Are Tree-Planting Schemes Actually Working?

The Eco Experts

Are Tree-Planting Schemes Actually Working?

By 10 min read


One of the most effective ways to combat climate change is to plant trees. The more trees we have on the planet, the more CO2 gets absorbed, right?

Well, it turns out it’s not as straightforward as that. As more pressure gets piled on companies and governments around the world, tree planting has become the first line of defence in the fight against climate change – mainly because it’s the cheapest way of doing so.

But while planting trees can be good, it’s not always the solution – and it’s not always done correctly.

Below, we discuss how to create a successful tree-planting project. We’ve looked at nine companies that are getting their hands dirty with tree-planting schemes, and decided if they’re actually making a difference. Our results have been based on The 10 Golden Rules, which were put forward by experts in the field – jump to the bottom of the page to learn more.

A group of people planting a tree

Unsuccessful tree planting schemes 

1. HS2

Despite promising to create 650 hectares of new woodland, grow 7 million trees and shrubs, and earmark £5 million for woodland development, the UK government’s HS2 plan has been on a destructive warpath.

Precious ancient forests and woodland have been ripped apart to make way for development – the first golden rule is already broken. In fact, in 2019, tens of thousands of trees died because HS2 bosses claimed replacing them was more cost-effective than watering them.

The planting scheme has also left locals frustrated – residents are often having to watch weak young saplings get battered by the weather, or dry up from unwatering.

Luci Ryan, lead policy adviser for infrastructure at the Woodland Trust, said: “The government wants HS2 to be an exemplar project when it comes to the environment, but right now, it is anything but.”

ProsCons
Lots of trees have been plantedEcosystems have been destroyed
Local communities are not being prioritised
No long-term aftercare plan for the trees being planted
Quantity over quality

2. Shell

Over the past few years, Shell has invested in various nature-based projects – primarily tree-planting schemes. However, while it boasts of a $300 million plan to save ecosystems, the company is quick to brush its existing environmental damage under the rug.

Since 1965, Shell has released more than 31.95 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Can tree planting really make up for this much damage?

Well, a typical tree can absorb around 21 kilograms (kg) of CO2 per year – but that’s only once it’s fully grown after 20 years. We worked out that over the first 20 years of a tree’s life, it only actually absorbs 39kg of carbon dioxide – meaning Shell would have to plant over 817 million trees to make up for the emissions they’ve already released, let alone the emissions they’re currently producing.

The oil extraction process itself is damaging to local rainforests, releasing toxic by-products into local rivers. As well as destroying existing ecosystems, biodiversity, and habitats, drilling usually impacts indigenous and local people – who often lack fair compensation. The long-running dispute between local communities and Shell in the Niger Delta is a key example of this.

ProsCons
Lots of trees have been plantedQuestionable greenwashing, since fossil fuels are so harmful to the environment
Locals are not prioritised in plans
The ecosystem budget doesn’t compare to the fossil fuel budget

3. Nestlé

Nestlé has partnered with reforestation programme OneTreePlanted since March 2020, with the initiative to plant 3 million trees across the Americas.

OneTreePlanted has been praised for its ethical reforestation schemes. Not only does the organisation plant trees in areas that really need it, but it also maintains and monitors saplings, as well as using this as an opportunity to help local people. The website claims: “From arborists to loggers and researchers, the job opportunities provided by the forestry industry are endless.”

So that must make Nestlé’s tree planting ethical, right? Wrong. Planting trees is not effective unless existing wildlife is also looked after – something the food giant is quick to overlook.

Nestlé has admitted that a satellite rainforest monitoring service documented no less than 388,047 cases of deforestation in 2019 alone. Taking only areas within 50 kilometres of the company’s palm oil mills into account, this amounted to 473,000 hectares of rainforest that were cut down.

Plus, out of the 30 producer groups most linked to Indonesian fires, Nestle has bought from 28 of them.

ProsCons
Partnering with an ethical tree-planting organisationEvidence of ongoing deforestation
Questionable greenwashing, since products are so harmful to the environment
Evidence of harmful producers

A group of children planting a tree

Successful tree planting schemes 

4. IKEA

IKEA has been an environmental pioneer for decades.

In a bid to support local wildlife after forest fires in Borneo, the company’s Sow a Seed Foundation has planted and maintained millions of trees since 1998 – covering 18,500 hectares of lowland rainforest.

“Today, we are seeing the wildlife returning to the once burned down forest. It is a gift from IKEA.” – Jan Faulk, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

On top of this, IKEA launched its sustainability strategy in 2012, which outlined plans to reduce its environmental impact. These plans include:

  • Leading biodiversity projects across the world
  • Using wood from sustainable sources – 98% of which is now either recycled or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) approved
  • Investing in forestry and other land use activities
  • Driving innovation to use wood in smarter ways, and encouraging a more circular economy

To top it all off, since 2002, IKEA has teamed up with WWF to improve forest management in Europe and Asia – increasing global FSC-certified forests by an area the size of Germany.

ProsCons
Millions of trees planted with biodiversity in mind
Local communities benefit from projects
Efforts to reduce further environmental harm with new products
Planning ahead on projects
Monitoring of saplings

5. Ecosia

Ecosia is a search engine that uses the money it earns through clicks and advertisements to plant trees around the world – but are its planting projects sustainable?

Unsurprisingly, yes! Not only does Ecosia plant trees – supporting existing forests and increasing biodiversity – but it also works with locals to help people in the area.

The company has three methods of planting trees:

  1. As nature intended – Working with native species to restore the natural state that existed before
  2. Landscape approach – Supporting nature and people simultaneously by building corridors, capturing water, or changing the local climate in a positive way. Ecosia states: “We make sure planting trees works in a wider sense, and that the activities we support do not stand in isolation.”
  3. Not planting trees – Ecosia acknowledges that planting isn’t always the way to go and encourages other methods, such as sowing or Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration
ProsCons
Millions of trees planted with biodiversity in mind
Local communities benefit from projects
Planning ahead on projects
Monitoring of saplings

6. Microsoft

Unlike a lot of other successful tech firms, Microsoft has a pretty progressive outlook on sustainability. Overall, the company has planted over 136,500 trees to date.

Partnering with Ecosia, Microsoft has also supported important conservation projects around the world, including:

  • The Jane Goodall Institute, and its efforts to reforest wild chimpanzees’ habitat in Uganda
  • Turning deserts back into forests in Burkina Faso
  • Reforestation in Brazil

On top of this, Ireland’s reforestation targets have received a boost thanks to financial support from Microsoft, which has worked with Natural Capital Partners, Forest Carbon, and Greenbelt locals in the country to plant trees.

To take things one step further, Microsoft is also partnering with organisations like SilviaTerra and The Nature Conservancy as part of its AI for Earth Initiative, using innovative ways to reforest.

ProsCons
Working with ethical tree planting companiesMicrosoft products still use a lot of resources
Local communities benefit from projects
Using AI innovation to prevent further destruction
Good aftercare for the trees

7. Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is not exactly famed for its environmental benefits – in fact, it was named the worst company for plastic pollution in 2020 for the second year running. When it comes to reforestation, however, it’s doing pretty well.

Teaming up with various organisations, The Coca-Cola Foundation – the philanthropic arm of The Coca-Cola Company – is working hard on watershed protection, conservation, and safe water access.

Thanks to its partnership with American Forests, which began in 2017, The Coca-Cola Foundation has planted more than 600,000 trees in Florida alone. Plus, through its teamwork with the USDA Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation, Coca-Cola has funded 12 projects to support six different National Forests.

Of course, a lot of this hard work is counterbalanced by the damage the company does to the planet. In its most recent sustainability report, Coca-Cola stated that it:

  • Only has 10% of recycled material used in PET plastic packaging globally
  • Withdrew a total of 295,014 megalitres of water in 2019
  • Released a total of 5.56 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing sites alone in 2019
ProsCons
Working with ethical tree planting companiesIts plastic pollution undermines its tree-planting success
Local communities benefit from projectsQuestionable greenwashing, since its products are so harmful to the environment
Working to improve different problems, not just deforestation
A huge amount of trees have been planted

Is tree planting actually good for the environment?

Tree-planting projects have been popular for a long time, but really took off in 2019. Around this time, a study claimed that planting a trillion trees could capture more than a third of all the greenhouse gases humans have released since the industrial revolution.

So, whether it came from a place of concern or just a box-ticking exercise, companies and organisations ramped up the pace of tree planting.

What many forgot to take into account, however, is how complex our ecosystems are. Poorly planned planting efforts can actually increase the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

That’s not to say introducing trees into malnourished ecosystems is bad – you just have to do it properly.

Check out the ten golden rules (put forward by the Royal Botanic Gardens) below to make sure you’re getting it right.

  1. Protect existing forests first – Reforestation isn’t a quick fix; older trees soak up carbon better than saplings, and are more resilient to fire, storm, and droughts.
  2. Put local people at the heart of projects – It’s usually locals who have most to gain from protecting nearby ecosystems, so get them involved. Make sure they’re on board with plans and listen to their concerns.
  3. Aim to maximise biodiversity recovery – Making sure to include a diverse set of plants in your project will help protect the area against climate change, improve conservation, and provide economic and cultural benefits.
  4. Select the right area for reforestation – Plant in areas that were historically forested, but have become degraded. Extending existing forests is also a good idea, but you should consider the implications for surrounding areas.
  5. Use natural forest regrowth wherever possible – Letting trees grow back naturally can be cheaper and more efficient than planting new trees. This usually works best on or near existing forests.
  6. Select the right tree species – It’s important to have a good mixture of species (predominantly native), including rare or endemic trees whilst avoiding invasive species.
  7. Make sure the trees can adapt to a changing climate – Use tree seeds that are suitable for the local climate, and bear in mind how that might change in the future.
  8. Plan ahead – Plan how to source seeds or trees, utilise local resources and infrastructure, and provide training to those who need it.
  9. Learn by doing – Combine scientific knowledge with local knowledge. Plus, before you start the project, you should run small-scale trials and monitor the results.
  10. Make it pay – The sustainability of tree planting rests on a source of income for all stakeholders. Income can come from carbon credits, non-timber forest products (NTFPs), or watershed and cultural services.

Summary

Planting trees is fundamental for us to overcome the effects of climate change. There is, however, a time and a place.

It’s now easier than ever for companies to hide their carbon footprint behind a giant advertisement for their new green tree-planting initiatives. As a result, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we – as consumers, researchers, or general members of the public – need to keep a close eye out for greenwashing from companies claiming to be environmentally friendly.

Beth Howell Writer

Beth has a real passion for green living. She’s been absorbed in eco research for over three years, and has become quite the expert. Whether you’re after a new set of solar panels, a home energy improvement, or you want to catch the latest eco news, she’s got your back.