Is planting trees to offset carbon emissions greenwashing?

Planting trees is great for the planet when it’s done responsibly: It restores nature, helps to absorb greenhouse gasses and revitalizes biodiversity. But the practice has been used to greenwash unsustainable products and services as well. This raises the question: When is planting trees good and when is it greenwashing?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when an individual, company or government presents itself as environmentally friendly by showing off certain small or non-existent “green” features, while fundamentally not being environmentally friendly at all.

When is offsetting carbon emissions by planting trees greenwashing and when not?

Practically speaking planting trees responsibly to offset carbon is in itself good, arguably even when it’s used to offset products and services that are not environmentally friendly. A problem arises when products and services that are bad for the environment are marketed as environmentally friendly simply because their carbon emissions have been offset by planting trees. That’s greenwashing. This way people might feel they are not negatively impacting the environment and they are doing something good, while in fact the creators of the product have not done anything meaningful to address the environmental impact of the product at the source.

A good example is taking a flight. If you offset the carbon emissions from your flight that’s great, but if you’re now made to you feel that flying is environmentally friendly and you can do it all the time, that’s not correct and it’s greenwashing. Nothing has been done to reduce the emissions at the source and apart from the carbon emissions further air pollution has not been accounted for. The core issue of our times of producing too much carbon has not been fundamentally addressed.

Even offsetting carbon itself can be greenwashed

Even carbon offsetting itself can be is greenwashed in some cases. There are companies and organizations that call emissions that are prevented carbon offsetting, even though those emission were to be caused by themselves or were anyways going to be prevented. Or the way that they offset carbon harms the environment in other ways, for instance by planting the same type of trees that are unsuitable or even harmful for the local habitat hundreds of thousands of times.

Attentive, not cynical

Sometimes after people have seen a company greenwash their product they become cynical of all actions towards a sustainable, green planet. They believe there must be some sinister motive behind it, or that all these actions won’t make any difference. It’s understandable, but many companies and organizations have a true aim of making their products and services environmentally friendly. And to arrive at a sustainable economy, it helps to support those that are making a real difference. So vote with your wallet.

What to look for

Responsibly planting trees is a wonderful tool in the fight against climate change and nature loss, but it can’t be the only solution. Simply because the amount of carbon that can be absorbed by forests is huge, but finite and usually carbon emissions come with a lot of other pollution as well. Therefore to avoid greenwashing it’s helpful to look for organizations and businesses that combine offsetting and meaningfully reducing their carbon emissions.

At Alive to Earth we also always focus on both: offsetting carbon by responsibly planting trees and reducing carbon emissions with EcoTips. Are you interested? Click the link below and start living carbon neutral today:

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