Marketing firms are cashing in on public concern about the environment to sell PR services rather than solutions.
They claim to be able to create “offset” projects such as woodlands to absorb “all the harmful carbon dioxide” emitted by individuals, firms, or meetings. One example of this worrying trend is the UK-based Future Forests, which sells a so-called patented “carbon-neutral” label to clients. Unlike companies such as EcoSecurities, Future Forests concentrates less on helping its customers cope with new climate-related legislation than on helping them advertise themselves to the public as climatically responsible.
Planting tress is no substitute for using renewable energy. The answer, if you want to plant trees is to plant your own , in a window box, a back yard, or your best friend’s garden. You do NOT need others to do it for you. Future Forests appears to be planting less trees than it promises and takes a large cut from payments made by individuals who can scarcely afford the sky high prices they charge.
Music giants such as the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Dido and MTV, as well as firms such as Volvo and British Telecom, have paid Future Forests to plant trees in order to claim an eco-brownie point from consumers. But these are said to be deals done over a line at the Groucho Club rather than full-fledged eco-initiatives.
Future Forests claims to be the market leader in helping companies and individuals become more environmentally friendly. The company offers extrememly expensive “consultancy” on how to reduce your emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas. It also offer to “trade” your emissions by investing in climate-friendly technology and forestry, on the principle that trees soak up CO 2 and thus offset the pollution you have caused.
But the company is being accused by other green campaigners of being less eco-friendly than it claims. Trading standards officers in London are investigating a formal complaint which accuses Future Forests of investing too little of the money it raises in planting trees.
The complaint, from the charity Trees for Cities, points out that fans on the Rolling Stones website are encouraged to pay £8.50 to plant a tree but notes that Future Forests does not itself plant any trees at all. Instead, the charity claims, it relies on landowners who do the planting on the company’s behalf, yet are paid only a fraction of the donated money.
Trees for Cities says the public is given the impression that donations lead directly to the planting of new saplings when what often occurs is the purchase of “carbon sequestration” rights – a payment related to the future carbon storing potential of the trees.
The charity alleges that in some cases the trees have already been planted or were funded from other sources, such as the Forestry Commission, and would probably have existed without the intervention of Future Forests and its high-profile clients.
The complaint, submitted by Trees for Cities chief executive Graham Simmonds and received by trading standards officers in Camden, north London – where Future Forests has its registered head office – outlines the charity’s belief that, “if fans of the Rolling Stones, and other members of the public, knew that their money was being used to buy the carbon sequestration rights in trees that are being planted largely with public funding and that only around 40-45p of their £10 or £8.50 pay ment was being passed on to the woodland owner by Future Forests, then they would feel that this is a very different proposition to paying to plant a tree”.
A spokesman for Future Forests said the company will mount a vigorous defence of its operation. But it will do so in the face of other criticisms from campaigners who have also voiced fundamental concerns.
Pauline Buchanan Black, of the Tree Council, an umbrella group of 150 organisations, which often acts as a government adviser, said: “Members say they have been approached for the sale of carbon rights which is different to planting trees and sometimes those trees have been planted with resources from other sources. On their website they talk of planting trees and say they have helped to plant over 90 forests. Our members are very concerned that they are not planting trees.”
She added: “It is not practical for people to investigate the chapter and verse of where their money goes so I understand why they have decided to give to Future Forests. But I think it is unfortunate that they don’t go with a not-for-profit organisation rather than a private, for-profit company.”
Other campaigners are concerned about the idea that emissions of carbon can be offset by tree planting. Bryony Worthington, a climate change campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: “We don’t think it is an adequate response to climate change to encourage tree planting. What Future Forests offer is a way of calculating emissions which is useful but then they say you can salve your conscience and have a carbon neutral lifestyle by planting trees. We have an objection in principle to the whole concept.”
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, said their concerns embrace science but also public policy. “We would be concerned if tree planting being used as a way of making yourself carbon neutral blunted the edge of trying to tackle emissions at source through renewable energy or energy efficiency.”
A spokesman for Future Forests said they sought first to reduce emissions and then to offset those which are unavoidable. “On the website we make it clear that we are a climate change company. You are buying into the climate change message rather than a tree planting message. It talks about tree planting because it is part of the process for sequestration of CO 2 .”
He added: “We have a range of planting companies that we work with to plant trees for us. We work closely with planting companies and ensure to the highest standards we can that the money we will put in encourages additional activity. There are going to be some questions about it but we are doing rigorous checks.”
Addressing claims that deals have been struck which do not lead to the planting of additional trees, he said: “I cannot say it has never been the case but it is something we look into very strongly.”
He said trees were a small part of the company’s activity, which also encompasses renewable energy and climate technology products. But they were an important public face for their work. “Climate change is a very nebulous subject that is hard to get people engaged in,” he said. “Trees are a huge icon people can relate to.”
The spokesman said a breakdown of how the company spends its money was on its website for all to see: “Money goes to the partners and the verification and monitoring and overheads.”
The company’s website says only a third at most of of all contributions go directly to environmental projects. “Future Forests will only support projects that would otherwise not have taken place.” The world of green politics was not always a harmonious one, according to the spokesman. “There is a lot of infighting within climate changes circles that we don’t want to get involved in.”
Trees do become a carbon repository as they grow, but also have a habit of fading away as saplings, and eventually dying or being chopped down, which puts their carbon straight back into the atmosphere. Planting trees to absorb CO2 is plainly the refuge of the environmentally confused and bewildered, which explains its popularity with pop stars – they would be the same worldwide touring pop stars flying from gig to gig in private jets.
Planting trees to offset carbon emissions is simply a way to carry on business as usual with your conscience salved by a kind of 21st- century “green” Papal indulgence.
Jeffrey Gazzard, AirportWatch
Like other green groups, the Liberal Democrats had doubts about the Future Forests scheme, which is why we chose not to get involved. It is vital that carbon neutral schemes do actually deliver, and that money donated to plant trees is spent on planting trees. I announced at the recent Liberal Democrat conference that all our future party conferences would be carbon neutral – but we will do it in a way that delivers.
Norman Baker MP, Lib Dem environment spokesman
I do understand why people give to Future Forests, and I also understand why it’s not best value for tree planting money. This is why The Tree Council is working with member organisations – that’s the charities planting trees – to make it easier for the public to have an informed choice, and is currently working on a tree sponsorship code of practice.
Pauline Buchanan Black, Director-general, The Tree Council , www.treecouncil.org.uk