I've seen many organizations trying to sell carbon offsets based on planting trees, and recently some parties (1, 2) that were vying for control of the Canadian government promised that they would plant billions of trees as part of a national climate action plan.

What are the most common concerns about using tree planting projects to create carbon offsets?


4 Answers 4

  1. That the scheme actually has a net positive effect, both in the short and long-term

    How effective a tree planting scheme is in capturing and storing carbon dioxide, is for a large part determined by what happens to the trees after they are planted. When trees mature and are harvested for wood that's used in construction, then the captured carbon dioxide is stored for a long time (until the wood decomposes or is burned). However, if no trees are replanted after harvesting this will have had a one-time effect only. Also when wood is burned (for energy or in a wild fire), or if trees die quickly and decompose, then their captured carbon is released again. Of course all trees die eventually even when they are not harvested, this is part of the natural cycle, but a mature forest can store a lot more carbon than a young, newly-planted forest so it's important to keep a forest intact as much as possible.

  2. That the wrong type(s) of trees are planted in the wrong location

    In the past there were bad offsetting schemes that planted non-native trees, or planted trees in a location where they would change water flows and thus change local ecosystems in a negative way. Some offsetting schemes planted thousands of trees of the same species, resulting in a large monoculture. Such a monoculture hinders biodiversity, is susceptible to diseases and can even damage local communities. There have also been reports that planting trees above a certain latitude can have a net warming effect by changing the albedo and trapping heat.

  3. That buying offsets reduces the incentive for people to reduce their emissions

    Reducing emissions is much more effective than offsetting. Buying carbon offsets can lead to people thinking they are doing the right thing, whereas they had better spent their time and effort in reducing their emissions. Of course this point goes for all offsetting-schemes and is not specifically for planting trees.

  4. That there are more effective ways of reducing carbon emissions than planting trees

    Nowadays many offsetting schemes invest in development of renewable energy sources (in developing countries) instead of planting trees, simply because it is a more effective and cheaper way to reduce emissions.

  • 7
    In addition to the factors in point 2, monoculture forests aren't sustainable, after three generations the pH balance of soil is ruined and the trees become less productive. squawkpoint.com/2018/08/messy-by-tim-harford-book-review Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 10:37
  • 3
    There is also the question of "additionality" -- which overlaps with 1 & 2: is the tree that has been planted absorbing more CO2 than whatever was happening on that bit of land before the tree was planted?
    – M Juckes
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 22:30
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    @UKMonkey do you have any references that backup this claim?
    – THelper
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 15:39
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    @THelper spitballing here and using the numbers found elswhere in this thread, according to wikipedia the US has produced 5.400.000.000 tonnes of CO2 Equivalent Greenhouse Gasses in 2018. Thats ~14,8 million tonnes a day. Christopher's answer below assumes non cut down trees sequester about 6 tonnes each for a 20 year old tree, which taking that means you'd need around 1,2 million trees to offset 12 hours of emissions in the USA. So the claim by UKMonkey might be off by a lot, but seems to be at least on the right order of magnitude.
    – Magisch
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 11:57
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    The second argument is - at least in part - a consequence of the fact that there simply may not be enough space on earth, let alone in certain countries, where planting trees actually has a measurable, positive effect: ethz.ch/en/news-and-events/eth-news/news/2019/07/…
    – chaosflaws
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:08

Questions about tree planting have come up on StackExchange quite often, and in the news various countries have great drives to plant vast numbers of trees in a single day.

A common issue seems to be a misunderstanding of the relationship between planting 'a tree' and 'offsetting carbon'.

Whilst its true that a single mature twenty year old tree will both sequester around 3 tonnes of CO2 in its woody mass and also lock about 3 tonnes of CO2 into a cycle of growing leaves, dropping them and decomposition, so a total of 6 tonnes offset; in order to get a twenty year old tree its not as simple as planting one seedling.

This news article covers Turkey's attempt to plant 11 million trees in 2019, of which about 90% died. This article questions whether the fragile state of Ethiopia was able to plant a billion trees in one year.

From my own experience, in order to grow a healthy twenty year old tree, you need to plant about a dozen seedlings of various species, relatively close together, and over a twenty year period, you cultivate and care for them and occasionally cull them until one remains.

Can you simply say that to offset the 6 tonnes of CO2 with a mature tree you need to plant 12 seedlings, so each seedling is equivalent to offsetting half a tonne? Maybe, but that nuance is too much for most government policy headlines.

Another point to consider is that most trees drop a thousand or so seeds each year, many of them can germinate all by themselves without human interference. In the UK there are 3 billion trees, so that could be 3 trillion seeds dropped, even if only one seed per tree successfully germinated into a new seedling, that's still the tree population doubling every year. Planting seeds is easy.

The Damcon PL10 (with four row attachment) is a popular tree planting trailer for use on farms and plantations, and can plant around 20,000 seedlings in a single day. Planting seedlings is easy.

What's difficult, both practically and politically, is cultivating the new trees for twenty years. Its a lot of commitment. It takes land and funding and people, and at any moment a new government or local authority with different priorities could decide to rip up the new forest and build a freeway, or use the land for farming and all the effort of planting trees is gone in a puff of smoke (CO2).

  • 8
    There is also a question of timescale. If I take a flight from London to Sydney today, I have caused about 3 tons of CO2 to be emitted today. Planting a tree that will sequester 3 tons of CO2 over the next 20 years does not solve the problem of the 3 tons of excess and undesired CO2 that exist right now.
    – padd13ear
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 15:25
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    @padd13ear a 20 year time-lag is best case scenario. That tree can easily result in 0 or negative amount of CO2 stored, as in people spend gas to chop it down and haul it away / burn it.
    – Nelson
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 3:17

One concern is that it takes too long. Because a sustainable forest needs decades to grow it is a midterm solution only.

Another concern that comes to mind which I have not yet heard is that the forests compete with farming over land use: Both need reasonably fertile land. This conflict resembles the one created by plants grown for fuel: Rich countries create a large-scale demand for land for non-food purposes, driving the value of land up until it is uneconomical to grow food on it. But fertile land is a limited resource which will be needed to feed a still-growing world population.


Two major problems:

  1. The planting should be additive. If you have a location where forest could theoretically develop, if there's any forest nearby, the forest would naturally grow there. So if you have land without forest, chances are forest would develop there naturally, and if not naturally, surely the landowner doesn't want to waste a valuable piece of land and would plant a forest for profit anyway. So someone asking for money to plant a forest is scam: the landowner would probably use that land for forest anyway. This doesn't create any carbon offsets even though it may falsely be sold as carbon offsetting.

  2. A forest will grow fast for maybe 100-150 years (faster near tropical areas), then it will be in equilibrium with the environment. If you plant a forest now, it will offset carbon emissions only for 100-150 years (and naturally only if it's additive). The eco-fascists would want you to leave this forest untouched once it reaches old age. But this stops any carbon sequestration, so your carbon sink is no more a carbon sink. So you have to have some plan of chopping down the forest and utilizing the wood in ways that retains the carbon for millenia, to make room for further forest to grow and continue capturing carbon. For example converting wood to biochar and making long-lived buildings and high-quality furniture could retain the carbon for a long amount of time. Even if the building is demolished or the furniture is scrapped, chances are we soon have such wood recycling in the future that it would be converted to biochar anyway.

Overall, unless someone manages to convert the entire Sahara into forest, we don't have enough suitable land for using forest to offset emissions for our current usage of fossil fuels. So the use of fossil fuels absolutely has to end, there is no alternative to this. Especially use of any carbon-based fuels has to end in mobile vehicles, since it's unfeasible to capture carbon dioxide from those. A factory could allow easy carbon capture since its tailpipe is not in motion like it is in cars.

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