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23.06.2022

Carbon Offsetting – Beyond Planting Trees

planting trees is not always the best way to offset carbon.

Is planting trees really the best thing for carbon offsetting?

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is a way for people or businesses to offset the amount of carbon emissions they generate. While carbon dioxide, or CO2, is always present in Earth’s atmosphere and essential for life, too much CO2 is bad for the environment as it traps and emits heat. This makes the planet hotter and contributes to climate change, resulting in extreme weather, rising sea levels, flooding, drought, wildfires, and more negative effects that are potentially devastating to all life on Earth. 

We did it

Humans have contributed to increased CO2 levels in a double whammy of burning fossil fuels, and deforestation on a massive scale. So we have 48% more CO2 in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and not enough plants and trees absorbing it. While the earth’s temperature has already risen and will continue to rise, taking action now can help to reduce this rise in temperature, and mitigate some of the effects of global warming. 

Too little, too late?

Despite warnings about climate change from scientists since the 1960s, efforts to reduce carbon emissions have only really begun over the last few years. Companies both large and small have had to reduce their carbon footprint, or at least appear to be doing so. It’s pretty tough to operate in the 21st century without contributing at least a little to carbon emissions, so that’s where offsetting comes in. Even massive companies that rely heavily on burning fossil fuels, like airlines or oil companies, have been flashing their carbon cutting credentials about the place. But is this actually offsetting the massive amounts of carbon dioxide they produce, or is it just pointless greenwashing?

Planting trees to capture carbon dioxide

Many carbon offsetting initiatives involve planting trees. Sounds good, right? After all, who could object to planting a tree? While there’s nothing wrong with this (in theory), there are plenty of other ways to capture excess carbon dioxide that could be more effective. 

Why trees aren’t great for capturing CO2

Trees can take up to 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 promised by many carbon offset schemes, and are often not protected and maintained – trees can die of disease, be cut down, or destroyed by drought or fire. And then what happens? The carbon is just released back into the atmosphere. 

How tree-planting initiatives can be problematic

There have been issues with planting swathes of non-native trees in already established ecosystems, leading to a lack of biodiversity and even destruction of unique habitats which ironically led to more carbon being released.

A lot of farmland in Wales that could be used for growing fruit and vegetables has been bought up and used to plant trees under so-called ‘green’ initiatives, meaning that people will have to source their fruit and veg from further away, meaning yep – more carbon emissions. Farmers call this nothing more than a ‘landgrab’ and many will find it hard to resist offers to buy their land if they do not have family to take over their farms.

The faux benevolence of greenwashing by planting trees can have even more sinister consequences – large corporations purchasing cheap land from farmers in poorer areas and even forcing out indigenous communities in Kenya, all so they can throw a few trees in there and avoid losing sleep over their carbon emissions.

Benefits of wildflowers for carbon offsetting

Wildflowers are quicker to establish than trees, offer more benefits to local wildlife and ecosystems, and most importantly, uptake more carbon dioxide. 

Meadows and grasslands are responsible for keeping as much as a fifth of all the soil carbon in the UK, and up to a third of all terrestrial carbon in the world, as it is absorbed into the soil as organic matter. This keeps the carbon in the soil, whereas if a tree dies or gets chopped down, the carbon is released. A meadow can capture up to 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, even if the meadow is cut once a year for hay to feed livestock. The constant growth of a meadow with diverse grasses and wildflowers is a much more viable alternative for many landowners than a forest, which would take years to grow and is difficult to use for farming purposes. Farmers who incorporate spaces for habitats, such as wildflowers and hedgerows into their farming practices, can also claim payments under 2020’s Agriculture Act and DEFRA’s Countryside Stewardship scheme.

Wildflower meadows encourage biodiversity, and provide food and essential habitats for many native species of insects, birds and animals, particularly pollinators who are essential for food production. Trees obviously play a part in this too, but wildflowers offer more diversity to an area than a homogenous forest. Leaving small areas to become ‘wild’ and sowing wildflowers is also possible in smaller spaces where planting a tree may not be practical. 

How My Square Metre can help

We are committed to providing long-term solutions for sequestering carbon within the soil, so you can be sure any land purchased through My Square Metre is managed properly. We work closely with experts to ensure that we steward the land as best we can, and take an individual approach to each piece of land we use when planting on it. 

We only buy land that is classified as grade 3 or lower, so we do not take valuable farmland away from farmers – according to gov.uk, this is defined as:

“Land with moderate limitations that affect the choice of crops, timing and type of cultivation, harvesting or the level of yield.”

We also buy land on brownfield sites, which are derelict areas previously built on and used for industrial or commercial purposes. These kinds of sites are ideal for developing into grassland and meadows, as previous building materials like concrete leave the soil with a lot of alkaline, which is perfect for all kinds of grasses and wildflowers. A meadow is also a lot more pleasing on the eye than an old car park or levelled factory building!

Protecting the land

Each square metre that we sell is protected for 30 years. After 30 years, the land is left alone as the wildflowers will be strong enough to continue without human intervention, rented to farmers for green farming contracts, and a small amount (less than 1%) can be developed, but only at net zero carbon by businesses that are sustainable.

Find out more about what we do and how you can help keep the carbon in the soil at mysquaremetre.co.uk.

Sources:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-08636-w

https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Carbon-Farming-to-address-Climate-Change.pdf

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg25133581-000-meadows-could-be-our-secret-weapon-in-the-fight-against-climate-change/

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/agricultural-land-assess-proposals-for-development/guide-to-assessing-development-proposals-on-agricultural-land

Edward Crowther

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