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Do Tree Planting Schemes Work? Who To Support And How To Avoid Greenwashing

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Do Tree Planting Schemes Work? Who To Support And How To Avoid Greenwashing

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Want to plant trees but unsure if they're actually helping the planet?

Here's everything you need to know about tree planting schemes and potential greenwashing issues.

Francesca Brooking

Wed 22 Jun 2022

As we become more alert to the climate crisis, planting trees has become an increasingly popular solution. After all, trees absorb carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas - right?

In theory, planting trees offers a multitude of environmental and socio-economic benefits, but this method of tackling climate change has been hijacked as the first line of defence because it’s the cheapest way to do so.

Whether well-intentioned or not, trees have become a way to offset carbon emissions and alleviate eco-anxiety both for individuals and businesses.

However, there’s a wrong and right way to plant trees.

Canopy of a tropical rainforest of trees

Could planting trees solve the climate crisis?

In this guide, the pebble team look at how planting trees could actually make the climate problem worse, why carbon offsetting with trees isn’t always a good idea and the projects doing it right.

Read on as we dive into:

Here’s what you need to know about tree planting!

People bending in a row looking after young tree saplings

Planting trees takes planning and a lot of care

The benefits of planting trees

If done right, planting trees offers a huge number of benefits to the environment, tackling climate change, and supporting our wellbeing.

In a nutshell, trees can:

Absorb carbon

One of the biggest reasons why planting trees is popular is their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One tree can absorb 22kg of carbon every year, which means it can lock away up to one ton by the time it reaches 40 years old.

Bear in mind that it can only absorb this much carbon once it’s considered fully grown at around 20 years - we’ll dive more into this later.

Purify the air

Trees can produce enough oxygen to support up to four people for a day.

They can also absorb pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, ozone, ammonia and sulfur dioxide, making the air we breathe cleaner.

Learn more about how trees look after us.

Aerial view of trees from above
“One tree can absorb 22kg of carbon every year”

Increase biodiversity

A diversity of native trees can help sustain habitats and food sources for a range of wildlife from insects to birds and everything in between.

It’s not just animals that benefit either. Trees provide a home for lichen, fungi and other plants too.

Improve soil quality

Trees prevent soil from eroding and they can limit flooding too. In fact, a full-grown tree can drink up to 100 gallons of water a day!

Another important benefit is soil health. They can give soil more moisture, improve fertility and fallen leaves can provide vital nutrients.

Plus they can remove pollutants in the soils such as cadmium and chromium.

Help our health

The Japanese coined the term ‘shinrin-yoku’, meaning ‘forest bathing’ as they discovered the benefit of trees on our health and wellbeing.

Studies show that trees reduce stress levels, blood pressure and anxiety.

A walk in the woods can make us happier and calmer, boost our creativity and concentration too.

Bamboo forest surrounded by leaves

Trees improve our health and wellbeing

Why planting trees isn’t an easy fix for our environmental impact

Despite all the benefits they offer, planting trees isn’t a get out of jail free card for our eco footprint.

Tree planting is often the first line of defence for businesses and individuals tackling climate change as it’s considered the cheapest and quickest solution.

The process of planting a tree is actually a lot more complicated than putting a seed or sapling in the ground and patting yourself on the back for a job well done.

First off, not every tree is good for the environment.

Some tree species only add to the pollution and lock in very little carbon dioxide - like cottonwood trees.

The type of tree planted plays an important role too.

If you plant non-native species, you could introduce new pests and diseases, and damage the ecosystem.

If you plant too many of the same tree species, you may decrease biodiversity and again, disrupt the ecosystem.

Location is another factor.

It’s much better to protect and restore existing forests rather than attempting to plant trees in environments where they don’t belong.

Then there’s the way in which the trees are planted. Poorly planted trees can actually increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere!

Tropical rainforest with a path leading through it
“Tropical trees store 95% of all tree-based CO2 sequestration in the world”

Can trees really capture carbon?

The common belief is that trees absorb carbon dioxide but not every tree is equal in that respect.

For example, trees planted in northern latitudes store far less carbon than tropical fast-growing, long-leafed trees planted in regions close to the equator.

In fact, tropical trees store 95% of all tree-based CO2 sequestration in the world!

Age also plays a role in carbon sequestration. Older trees tend to be better at absorbing carbon than new forests and saplings.

A tree of 20 years can absorb up to 22kg of carbon dioxide, but any amount of carbon stored is temporary. It will be released back into the atmosphere once the wood decomposes or burns.

If a tree is harvested for logging partway through its life then it will store even less carbon than a tree that was never logged.

So, planting trees isn’t a watertight way to eliminate or offset your carbon footprint as it will return eventually, one way or another.

Find out more about offsetting CO2: What Does Net Zero Really Mean? Everything You Need To Know About Carbon Emissions

Tree sapling growing in a nursary at a tree planting scheme

Trees are planted to absorb CO2

10 golden rules of tree planting

To ensure planting trees offers the maximum benefits to people and planet, the scientists at Kew Gardens and Botanic Gardens International have put together a list of 10 golden rules.

These are:

  1. Protect existing forest first

  2. Put local people at the heart of tree planting initiatives

  3. Maximise biodiversity

  4. Choose the right area to plant trees

  5. Use natural forest regrowth wherever possible

  6. Select the right tree species

  7. Ensure trees are resilient and can adapt to a changing climate

  8. Plan ahead (from seed selection to planting, planning and training should be done well in advance of starting the project)

  9. Learn by doing (apply small scale trials before applying techniques on a wider area to improve the success rate)

  10. Make it pay (to ensure the sustainability of the reforestation project, diverse income streams must be generated that benefit different people, such as ecotourism)

Hills covered in forest

Scientists at Kew Gardens and BGI have put together a list of golden rules for planting trees

Schemes vs scams: how to know if a tree-planting project is genuine

Like any brand, organisation or business claiming to do good for the environment, it’s important to do a little digging to make sure what they say matches up.

Keep the golden rules of planting trees in mind as you browse their websites. If they can match their claims with quantifiable evidence then it’s a big plus too.

If you want to go even more specific, see if you can find answers to these questions below:

Best questions to ask tree planting programmes

  • Where are the trees being planted?

  • Is their project helping to rebuild after deforestation?

  • Who is planting the trees?

  • What is the aftercare of the trees like? Is anyone returning to care for them or are the saplings just left in the ground after they’ve been planted?

  • Are local / native / indigenous communities involved in these projects?

  • What type of tree species is being planted?

  • Are these trees native to the environment and location?

  • How many different species of trees are being planted in the area?

  • Is there a healthy diversity of natural trees planted that can sustain the previously existing ecosystem?

  • Who are these trees benefitting?

A tree sapling growing in the ground on a tree planting scheme

Think about who the tree benefits before donating to a scheme

Red flags to avoid in tree planting schemes

Knowing what to look out for is crucial to choosing a tree planting scheme that’s making a genuinely positive impact.

It’s also a good idea to familiarise yourself with some of the popular red flags and scams of an unethical scheme so you know to stay well clear.

We’ve outlined some of the key ones and how to avoid them below:

Money for nothing

Probably the most popular issue of a so-called tree planting project, this scam comes in several different forms:

  1. Tree seeds are tossed on the ground with a scattering of dirt and left without any effort to care for them. Survival rate is pretty much non-existent.

  2. Insufficient funds or care is given to the young tree saplings so they grow poorly or rarely survive beyond five years.

  3. The funds given to tree planters don’t cover the full cost of the tree as the contributors are led to believe.

  4. The organisation gives public funds to a third party to plant the trees on their behalf. If the third party is limited with the number of trees it can plant per year, those funds may end up in other departments unless stated otherwise.

A big alarm bell that should alert you to this tree planting scam is organisations promising that you can plant a tree under £1.

For that price, you have to think about how much care and attention that tree is getting from seed to sapling and beyond.

There are the wages and resources of the people planting the trees to think about too.

It’s difficult to know the exact true cost of planting a tree as there are many variables such as climate, tree species and where in the world it's planted.

It also depends on the project.

For example, TreeSisters works with Eden Projects which plants trees for $0.1. However, the lowest you can donate is £20 so 170 trees are funded for a month.

To compare, the lowest price you can pay for a tree on Treedom is £12.68.

To plant a tree with National Trust, the minimum donation amount is £5.

How to avoid it

Transparency is key to avoiding all these scam variations. Look at the project’s website and see if they’re communicating who it's benefitting.

Look at who is planting the trees, where they’re being planted, and why they’re being planted.

See if you can find evidence of how trees are monitored and the aftercare process.

Find out about cost breakdowns and what they do with your money.

If in doubt, reach out and ask them directly. Use the golden rules of planting trees as your guide.

Person holding up a tree sapling in a nursery

Check if the tree planting scheme is transparent about its operations

Trees planted for future logging

Some tree planting organisations can be cagey about exactly where trees are planted.

This could be because they’re planting them in areas that could be used for logging in the future.

These organisations could condone, indirectly support or directly benefit from logging.

The problem is if they’re claiming to be protecting the environment then they’re being deceptive as these trees aren’t being used for the good of reforestation and biodiversity in the long term.

There’s also the environmental impact to take into consideration.

If you’re planting a tree to offset your carbon emissions only for it to be logged, it will have less of an impact than a tree that lives two or three times as long.

Plus logging has its own carbon footprint to factor in.

How to avoid: Again, the best way to avoid this scam is to see who stands to benefit. Will these trees be used as a food source for farmers? Are they being planted to increase biodiversity?

If you’re unclear, reach out directly.

If they say there is a possibility of logging in the future, ask them who will be carrying it out, what methods they will be using and how they plan to mitigate the damage to the environment.

A logging site with pine trees in the distance

Could your good intentions be funding logging?

Protecting the forest

This scam is, in a sense, greenwashing.

An organisation says that your donation will go towards protecting an X amount of forest.

However, the term ‘protected’ can be very broad here because there’s no definitive answer to what it means.

If you’re paying to protect a forest:

  • Is it protected from the government and legal logging?

  • Is it protected from illegal logging?

  • What about mining, controlled burns, land pollution, diseases and pests?

  • What are the contingencies if any of these were to happen?

  • Are communities and indigenous people protected too?

  • What’s being done elsewhere to subsidise this protection?

  • Who owns the land?

Next up, how long are the trees protected for? Is it 20 years? Forever? Until the next recession? Until someone else buys the land?

Without a clear mission and directive, ‘protected’ becomes a meaningless buzzword.

How to avoid: Carefully read any claims of X amount of forest being protected with your money.

Look at who is protecting it, how long for and from what. Does any money go towards upkeep? Do they have any reports to back up these claims?

Sunlight shining through trees in a woodland
“Without a clear mission and directive, ‘protected’ becomes a meaningless buzzword”

The tree planting schemes doing it right

With so many variables to consider, choosing successful tree planting schemes can bit a bit of a minefield.

We’ve rounded up five of our favourite schemes to help. Each one makes planting trees easy without compromising the environment.

Treedom

Treedom is the first platform in the world where you can plant a tree from a distance and follow the story of the project in a ‘tree diary’.

Since 2010, it’s planted more than 3,000,000 trees in Africa, South America and Italy. All trees are planted by local farmers.

Treedom is also careful to adhere to the ‘make it pay’ golden rule.

Each tree planted has a direct benefit to the farmer whether as a food source, restoring biodiversity or improving soil health.

All farmers are provided with educational tools and resources to ensure the survival of the tree planted too.

Find out more about Treedom: How Planting Trees Combats Gender Inequality in Guatemala

Treeapp

Treeapp seems like it does the impossible by inviting you to plant a tree for free every day in less than a minute.

Its secret?

You watch a 1-minute ad from one of its sustainable brand partners and the brand pays for the cost of the tree on your behalf.

Your first tree is planted in Madagascar, Treeapp’s core area of reforestation. After that, you can choose projects around the world the project is involved with.

Treeapp works closely with agroforestry experts and people on the ground to ensure the right tree species are being planted and the project developments are successful.

Read more about how Treeapp works: Treeapp: How To Plant Trees For Free Everyday

Men and women in Ethiopia watering tree saplings

Treeapp funds tree planting initiatives through ads

TreeSisters

TreeSisters is a social change and reforestation charity that funds tropical tree planting projects with a focus on gender parity.

It offers educational tools, resources, courses and community to support women-led projects around the world. So far, it’s funded the planting of 25 million trees across 12 locations.

TreeSisters offers multiple ways to support tree planting projects, such as one-time or monthly donations.

You can browse the list of projects it's involved with, find out why it exists, who is working on it and get updates on its progress.

Rewilding Europe

Many tree-planting projects are located in tropical climates as these trees are dubbed ‘the lungs of the world’.

However, rewilding cooler climates also has its benefits when it comes to biodiversity, soil health and carbon sequestration. That’s exactly what Rewilding Europe is all about.

The charity’s mission is to make Europe a wilder place by restoring key locations across the continent such as the Scottish Highlands, Southern Carpathians and the Danube Delta.

It’s about restoring biodiversity by improving habitats rather than simply planting trees.

It works to develop partnerships on an international, national and local level as well as with multiple scientific institutions across Europe.

You can follow its progress in its annual peer-reviewed reports.

There are a number of ways to support Rewilding Europe, both on the ground and financially. It’s not all tree-related.

Projects include improving habitats for rare species and supporting the next generation of rewilders.

Image of a baobab tree against a blue sky

Treedom ensures every tree planted gives back in more ways than one

Mossy Earth

Mossy Earth operates as a rewilding membership. You can join for £10 a month and get native trees planted around the world in your name.

You can then receive regular updates and track your impact.

Mossy Earth projects are backed by a careful, science-based approach to optimise the impact.

Each one must restore biodiversity, result in increased carbon sequestration and prevent the spread of invasive species or reduce environmental damage.

Reasons for carrying out projects are outlined in a series of objectives and methodologies.

Mossy Earth particularly excels at being transparent with its members. You can liaise directly with the team to share any queries o concerns you may have.

You can also get 360° photos, GPS coordinates, camera trap footage, and regular on the ground updates.

Planting trees: the bottom line

Planting trees is a vital way to tackle climate change but there is a wrong and right way to do it.

As environmental concerns become an increasing part of consumer consciousness, planting trees looks like an attractive solution.

These days, there are many tree planting organisations and charities around.

Plenty of companies have also set up tree planting partnerships promising to donate or plant X amount of trees in your name if you buy their products.

These incentives offer schemes to ‘buy your way’ into the climate movement and mitigate your carbon footprint. It looks like a win-win fix. A way to essentially solve the climate crisis with capitalism.

But the reality isn’t as simple. Planting trees for the good of the environment takes careful research, planning and work.

Some organisations and projects may be well-intentioned and many may indeed be genuine, but the challenge is separating these ones from those that prey on eco-anxiety and our good intentions.

The bottom line is: it’s good to support tree planting projects but don’t be afraid to scrutinise each one before donating.

Above all, ask them ‘who is really benefitting?’

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