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Carbon Offsets/Reforestation Pitfalls | The Green Invisible Hand Handles & Mishandles (4/6)

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Mixed, structurally biodiverse rich forests look “messy” but messy is life, and its opposite – sterile – is death.

Yet, under the Doctrine of Decarbonization, we’re sacrificing biodiverse rich forests for sterile tree plantations.

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In the previous article, we looked at the Jarrah forest, a biodiverse-rich region of Western Australia.

This forest is being cleared because beneath the trees are “green metals,” minerals such as nickel, palladium, cobalt, and platinum required in electric car batteries, wind turbines and other decarbonizing infrastructure.

That’s when the green invisible hand destroys the environment – by reaching – mining for EV-minerals stored beneath the trees in biodiverse rich forests

When mining companies clear forests, they either:

(a) do nothing – which often happens in developing countries,

(b) revegetate/reforest a designated area of similar size to that which they cleared, or

(c) buy carbon offsets to “make up” for the environmental harm. By buying an offset, they fund an activity that results in capturing and storing the equivalent volume of greenhouse gases (in tonnes) released by forest clearing. This activity is typically reforestation/revegetation and trees thus planted are often in foreign countries (revegetation can happen anywhere because global warming is global); there are various standards, schemes and third parties involved, such as Greenfleet.

(Side note: carbon offsetting is used across many sectors, e.g. aviation, not only mining.)

In theory, carbon market instruments such as offsets look perfect

You clear 10 hectares of forest in Australia, but you reforest 10 ha elsewhere in Australia or Brazil or Angola … or you buy an offset under which 5 ha of mangroves in Bangladesh get planted.

Unfortunately, there are many problems with this “environmental sin market:”

· Primary forests can take hundreds of years to restore, and some can never be restored

· Biodiversity loss

· Commodifying nature (forests = assets, for return, to be traded)

· No intrinsic value of nature, only instrumental value (what can forests DO for us)

· Replacing native vegetation with invasive, standardized carbon crops (limited species of few hardy, fast-growing trees grown all over the world)

· Converting areas of native vegetation to “green deserts” – carbon monoculture plantations

· Sanctifying environmental destruction (“we need to clear forests to get to EV-minerals, otherwise no decarbonization, no meeting net zero targets”). Environmental and social license for environmental destruction

· Not recognizing that preserving native, mixed forests is the best strategy for capturing and storing CO2 long-term, while also safeguarding biodiversity

· Reforestation often leads to higher fire hazards, especially in standardized plantations (as below)

· Arcane landscape, lack of oversight, bribery & corruption in third world countries, lack of transparency, complex schemes and certifications

· Not internationally harmonized carbon price (yet)

· Offsetting/revegetation may seem like a solution, but it’s not. It’s the last resort, like recycling in the reduce -> reuse -> recycle waste management hierarchy. Recycling is better than landfill, but it’s not a solution to the waste problem. Waste reduction is the solution.

Many of ^these problems are unavoidable and occur in other areas than carbon markets. Nothing is perfect.

But let’s not be dazed by the ‘net zero’ and decarbonization bandwagon…

Now, let’s dig into three examples from the list above:

1) Primary forests and their biodiversity are lost forever

It took hundreds of thousands of years to form a primary rainforest. The forest is not just big trees. It’s the metres deep bedrock under the vegetation (where minerals such as bauxite lay), the rich soil full of microorganisms, the fungal ‘Mycorrhizal’ network in the soil, the bushy groundcover, understory, mid-story and canopy layers, and the intricate symbiotic network of plant-insect-bird-reptilian-amphibian and mammalian relationships that co-evolved together over millennia and depend on each other. It looks “messy” but messy is life, and its opposite – sterile – is death.

Once this structural complexity is lost, it’s lost forever.

2) Replacing mixed forests (complex ecosystems) with green monocultures (carbon plantations)

Often instigated by companies keen – or required – to offset their emissions, more and more tree planting projects go ahead as the global decarbonization efforts scale up.

But because this is a carbon market-based environment – the green invisible hand – monocultures are chosen for these projects. It’s easier and cheaper to plant an area of ten hectares with two standardized species of hardy, straight, and ideally fast-growing trees (e.g. Acacias), instead of trying to replicate the whole biodiverse-rich ecosystem and/or plant slow-growing trees.

This means that invasive and often fire-prone trees (e.g. Eucalypts) are mass planted in areas they don’t belong at the expense of native vegetation. Eucalypts native to Australia planted in South America and Africa are just one example.

This carbon farming – mass planting of standardized monoculture plantations of carbon crops, e.g. Teaks – happens all over the world.

But mixed native forests typically store more carbon than monocultures

They’re also moister thanks to their multi-layered structure (they retain more water and ooze more water vapour than one-layered plantations). This makes them more resilient long-term in our warming and drying climate.

On the other hand, carbon plantations are drier, because they lack the complexity of mixed forests. And being drier makes them more prone to …

3) Increased fire hazard

In mass standardized tree plantations, all trees are of the same species, shape, growth rate, and growth habit so when they mature, you have a soldier parade-like colony of avenue-style trunks in a grid-like plantation, growing on a “cleaned up” ground … meaning there’s no ground cover, no mid-story, then five, ten, fifteen metres of hollow trunks, and then, the canopy of all trees close together.

These are perfect conditions for fire – the plantation is dry, there is no wind buffer, and nothing to stop the fire from spreading. But it gets worse; because the canopies touch each other, the fire is even more likely to spread than in a mixed forest.

You might’ve heard about the heatwaves in Europe this summer. In the Czech Republic, for example, ferocious fires burned down half of the ‘Ceske Svycarsko’ national park.

Sure, this summer was hotter than usual in Europe and with heatwaves come fires…

But this park was once covered by a mixed beech-fir-oak forest, which is unyielding to fire, and almost never burns (due to its structural complexity = higher moisture).

People, however, were smarter than nature, and they mass planted spruce trees instead of the mixed forest (this was long before carbon markets). And spruce trees are prone to calamities such as fire, blowdown, and bark beetle attacks … they burned down like matchsticks.

There’re trees that need fire to propagate, such as Sequoias and some species of Eucalypts. There’re trees that are naturally full of “fuel” – flammable oils, and they evolved to co-exist with frequent fires. Most Australian Eucalypts are like that.

But these are natural evolutionary explanations not a result of a human hand.

To wrap up …

I’m convinced that we should always prioritize the preservation of natural mixed forests because they’re better at carbon capture and storage, they’re biodiverse-rich, and less prone to fires.

All that plus much more (e.g. Indigenous cultures) should not be sacrificed for the sake of often dubious reforestation projects, for the sake of “net zero NOW!”.

IMO, all reforestation projects should be done with the oversight of a restoration ecologist, it shouldn’t be a result of carbon math.

Otherwise, we’re commodifying nature once again…

There’ll always be trade-offs between what’s needed now and long-term, this is nothing new.

But will we finally wake up and value nature for what it is, instead of what it does for us (in this case, absorbing carbon dioxide)?


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