Episode 47

Over the past year, multiple oil and gas companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in planting trees, or threatening to do so, to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. There are, however, several fundamental problems with what they are doing, or probably more accurately, pretending to do. First, most are planting trees to earn carbon offsets, as if they are at Church, confessed, received a penance – the carbon offsets – and were imparted absolution.  But even if they could be absolved by planting trees, which they can’t, surely they can’t then go and sell that absolution to consumers, which is exactly what some of them are doing. Shell for example has an entire effort trying to get petrol car drivers to pay a premium at the pump to buy carbon offsets from Shell, at a profit. Second, generating the carbon offsets from planting trees, even if this was real (it's not, in most cases) does not mean they can keep burning down the house.  They should be decreasing their emissions, not greenwashing. Finally, not much attention is being paid to what trees are being planted, how and where.  The reality is that planting trees is largely unnecessary. Far more critical is to stop global deforestation and to re-grow the global forest by preparing the ground, understanding our limitations and then getting out of the way.

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Over the past year, multiple oil and gas companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in planting trees, or threatening to do so, to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. There are, however, several fundamental problems with what they are doing, or probably more accurately, pretending to do. First, most are planting trees to earn carbon offsets, as if they are at Church, confessed, received a penance – the carbon offsets – and were imparted absolution.  But even if they could be absolved by planting trees, which they can’t, surely they can’t then go and sell that absolution to consumers, which is exactly what some of them are doing. Shell for example has an entire effort trying to get petrol car drivers to pay a premium at the pump to buy carbon offsets from Shell, at a profit. Second, generating the carbon offsets from planting trees, even if this was real (it’s not, in most cases) does not mean they can keep burning down the house.  They should be decreasing their emissions, not greenwashing. Finally, not much attention is being paid to what trees are being planted, how and where.  The reality is that planting trees is largely unnecessary. Far more critical is to stop global deforestation and to re-grow the global forest by preparing the ground, understanding our limitations and getting out of the way.

Assaad W. Razzouk

Today, I would like to talk about planting trees, or, actually, rather, maybe not planting that many trees.

In particular, I want to send a message to oil and gas companies worldwide: Please, please, stop threatening to plant trees. Please, don’t plant trees.

I know for the rest of you this might be counter intuitive at first, but I promise I will explain.

But first, let’s go back to oil and gas companies.

Over the last year or so, they have advertised hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of plans to invest in trees. For example, Shell is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in what they call ‘nature-based solutions’, which is code word for using the natural world, for example forests or grasslands or wetlands, to allegedly remove harmful emissions from the atmosphere. The ‘allegedly’ applies to oil and gas companies, it’s not across the board.

BP similarly has invested millions and is threatening to invest a lot more.

Saudi Aramco pledged to plant, wait for it, 1 million trees in Saudi Arabia.

Eni, the Italian oil company, is claiming it’s going to plant 20 million acres of forest in, where else, Africa. Now the way I think about 20 million acres, is that’s more than the size of Ireland or Sri Lanka, more than the Czech Republic, about the size of Austria or Jordan, almost the size of Portugal. In short, it’s a lot of trees.

Total, not to be outdone, is throwing in a hundred million dollars into the planting trees situation.

Equinor, in Norway, is also driving capital to protecting forests on a global scale.

ConocoPhillips is on it too.

Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but I smell a rat: Big oil and gas companies running around Africa, Latin America, Asia, Western Europe in some cases, planting trees? Really? And oddly enough, the biggest and baddest oil companies, Exxon and Chevron, have promised no trees. They have not promised to plant anything at all, but counter-intuitively, again, perhaps, that is good on them.

Much more in just a moment.

Welcome to Episode 47 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk.

ABOUT TREES

Trees are about a quarter carbon. So as they grow they bind something like four times their weight in carbon dioxide.

By contrast, when you burn them, they release four times their weight in carbon dioxide.

So as a matter of fact, if you’ve heard before about carbon capture technology, that’s capturing carbon that we’re emitting, for example, from burning natural gas or coal, the truth is that forests are the only proven, scalable carbon capture technology we have.

Pretty much everything else that you hear about carbon capture are excuses by oil, gas, and coal companies, again, to do nothing about their emissions.

So if you plant a tree which otherwise would not have been there, nature absorbs more CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.

You can actually compute how much and you can then create a carbon offset for each ton of CO2 that is absorbed.

Oil companies and others are on the ‘I want to plant a tree bandwagon’ exactly for that reason.

They think they can continue to burn coal, oil and gas and be absolved because they offset the CO2 from burning all those fossil fuels with the CO2 absorbed by the trees they’ve planted. Except climate change is not the Catholic Church. You don’t get an absolution for planting trees, then go back to doing the same thing again and again.

It’s not like we don’t need more trees. We do.

Forests still cover something like 30% of our land area globally. But thanks to us, they are disappearing at an alarming rate.

In the last 20 years, we destroyed forests the size of South Africa.

Since we’ve been around as humans, we have whacked 50% of all the trees and that’s including 20% of the Amazon Rainforest and regrettably that destruction, in particular that of the Amazon, is increasing thanks to a Brazilian Administration that’s making sure that’s the case.

We do need many more trees. They absorb the CO2 we exhale and trap the greenhouse gases we emit. More trees can provide 20 or 25%, according to which study you read, of the climate mitigation that we need to meet goals set in the Paris Agreement.

Trees are sometimes called the ‘lungs of the Earth’ because they absorb pollutants and therefore improve air quality. They’re like a filter basically of our pollution. Of course, they also produce oxygen, which we need to survive. I don’t know about you, but for most people, they also reduce stress, improve health, enhance property value and provide flood protection in other cases.

So trees are amazing, and that’s why there’s a lot of action around trees worldwide and not just from big bad oil companies.

Let me give you a quick world tour of some of that action.

REFORESTATION AROUND THE WORLD

Costa Rica, for example, managed to increase its forests from 21% of its landmass in 1986 to over 50% today, while at the same time, its growth accelerated and its GDP per capita more than tripled.

That’s a great example of a country able to double forest cover while tripling its economy.  Forestry and more ‘green’ are clearly good for you.

Another great initiative taking shape in Africa is a project called the Great Green Wall. That’s supposed to become the world’s largest living structure. It’s seeking to restore 100 million hecatres of degraded land and create 10 million green jobs all by 2030 and it’s a 7,000 kilometer barrier stretching from Senegal in the west of Africa to Djibouti in the east. It’s intended to stop desertification basically through a mosaic of green and productive landscapes that would fight land degradation, but also fit with the environment around them. Africa’s Great Green Wall recently received a shot in the arm through $16 billion of new funding, which is supposed to be spent between now and 2030, to try and complete as much of it as possible.

Another example is Pakistan.  Under Imran Khan’s leadership, Pakistan has already planted an astonishing 1 billion trees and they are trying to scale that up to 10 billion trees in the next few years. They’re clearly going to need funding for that and they’re innovating, in the sense that Pakistan is proposing to its creditors, so people that lent it money, a debt for nature swap, whereby the creditors would forgive some of that debt in return for Pakistan delivering on its tree planting campaign.

To pick another example, Ethiopia planted 350 million trees in one day. Ethiopia is trying to do a Costa Rica. They want to reverse a decline in the forest coverage of the country, from pretty much zero today, astounding as that may sound, back to 35%, which is what Ethiopia’s forest cover was in the early 20th century.

There’s another fantastic example coming from China, which is planting forests like there’s no tomorrow. China has basically planted an area as big as the Philippines or Finland in five years and is single-handedly responsible for planting 25% of all the world’s new greenery since 2000. They’re definitely pulling their weight.

India is also trying to do the same and under the Paris Agreement, it’s pledging to increase its forests by a massive 1 million square kilometers, or two and a half times Finland.

Western Europe is not missing in action. In 10 years, Western Europe grew its forests by an area larger than Switzerland.

These forestry stories are great news for the planet, because as I said before, forests absorb CO2 and preserve biodiversity, in addition to a whole raft of other great things that they do.

Needless to say, I did not mention Brazil, because there, the destruction of the Amazon is continuing at pace.  I also did not mention the United States, which isn’t really doing much yet in a concerted way. Russia is the third member of that club because it’s also not doing much.

Let’s get back now to big oil, after this quick world tour of what some countries are doing in terms of fighting back against the loss of forest cover.

THE “I AM PLANTING TREES” PROPAGANDA

There are two fundamental problems with the ‘I am planting trees’ propaganda coming out of oil and gas (and many other) companies.

The first fundamental problem is that the overwhelming majority are doing it to earn carbon offsets. So that’s as if they were a church, they confess all of their sins, burning oil and gas, they receive a penance, in the form of a carbon offset, and then they are imparted absolution and then they go off and continue doing what they were doing before. But first, even if they could be absolved by planting trees, which they can’t, surely they can’t then go and sell that absolution? But that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Shell is by far the biggest culprit. It’s got an entire effort trying to cheat people who drive petrol cars, by asking them to pay a premium at the pump to buy carbon offsets from them, Shell, at a profit.

In other words, Shell on the one hand says “I’m planting trees, because I am therefore offsetting my emissions” then on the other hand, it goes and it sells those carbon offsets to drivers at a premium to make money out of that activity.

I don’t know why that’s not downright illegal just yet, but it should be.  Surely, if they are earning carbon offsets for planting trees, they should then just retire these carbon offsets, rather than make money out of them, which really negates the entire exercise.

In addition, generating carbon offsets does not mean you can keep burning down the house!

WHAT OIL & GAS COMPANIES NEED TO DO

What oil, gas and coal companies need to do is incredibly simple.

They need to cut down their emissions – not offset their emissions – down to zero, or as close to zero as possible, between now and 2050.

Instead of wasting capital to plant trees, and I’ll come back to that in a second, in 90% of the cases they aren’t even doing what they’re saying properly. They should be focused on sizing down their business, by stopping oil and gas exploration – so no new projects – and managing a gradual, organized decline in their existing production, while distributing all their surplus cash to shareholders who would know better what to do with that money than they do.

There’s another fundamental problem with the ‘I am going to go plant some trees’ strategy of oil and gas companies. No, or nowhere near enough attention is being paid to what trees are being planted, how they’re being planted and why.

THE SCIENCE

The money from oil and gas companies is corrupting that whole space and so the emphasis is on generating carbon offsets through basically sophisticated paperwork, rather on planting trees properly on the ground.

Why do I say that? Because the science is clear on the ‘planting forests thing’.

If you want a healthier global forest, by-and-large, prepare the ground, acknowledge your limitations, and then get out of the way.

Forests are actually a living thing and they are far more qualified than us to reclaim the ground that they were on. We need to just prepare that ground.

I just want to go into a little bit more detail on this.

To start, getting trees in the ground is a new thing. We really did not begin planting trees on a large scale until last century. For thousands of years, we just simply did not do that. The reason we started planting trees is because demand for wood skyrocketed gradually over the 20th century, so clearly just destroying forests for wood no longer worked. The timber industry was born, an organized harvesting of trees, while paying attention to growing them back within set boundaries in terms of land. That’s the timber industry and let’s just put it aside. As long as the timber industry is properly regulated, replanting trees and managing the ratio between the trees that it harvests and the trees that it replants, so that it does not occupy more land, then the timber industry can be sustainable.

What we’re talking about here instead is replanting native forests and rainforests and fighting back against deforestation.

What we learned from the timber industry, where you want to plant trees that grow quickly so that you can cut them in just a few years, is what not to do if you want to fight back against deforestation.

To fight back against deforestation, you have to try to mimic natural regeneration, and that impacts how you plant, the distance between the trees, and also that requires planting a mix of species, not just one type or a monoculture.  However, even these natural replanting efforts still need to be taken care of.  You have to prepare the site properly to ensure the trees have a chance of growing rather than a high chance of dying.

In essence, what the timber industry has taught us and what the forestry scientists have shown is that if you’re trying to mimic natural regeneration, as opposed to plant trees for their timber, then there’s actually no need to plant trees, most of the time, because trees do an amazing job of growing back on their own. What you have to do instead is to improve existing stance and most importantly, you have to stop deforestation, completely.

No more deforestation.

No more burning large rainforests because I want to herd my cattle, or I want to plant some soy, or I need palm oil trees.

That needs to stop. That is probably the number one tool we have to protect our forests: stopping deforestation.

Then the second one, in terms of reforestation, is to mimic natural regeneration. Planting just to plant is scientifically an outdated and largely unnecessary thing. We’ve got to focus on our existing stance and focus our time, energy and money on increasing their health. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plant a tree in your garden, if you have one. Of course you should. It’s noble, it’s healthy, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about fighting climate change through massive reforestation.  For massive reforestation, what we don’t need is oil and gas companies rushing to generate carbon offsets and doing the entire thing wrong for that purpose. And what we certainly don’t need is the same oil and gas companies then taking these carbon offsets and selling them to consumers, backed by a lot of advertising dollars, that tell consumers to feel better if they buy these carbon offsets, when in fact the whole thing is absolutely wrong.

Oil and gas companies should stop interfering with reforestation worldwide and focus on their core business and size it down.  They need to focus on their emissions and bring these to zero by 2050. And it’s not that complicated and they need to stop with all that greenwashing and noise around planting trees, because it’s not working.

If not today, very soon, most citizens will recognize that type of greenwashing when they see it.

POLLUTERS MUST PAY, NOT PLANT TREES

I really dislike the whole ‘polluter can still pollute just as much, if not more, if it just bought carbon credits from someone planting a tree’. That’s wrong.

What’s even worse is ‘polluter can still pollute just as much, if not more, if it buys carbon credits from someone planting a tree and then on top makes money from this, selling those carbon credits to Dutch and British drivers at their pump’. That’s extremely wrong.

More broadly and away from oil and gas companies, so many companies want to plant trees as part of their commitment to nature, but it’s not that simple.

There have been studies where ecologists charged with reforesting cleared forests compared what happened when they cleared the grass and planted trees, versus just clearing the grass. Guess what? What they found was that tree planting was not necessary.  Five years after harrowing the grass, the test plots were full of native trees.

It’s so much more productive to first evaluate the potential for natural regeneration and then eliminate barriers to that natural regeneration.

Remember we are barrier number one.

So to close, tree planting is not a silver bullet for climate recovery. Why? Because planting for planting’s sake doesn’t work and a lot of the trees being planted won’t survive. Meanwhile, somebody might have earned carbon credits from these, sold them to someone else, got away with pretending to have decreased emissions, while in just a few years, the entire planting effort disappeared. In addition, forests and trees are perfectly capable of regeneration, if they are just left alone.  What we therefore need to do is we need to put our science and our time and our money into caring for current plantings. Why? It’s actually pretty simple, left to their own devices, forests expand. The most important thing we can do by far is to stop deforestation and to protect ancient woodland and natural rewilding.

As a final comment, I’d like to add this: Never buy a carbon offset from an oil and gas company, never! Polluters must decrease their pollution, not try to give us the go-around through mythical planting initiatives that don’t work, won’t work and even if they did, should earn them nothing.

To regrow the global forest, we should just prepare the ground, acknowledge our limitations and most importantly, get out of the way. Humans are the number one driver of deforestation, and it’s time to put a complete stop to that.

Thank you so much for listening to this Episode 47 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk and have a great couple of weeks.

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About Me

There is so much to be angry about, if you are a clean energy guy.

Every day, so many things that happen around the world make me angry when I look at them with lenses colored by the climate change chaos unfolding everywhere around us. And I am especially angry because I know we can solve the climate change crisis if we were only trying.


Each week, I will share with you a few topics that struck me and that I was very angry about – and this will generally have to do with climate change, solar or wind power, plastic pollution, environmental degradation, wildlife, the oceans and other related topics.

Assaad Razzouk

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