Why Are Fossil Fuel Companies Investing In Tree Planting?

Why Are Fossil Fuel Companies Investing In Tree Planting?

Fossil fuels are responsible for almost 90 per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.1 20 fossil fuel companies have contributed 35 per cent of all modern greenhouse gas emissions.2 To offset the damage they cause, many oil, gas and coal companies are investing in tree planting.3 However, this alone will not repair the damage they are causing.

Richard Heede and fossil fuel firms

Richard Heede, from the Climate Accountability Institute, has stated, “We show that executives have personal ownership of tens or hundreds of thousands of shares, which creates an unacknowledged personal desire to explore, extract and sell fossil fuels”. The industry expert has called for more corporate responsibility and less reliance on consumer behaviour.4

Do these companies actually care about climate change?

Such moves often look like ‘greenwashing’ PR stunts. After all, what could make a company look greener than planting trees? Fossil fuel companies are only planting trees to justify continuing their extraction and burning of fossil fuels. 

More trees will undoubtedly benefit the planet. But, unless we transform our energy production to clean renewable sources by 2030, global warming above 1.5°C is unavoidable.5

Why are fossil fuel companies so bad for the environment?

Fossil fuels result from geological processes acting on the remains of organic matter over millions of years. Examples include coal, oil and natural gas. They all contain high levels of carbon. Through combustion, these fuels release this carbon into the atmosphere.6

fossil fuel companies

Fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions

The problem is that CO2 in the atmosphere is the main driver of climate change. It causes the greenhouse effect, which increases the average temperature of our planet. This is where greenhouse gases prevent heat from escaping Earth into space.

Humans have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 47 per cent since the Industrial Revolution through the combustion of fossil fuels. This is the “most important long-lived ‘forcing’ of climate change”.7

How does tree planting help to prevent global warming?

Trees naturally offset carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They absorb the gas during photosynthesis and use sunlight to convert it into sugar to grow. All plants store carbon in their biomass, meaning their leaves, branches and trunk. Trees and other plants also sequester carbon in the surrounding soil. Carbon remains in the wood of a tree until it is burned or decomposes naturally.8

Carbon dioxide levels and our climate emergency

A mature tree captures on average about 22 kilograms of CO2 per year through photosynthesis.9 Native UK broadleaf trees take up an estimated one tonne of carbon dioxide during their full lifetime of 100 years.10 In total, Earth’s forests and soil soak up 30 per cent of atmospheric carbon emissions.11 Thanks to this, forests and agriculture can get us at least a quarter of the way to meeting the 1.5°C global warming target of the Paris Agreement.12

forest conservation

Which fossil fuel companies are investing in tree planting?

Shell

Shell is one of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world.13 They invest USD $100 million annually in tree planting and other nature-based solutions. The energy giant wants to expand this to offset 120 million tonnes per year by 2030.14 It is part of a target to reduce the company’s net carbon footprint by two to three per cent.15 It is also an important step towards Shell achieving its target to become a “net-zero energy business by 2050 or sooner”.16 

There is scepticism over Shell’s commitment to tree planting efforts. For example, Shell has made a GBP £5 million tree planting deal with the Scottish government.17 It has been described as ‘greenwashing’.18 Executives at Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) were aware the deal was about Shell “‘reducing the harm that they do, not about them doing good’”.19 

planting trees

This important distinction cuts to the heart of the issue with fossil fuel companies planting trees. Their interest is not in combatting climate change. They simply want to use such initiatives to justify extracting and burning more fossil fuels.

Indeed, Shell faces criticism for failing to aim to lower absolute emissions.20 Their net-zero emissions strategy has no requirement to cut absolute carbon emissions. It merely includes targets to reduce carbon intensity.21 For instance, the strategy anticipates a gradual reduction in oil production by one to two per cent each year. Simultaneously, however, they will continue to grow their carbon-emitting gas business by over 20 per cent in the next few years.22 

British Petroleum (BP)

BP has also agreed to various tree planting efforts. For instance, they are paying GBP £2 million to plant up to one million trees in Scotland.23 The company has also paid GBP £3.9 million to a US company that helps people receive payment for planting and looking after trees in North America.24 Again, this is part of a wider commitment to achieve net-zero emissions across their operations by 2050.25

Similar to other fossil fuel companies, BP faces accusations of greenwashing for these efforts.26 Spending GBP £2 million offsetting their emissions pales in comparison to the USD $180.4 billion they made in revenue in 2020.27 It appears to many that BP uses tree planting as a smokescreen behind which they can continue causing significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Eni

Likewise, Italian oil and gas heavyweight Eni is embarking on ambitious tree planting endeavours. In the Amazon rainforest, they are planting some 73 million trees over a 70,000-acre area of pasture.28 They will also plant 20 million acres of forest in Africa.29 The motivation behind such moves is clear.

CEO Claudio Descalzi said that these large forestry projects will help Eni to achieve net-zero emissions in their upstream business by 2030. The forests they are planting in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ghana should remove over 18 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030. Eni sees this as a way to offset the emissions from their fossil fuel products.30

Why fossil fuel companies’ tree planting efforts cannot solve climate change

Tree planting projects – no matter how expansive – cannot replace the need to stop producing and burning fossil fuels. One study suggests that our planet could support an additional 0.9 billion hectares of continuous forest. This represents more than a 25 per cent increase in the global forested area. However, even if this happened, it could only reduce atmospheric carbon by a quarter.31

Furthermore, it takes time for new seedlings to absorb significant quantities of CO2. Trees absorb more carbon as they mature.32 Tree planting initiatives could take decades to have a serious effect on the carbon in the atmosphere. There is also uncertainty around how long new plantations will be left to grow.33 When trees are cut down, they release the carbon they have stored.34 This could reverse the environmental benefits fossil fuel companies make by planting trees. 

Oil and gas companies vs. renewable energy companies

To truly impact climate change, fossil fuel companies need to stop using oil, gas and coal entirely. This means a transition to renewable energy instead. In 2019, around 11 per cent of global primary energy came from renewables.35 A far greater proportion is needed by 2030 to avoid rising sea levels, extremes of temperature, and frequent droughts and flooding associated with additional global warming.36 We are in a climate emergency and must act now.

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