Sustainable Goals #1: What does Carbon neutral mean? And is planting trees the solution?

By 21 June 2021 No Comments
What does Carbon neutral mean

Before answering the question of what carbon neutral means, let’s take a very common and popular misconception of carbon neutral being equal to carbon zero and carbon negative as these are the three main notions used by organizations and countries. The latter “carbon negative” means that an entity has reached a state of net zero emissions and is going beyond and offset more than just its residual emissions. Meaning that more carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere than is emitted, thus creating a negative balance at the global scale. Another term used for carbon negative is “climate positive” which does mean the same. “Carbon zero” can be define as no carbon emission being derived from a product or a service, that is to say that no carbon waste has been emitted from the first instant. Thus, there is no need to capture or offset carbon. Concretely this could be an “off-grid” building entirely self sufficient by running on solar energy (glass panels) and with no use of any type of fossil fuels. The former “carbon neutral” is the action of removing as much CO2 waste from the atmosphere as emitted; meaning to balancing off the emissions of carbon and absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. Now in order to achieve a carbon neutral state, the first step is to understand our carbon footprint, where it is coming from, identify the critical points and what variables triggers it, in order to be able to reduce it. Hence, why it is often said that systemic change is necessary by changing our habits and consumption (including food) patterns.

The most widely used and internationally recognized greenhouse gas accounting standard, divides emissions into three scopes: Scope 1: Direct emissions derived from on-site fuel combustion, For example: natural gas consumption or fuel consumption of lease and company cars. Scope 2: Indirect emissions For example: electricity and heat consumption and business use of private car by employees. Scope 3: Emission by third parties / upstream and downstream business activities For example: commuting, public transport and emissions from outsourced work.

Scope 3 emissions are usually far larger than scope 1 and 2; however, these emissions from scope 3 are more complicated to measure. When claiming to be carbon neutral or have a net zero emissions, it needs to specified which scopes it is considering to ensure full transparency. Regarding the carbon zero strategy, it is evident that all three scopes of emissions need to be considered

So as to achieve a carbon neutral state several steps can be taken such as reducing energy consumption while switching to renewable energy solutions. Limiting travels for organizations is also an important solution such as video-conference as is being done in the Covid-19 world pandemic, switch to remote working as much as possible, invest in smart mobility tech solutions for the daily working commuters. Recycling properly sorting waste accordingly and offsetting the carbon emitted as it is mainly human activities where carbon emissions come from. Some steps are already taken by governments within the E.U. member states such as the implementation of new regulations (commuters travel reimbursements, subventions for smart mobility use) and co2 taxes in the nearby future. An other solution which is worldly stimulated is the planting of trees, fast growing ones in order to offset our Carbon damages and fight climate change, in order to understand if this is the solution, let us first understand what trees do and what impact it really has and if there is a difference between trees. Trees have a significant potential to hold in carbon and they are often seen as a serious natural technology against global warming.

As trees grow, they help absorb and sink the carbon that would otherwise contribute to global heating. Trees (together with all plants) use sunlight energy to do photosynthesis – a process that uses carbon dioxide and water to create energy (glucose) for their cells. In the end, trees end up feeding themselves with the carbon we desperately need to avoid getting to the atmosphere.

In addition to the carbon dioxide trees capture, they also help the soil capture and store carbon which is important to fight climate change. However it is to note that oceans are absorbing around 90% of all carbon emissions, it is the largest carbon sink of our planet and yet even with its greatest impact it is suffering the impacts of ocean acidification.

The global tree restoration potential research by scientists Jean-Francois Bastin, Yelena Finegold, Claude Garcia,…, in 2019 used google earth and sustainable variables through AI (Artifical Intelligence) in order to create a global map of locations where trees could be planted in order to help stop climate change. They found that nearly two-thirds of all land – 8.7bn ha – can grow trees and support a forestall area. Of all this space, 5.5bn ha already have trees and another 1.5bn ha corresponds to cropland used for growing food. Doing a quick calculation tells us there is an extra 1.7bn ha with grasslands, degraded soils or lightly vegetated area, where more trees can be planted. This area represents around 11% of all land and has the size of countries like China and the United States of America combined (urban areas and crops land are not being considered in these calculations). This study has created a very much needed worldly blueprint that clarify how much tree cover there is and how much more can be planted in the world. As a solution agroforestry is put in the for front, which is a type of forest management in order to avoid disturbing our ecosystems and is consisting in focusing on grazing land, which can benefit from having trees.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. Their assessment is that an increase forest area by 1 billion ha to limit global warming to 1.5ºC by 2050. Moreover, more than 50% of the tree restoration potential sites can be found in 6 different countries: (in million hectares) Russia, +151; United States, +103; Canada, +78.4; Australia, +58; Brazil, +49.7; and China,+40.2.

Stanford’s researchers found that if we act now, this could cut carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by up to 25%, to levels last seen almost a century ago. But to not just plant trees but also pay attention to the soil’s balance in order for it to be efficient. How long will planting trees take before changing the levels of co2 in the atmosphere? Can savannas and grasslands support huge increases in tree cover or will it affect the resilience of ecosystems and perhaps even their ability to function as effectively regarding carbon sequestration? How to conciliate the need to plant more trees with the increasingly higher demand for food production? These are all ongoing questions with ongoing solutions provided by scientists, practitioners and governments alike.

Fact is that knowledge of our biodiversity is crucial in order to fight climate change efficiently and not just effectivly; one should consider that trees sink carbon as they grow and not right after being planted. Planting single types of species is also dangerous for the natural balance and damaging for the health of soils. Unfortunately the lack of a sustainable forest protection and management leads to football sized areas of forest being decimated which does not provide the balance we desperately need to offset the damages. One such example is the well meant tree policies of Mexico in partnership with El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele called the “Sembrando Vida” project which stimulates landowners to plant trees by providing direct payments for it. The downfall to this well meant policy is the absence of knowledge by landowners of trees which resulted in century old trees that were having great impact being chopped down and thus loosing +10,000 of mature forest. This is unfortunately not a singled out phenomenon but is a consequence of an erroneous idea that old forests are not useful for climate mitigation, because they are no longer growing rapidly and sequestering additional CO₂. The misguided “solution” to the issue is to prioritise tree planting ahead of the conservation of already established forests. This shows that forest management should not just on national level but with a clear international global world coordination program and a road map for all; necessary to avoid harming our much needed established biodiversity.

Indeed misguided information about carbon capture by land ecosystems can have devastating consequences, resulting in losses of biodiversity and an increase in CO₂ concentrations. Which is the greater paradox as then these “new fast growing single trees” planted everywhere will actually negatively impact our environment.

So trees is not the only solution and should not be used as a “band-aid” to business as usual but should merely be one of the actions to help fight climate change as the already undertaken Sustainable Development Goals (17SDGS) by the signatories of the Paris agreement in 2015.

Trees as well as oceans can help fight climate change but only combined with a sustainable and circular environment, else there will simply not be enough trees to offset society's carbon emissions. Besides “planting trees” has much more subtle complexities of carbon capture in natural ecosystems than is usually understood by companies and governments. To avoid environmental damage, it is necessary to refrain from establishing forests where they naturally don’t belong, avoid “quick scheme incentives” to cut down existing forest in order to plant new trees, planting trees in ecosystems that are normally dominated by other types of vegetation often fails to result in long term carbon sequestration. It is essential to consider how seedlings planted today might fare over the next several decades.

In order to not ask to much of our already fragile ecosystem, be open to other solutions such as enriching grasslands and arable soils which can turn out to be better solutions – regions global forest reforestation efforts should be put.

What all scientists and practitioners agree upon is that reducing emissions and restore original forest covers are crucial climate change mitigation strategies, to reach net zero CO2 globally means having a consistent climate strategy. Therefore, organizations should be aware that net zero strategies do not only consist of carbon offsetting, as many might believe.

Team Greenable.

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