white and blue: ice, water, and sky. But in some places summer brings a surprisingly verdant green, as lush mosses emerge from under their winter snow blanket.

Because it contains the best moss beds on continental Antarctica, Casey Station is dubbed the Daintree of the Antarctic. Individual plants have been growing here for at least 100 years; fertilised by ancient penguin poo.




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Antarctic mosses are extremophiles, the only plants that can survive the continent’s frigid winters. They live in a frozen desert where life-sustaining water is mostly locked up as ice, and they grow at a glacial pace – typically just 1 mm a year.

These mosses are home to tardigrades and other organisms, all of which survive harsh conditions by drying out and becoming dormant. When meltwater is available, mosses soak it up like a sponge and spring back to life.

The short summer growing season runs from December to March. Day temperatures finally rise above freezing, providing water from melting snow. Overnight temperatures drop below zero and mosses refreeze. Harsh, drying winds reach speeds of 200 km per hour. This is life on the edge.

Tough turf

When we first began monitoring the moss beds, they were dominated by Schistidium antarctici, a species found only in Antarctica. These areas were typically submerged through most of the summer, favouring the water-loving Schistidium. But as the area dries, two hardy, global species have encroached on Schistidium’s turf.

Like tree rings, mosses preserve a record of past climate in their shoots. From this we found nearly half of the mosses showed evidence of drying.

Healthy green moss has turned red or grey, indicating that plants are under stress and dying. This is due to the area drying because of colder summers and stronger winds. This increased desertification of East Antarctica is caused by both climate change and ozone depletion.

Moss beds, with moss in the foreground showing signs of stress.
Sharon Robinson, Author provided

Since the 1970s, man-made substances have thinned Earth’s protective sunscreen, the ozone layer, creating a hole that appears directly over Antarctica during the southern spring (September–November). This has dramatically affected the southern hemisphere’s climate. Westerly winds have moved closer to Antarctica and strengthened, shielding much of continental East Antarctica from global warming.

Our study shows that these effects are contributing to drying of East Antarctica, which is in turn altering plant communities and affecting the health of some native plant species. East Antarctica’s mosses can be viewed as sentinels for a rapidly drying coastal climate.

But there is good news. The ozone layer is slowly recovering as pollutants are phased out thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol. What is likely to happen to Antarctic coastal climates when ozone levels recover fully by the middle of this century?




Read more:
The ozone hole leaves a lasting impression on southern climate


Unlike other polar regions, East Antarctica has so far experienced little or no warming.

Antarctic ice-free areas are currently less than 1% of the continent but are predicted to expand over the coming century. Our research suggests that this may isolate moss beds from snow banks, which are their water reservoirs. Ironically, increased ice melt may be bad news for some Antarctic mosses.

East Antarctica is drying – first at the hands of ozone depletion, and then by climate change. How its native mosses fare in the future depends on how we control greenhouse gas emissions. But with decisive action and continued monitoring, we can hopefully preserve these fascinating ecosystems for the future.The Conversation

Melinda Waterman, Associate lecturer, University of Wollongong; Johanna Turnbull, Associate Lecturer in Biology, University of Wollongong, and Sharon Robinson, Professor, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.