In Honor of National Clean Air Month

Company initiatives to appear more sustainable often backfire in a variety of ways, but tree-planting may be the worst of them all.

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Today, businesses rely on an appeal to “eco-friendliness” with feel-good names like Conscious Step or Tree Tribe and pledges to plant trees with every purchase. Corporate tree-planting began in the 1980s as environmentalism rapidly gained social and political momentum. Government and nonprofit initiatives, like the Bonn Challenge (a plan to restore 350 million hectares of trees by 2030) and the Trillion Trees Initiative, rely on corporate support and have fueled the movement. Companies like Portucel Moçambique and Ecosia have planted 13 thousand hectares of eucalyptus trees in various regions of Africa in an attempt to curb deforestation and desertification. Even more expansive are the industry giants like Nestle or Shell that promise to plant trillions of trees while simultaneously depleting precious water reserves and fracking deep into the earth.

We often don’t pause to question these projects because we want to believe in them. As the climate crisis worsens, trees have become a symbol of green hope. A tree can absorb between 10 and 40 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year on average (depending on a variety of factors), reduce soil erosion, cool urban environments, and provide food and resources. As Jesse Klein of GreenBiz points out, they’re also ideal for companies, as “funding tree-planting projects is a safe and inoffensive strategy for the philanthropic arm of many large businesses.” Gift a Tree writes that tree-planting can “make customers feel great knowing that [they] have contributed to helping nature.” In an ideal world, it’s a win-win situation.

But without meticulous planning, these projects often do more harm than good. In fact, after examining the impacts of large planting projects in India over the past 50 years, a Nature Journal study recently concluded that there was “no evidence” that planting trees has contributed to mitigating the effects of climate change.

There are a few reasons why. For one, most corporations opt for fast growing species of conifer or eucalyptus, many of which sap natural resources such as water, nutrients, and light, depleting underwater aquifers and suffocating their surroundings. Eucalyptus trees in particular are renowned for their hardiness and versatility, and while these characteristics make them an ideal choice for companies looking to plant low-maintenance trees, they also mean that they outcompete indigenous plant species and reduce biodiversity. Studies have found that the mean soil moisture of sites with native plants is 50 percent, while the mean soil moisture for areas populated by eucalyptus trees is 25 percent. This difference was a key discovery, as soil moisture is crucial to mediating evaporation and plant transpiration.

Furthermore, improper locations pose a problem. Large-scale tree planting projects have been associated with habitat degradation in other biomes. Initiatives in China and Brazil have been exposed for destroying grassland ecosystems, which are targets of forest restoration campaigns. Grasslands sequester carbon and are inhabited by numerous animals. Even in urban environments, haphazardly planted trees have led to groups of concerned citizens digging them up. In California and other regions, there have been multi-million dollar initiatives to remove massive numbers of trees due to the potential risks. UC Berkeley, for example, has recently begun removing eucalyptus trees near campus to reduce fire risks. Even government-funded tree-planting programs have failed to consult experts, leading to millions of trees and dollars being wasted. Millions of saplings planted in areas of insufficient rainfall in Turkey died just months after being planted, signaling the lack of planning behind these initiatives.

Despite these risks, corporate tree-planting campaigns are continuing without consulting experts or local communities. With a more organized effort, it is possible to have a successful tree-planting campaign. Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas, a nonprofit organization based in São Paulo, has successfully planted 2.7 million trees since 1986. The trees that they plant are native and provide needed fruit, wood, and money to local communities. But oftentimes, the cost of planting native species and committing to vigilant monitoring is expensive, conflicting with corporate ideals and making real change difficult to institute.

Greenwashing is nothing new. Insincere advertisements and “green” buzzwords attract consumers and encourage them to believe that buying these products and services is bettering the world. But a long-term climate solution requires more careful research. Only nine percent of organizations have been comprehensively measuring their carbon emissions. Even large corporations like Amazon and Walmart that have pledged to reach “net-zero” carbon emissions have fallen short of their plan. There are sly methods that make this underachievement possible. Amazon, for example, only takes into account the environmental impact of Amazon brand products and none of the other brands they sell. Products with an Amazon brand label make up only one percent of what the company sells online, and the emissions produced when making and shipping the non-brand items are simply ignored. The first step to reducing carbon emissions is increased transparency.