Carbon offsetting: In the rush to plant trees, issues around poverty, language and diversity must all be reckoned with
Just a stone’s throw from my cottage in rural north Wales is a secluded reserve, somewhere where you go to get away from the noise of the traffic from the A55, somewhere where you can breathe. Leaning against a mature, sturdy oak for support I notice first its height, and then imagine the complexity of what is going on underground. The root system of a tree is like a labyrinth, an interconnectedness where mature and established trees nurture saplings.
Although I’m mindful that the reserve is manmade, there is an abundance of variety, from my favourite oak to sycamore and rowan trees. If you were to dissect the ground below, you’d see a map of the forest, which in her book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls, ‘the viscera of the forest.’
Despite the peacefulness of my surroundings, these trees are on the front line of the fight against climate change, championed as one of the few viable solutions to reducing the carbon in the atmosphere in our global race for Net Zero status.
“No nation in the world has yet fully grasped this challenge but just as Wales played a leading role in the first industrial revolution, I believe Wales can provide an example to others of what it means to achieve environmental growth.
“Our sustainable development and environmental legislation is already recognised as world leading and now we must use that legislation to set a new pace of change.”
Since this announcement was made, Wales has developed an ambitious decarbonisation plan which since the inception of its Pledge Campaign back in 2019 has received 139 pledges from businesses, across Wales’ vibrant society to the public sector and its schools. Lee Walters, Deputy Minister of Climate Change has since announced the need to plant 86 million trees in the next decade in a bid to tackle the climate emergency.
However, a recent report suggested that many larger corporations are racing to plant trees to appear greener on paper, with the Welsh Affairs Committee warning that greater transparency and information is needed around the purchase of viable farmland in Wales by corporations utilising carbon offset schemes. The report came after concerns were raised that companies may be attempting to ‘game the system’ by investing in farmland to offset carbon emissions which are then being lost to agriculture in Wales.
Carbon offsetting refers to the process of reducing or removing from the atmosphere, carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions, as a type of compensation for emissions made. Given trees’ innate ability to do just that, there is a danger of trees being planted as part of an agricultural mono-cultured standard, meaning that the same trees will be planted in one place en masse. However, while this could seem productive, this results in decreasing nutrients from the soil and a diversity of bacteria which are crucial in the fertility and natural balance of soils. Thus having the opposite of the desired outcome by planting the trees.
To find out more I spoke to Calvin Jones, Professor of Economics at Cardiff University. Sat in my favourite window seat, and holding the phone to my ear, a tall sycamore caught my eye, its leaves waving in the breeze, reminding me of the custodianship responsibility we must now take for the environment given where the human-centred approach has gotten us thus far.
Calvin’s methodical voice brought me back to the conversation: “The problem we have is increasing the multi-functional use of trees. Are we thinking far enough ahead? 100 hectares is currently a big tick on a large company’s carbon offset budget.
“Ironically in California, Microsoft invested in planting trees for carbon offsetting, which caught fire because of forest fires because of climate change. So we can’t reliably store the carbon – it feels short-termist.
“Farmers will sell the land, and they won’t be working with the land anymore and what we don’t want to see is trees mono-planted solely for offsets. We need to be thinking about flood retention and natural regrowth. To put this in context, of 100,000 trees planted, 30,000 will die.”
According to a new analysis of 273 species around the world, forests would be able to store more carbon if they contained a diversity of tree species. The study showed that species benefited more when their neighbouring trees were very different – for example deciduous trees which shed their leaves in autumn, thrived when planted next to evergreen trees, only amplifying the interconnectedness of the tree root systems and their being able to access resources more efficiently.
This provides the evidence therefore that mono-tree planting lacks vision on so many levels and as Calvin states, provides only a short-term solution.
To delve further into this from a farming perspective, I sat down with NFU Cymru’s director John Mercer, a farmer himself, who eluded that the farm behind him had been sold for a carbon offsetting scheme. John said,
“When you lose a farm you not only lose economically but you suffer both socially and culturally in terms of language, in terms of local community, and that’s a massive concern for rural Wales and the communities that farming sustains,” he said.
“What we have seen is large city-based and investment companies buying out farms to offset carbon emissions. What we don’t want is corporations doing this to offset their environmental consciousness, buying up a wealth of farms and carrying on and not looking at their own sectors and reducing their own carbon footprint. Wales shouldn’t just become an offsetting playground for multinationals.
“We should also remember that at NFU Cymru we have a stated ambition and plan to reach net zero by 2040 by looking at the areas of production efficiencies through technology and innovation, on farm carbon capture and renewable energy creation. It’s important that we tackle the climate emergency alongside ensuring we can continue to feed a growing population with our ambition being to see Wales produce the most climate friendly food in the world.
“Our last report called Growing Together: a strategy for sustainably increasing tree cover in Wales, which was a campaign we launched last year, proved that given the right incentives, farmers have done lots of planting and will continue to do so. It’s fundamentally about planting the right tree in the right place, and having trees in unproductive areas of the farm and recognising that, rather than mass scale planting.
“This is something we must keep an eye on to make sure that tree planting doesn’t impact on our food security and also impacts on Wales both socially and culturally. What we don’t want is to turn around in 10 to 15 years and realise actually, we’ve lost a significant number of farms to this and it’s become a big issue where all we’re doing is importing food from elsewhere.”
If you recall that the agricultural sector in Wales being characterised by far smaller farm holdings than England for example, many of which are tenanted family farms who have been farming for generations, you can see the importance of Mercer’s point.
Farming in Wales is unique compared to other UK nations as it has deep cultural and economic significance, also housing a role in safeguarding the Welsh language. To put this into context, the farming sector in Wales represents around 43% of Welsh speakers and workers. However, with many younger generations leaving due to a lack of work, there are concerns that the language could be eroded further, offering the view that the future of Welsh farming is imperative to Welsh identity.
I spoke to Janet Finch-Saunders, the Conservative Senedd Member for Aberconwy Her frustration as we discussed carbon offsetting was palpable as she relayed that NFU have calculated that planting an additional 180,000 hectares of trees would require the complete afforestation of 3,750 Welsh family farms, as well as growing evidence that whole farms or parcels of land are being brought up by larger corporations.
She said: “I’m annoyed at the Welsh Government. They have made it financially beneficial for large corporations to buy up farms and this worries me about Welsh culture and language. We need to keep these custodians in charge of rural areas.
“British Airways are buying up big parcels of land and these carbon offsetting schemes are upsetting our farmers.
“We cannot afford to lose one farm. At the end of the day we have to remember the incredible value of our farmers and in Wales they face a constant backlash.
“Farmers are being left behind and the current governmental plan is not strategic. While I’m all for tree planting it needs to be done in a way that supports farmers.”
Oral evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on both the economic and cultural impacts of trade and environmental policy on farms in Wales, suggests a disparity between how farmers are feeling and the action points that the Welsh Government are taking towards remedying this issue.
Julie James responded to concern about companies buying up large parcels of farming land by saying: “We live in a capitalist society and we can’t prevent people from buying land in Wales any more than we can prevent the farmers from selling it.
“We can make sure that when they do it, they don’t do the sorts of things that we don’t want them to do. We don’t want them planting the wrong tree in the wrong place to offset carbon that they should be doing other things with.
“We now need to work very hard with our farming communities to make sure that they are able to produce the kinds of biodiverse and productive woodlands on their farms in marginal land. As I say, we are expecting each farmer to plant a very small amount of their land, 5% to 10% of the land around the edges—hedges.”
After trying for months to get an interview with the Welsh Government, they finally declined and provided this short statement instead. A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We closely monitor woodland creation in Wales, which is mainly undertaken by farmers planting small areas of their land.
“We want farmers in Wales to be central to planting more trees and help us reach our goal of creating 43,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030.
“The Woodland Carbon Code’s register of carbon credits projects is publicly available. They have recently strengthened their rules by making it more difficult for large commercial forestry projects to be able to create carbon credits.”
Taking stock of what I’ve learned, what is clear is that while planting trees for carbon offsetting has many advantages, there are many potential problems too.
Carbon credits are a relatively new market and in a consumerist society, there is a danger of carbon offsetting being used to meet company KPI’s and boost green credentials without much though for the long-term impact.
If for example, farmers are to compete with wealthier companies or policies that drive tree planting where funding exceeds levels of support for agricultural land, this could have catastrophic implications for tenancies.
The government and NFU Cymru’s plan to look at hedges and edges, in marginal land appears to offer a solution to this. However, this requires farmers to stay and take a custodian role of their land.
It seems clear to me that this scheme should continue to look to incentivise tree planting for farmers, but do so while championing a diverse species of trees planted in the right environments.
It is also important that any plans for tree planting are sensitive to the side effects on society in terms of poverty and language erosion.
As I switch on the news, I see wildfires ravaging Europe as a result of temperatures of over 40 degrees. I think back to a climate workshop I helped to facilitate, where Christine Wheeler, Welsh government’s Head of Decarbonisation and Energy, said we’d be expected to see more 40 degree days here in Wales.
I think back to economist Calvin Jones’ story of wildfires that burnt down Microsoft’s efforts to offset their carbon.
I feel a rush of panic, brought on by climate anxiety, I push it down, but it fills me back up. It feels as if we are at the end of the world. We are in a race, there’s no doubt about that – but we must make sure that in our haste, we don’t rush into taking the wrong decisions.
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