Analysis - November 16, 2007



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November 2007


Print Sustainable tourism,

Compensating your emissions by planting trees? Know the pros and cons and the dos and don’ts.

The popularity of carbon-neutral travel continues to grow, although no reliable figures have been published on the size of this market. Traveling or doing business carbon neutral is a voluntary, market-based option to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions caused. Using a web-based calculator, one simply calculates the emissions caused and then buys some credits from a company that promises to plant enough trees to absorb an equivalent amount of harmful emissions during their lifetime. For example, Air Canada currently offers this service through the non-profit organization Zerofootprint. Since the launch of the program in May 2007, Air Canada clients have offset 2224 metric tonnes of C02, resulting in 445 trees being planted in a forest restoration project in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. This is equivalent to taking 727 cars off the road for one year.

Purchasing carbon credits in a tree plantation is popular because it is simple to understand and presents a good clean green image. From a business perspective, the establishment of forest carbon sinks is estimated to be 90% cheaper than developing and implementing energy efficiency technology. Although planting trees is a move in the right direction, one needs to be aware of the issues surrounding carbon sequestration projects.


It is recognized that trees play a part in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases. If managed appropriately, tree plantations can help address other environmental problems and generate income. They can also cause problems.

  1. Forestry projects only store carbon while the trees are alive. If the trees are harvested, die or get destroyed naturally or by other mechanisms (such as fire), then carbon gets released back into the atmosphere. When this happens, a client’s emissions are not actually offset or compensated for.
  2. Once a forest is established, it is complicated to measure how much carbon is absorbed during the life of the project and this is a current subject of debate amongst scientists.
  3. The Earth does not have the physical land available to absorb the excess emissions already in the atmosphere. Not all land currently available is suitable for carbon sink plantations due to biogeographical and other reasons.
  4. The effectiveness of a plantation depends on the type of tree species planted. Agroforests with multiple tree species have higher carbon storage capacity, greater biodiversity and are likely to provide more benefits to local livelihoods. Monoculture plantations, of non-native eucalyptus or pine trees, for example, provide no biodiversity value, little habitat provision, disturb hydrological cycles, intensify the use of chemicals and pesticides and can increase soil acidity. Unfortunately, many people buy carbon credits in such monoculture projects.
  5. The establishment of carbon sink plantations by developed countries in developing countries has been problematic because they threaten local communities, who risk displacement and loss of access to traditional lands. These communities are often not compensated adequately for their losses.
  6. Since sequestration projects lack regulation, companies can take advantage of the situation to over-exaggerate or inflate their projects’ estimated benefits.
  7. Planting trees does not directly result in a move away from using fossil fuels. It compensates for emissions, rather than cutting pollution at its source. This is why some organizations do not offer carbon credits from sequestration projects. Rather, they focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, which support a transition away from fossil fuel dependence.

What to do

  1. Try to reduce your emissions, while traveling and in daily life.
  2. If cutting down is not an option, try to substitute with the best available alternatives.
  3. If neither of the above is an option, then continue traveling or doing your business carbon neutral, but be selective in supporting tree projects.

If you decide to buy carbon credits in tree plantations look for:

  • Permanent plantations (<100 years) or projects under protection
  • Local native species and multiple species
  • Projects with long lived and hardwood species (or the most appropriate native species)
  • Projects with the resources to manage the plantations to ensure survivorship and longevity
  • Additionality (i.e. projects that would not have happened without your purchase)
  • Insurance on the project so the company can replace trees if lost or damaged (fire, drought, etc,)
  • Well-organized, transparent projects with low administration costs
  • Projects that have additional environmental benefits (such as habitat provision)
  • Projects that provide genuine sustainable development benefits to local communities
  • Projects that retire the carbon credit you bought – so it cannot be sold again
  • Projects that incorporate local people’s needs and knowledge
  • Projects certified and verified by an independent third party

The climate change solution requires social change – and a move towards greener energy in all sectors. The more we rely on carbon sinks to offset greenhouse gases in the short term, the more we delay the transition to alternative energy, and the harder it will be to reach emission targets in the long term. Carbon sinks should supplement an alternative energy revolution, not replace or delay it.

Finally, travelers can take matters into their own hands, rather than relying on carbon credit companies. For example, when you take a holiday, calculate the amount of emissions you need to offset using one of the web-based calculators. Then, make up for this yourself before and after the trip, by not driving your car or by purchasing energy-efficient products for the household. Individuals and companies now have the opportunity to be proactive in addressing their travel-related carbon footprint.

1. In this paper, greenhouse gases refer to those recognized by the Kyoto Protocol: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydro fluorocarbons, per fluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.

– Air Canada Carbon Offset Program []. Last accessed November 20, 2007.
– Priskin, J. and Stenhouse, R.N. (2007) Des végétaux pour voyager : les avantages et les inconvénients des contreparties de la fixation du carbone par la séquestration dans les forêts. Téoros. 26(3) p. 68-71.
– Zerofootprint [] Last accessed November 20, 2007.

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