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Every cup of Nespresso coffee will be carbon neutral by 2022,” I hear George Clooney say on TV. You hear these kinds of claims more and more, Nespresso is not the only company by far. Total and Shell both promise to be climate neutral by 2050. Just like the International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia, among others. Schiphol is aiming for 2030. Microsoft – climate neutral by 2030. Ten years after that, Amazon promises to offset all of their carbon emissions. And led by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, 13 global players including Unilever, Mercedes-Benz, Siemens and Signify signed ‘The Climate Pledge’ in 2019. Or what about the UN campaign ‘Race to Zero‘, where already more than a thousand large companies have added their names to?

How are companies really dealing with this? Will they actually stop emitting CO2 in 30 years’ time? Or is it just a clever marketing trick? So-called greenwashing, where unsubstantiated or misleading claims are made about the sustainability of a product, service or company.

According to a report by Bloomberg Green, more than half of all plans presented by companies in 2019 and 2020 aimed at becoming climate neutral are based on planting trees, protecting forests or trading in CO2 emission certificates. With the additional planting of trees, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that between 500 and 3,600 million metric tons of CO2 could be cleared from the air each year by 2050.

Not enough room on earth to offset all CO2 emissions with trees

Greenpeace had a good look at these figures. They see that companies like the Italian oil company Eni and the aforementioned International Airlines Group want to offset 30 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually by 2050 through the planting of trees. These two companies alone are already snapping up 12 percent of the total, Greenpeace warns. And Shell reports that it needs a forest the size of Spain. There is simply not enough space on earth to plant trees to offset all CO2 emissions.

The fact that corporations need to do much more to reduce their emissions is something Auke wholeheartedly agrees with. “But the complex thing here is that forests filter CO2 from the air, so planting trees does actually have an effect,” he says.

‘I planted some trees, so I can fly as much as I want’

But it still doesn’t feel right to him: “The fact that companies plant trees or protect nature should not become a licence to continue emitting CO2. It reminds me a bit of Catholic penance, which the faithful used to pay for their sins. By paying, they would escape hell and go to heaven.”

“As if people are now saying, ‘I planted some trees so I can fly again as much as I want!’ Or that Shell thinks it’s done its bit by supporting a few good projects. No, of course not! Trees can never compensate for the CO2 emissions that come from flying. Put energy in greening aviation and heavy industry instead.”

Green is not always green

Because, Auke reasons, a lot of nature conservation projects that big companies are now putting money into already exist. “It’s very good that they support those projects. But without companies now shoving some money in that direction, those trees would probably have been planted anyway. It’s really not like Shell is actually directly saving trees from being cut down. You can question whether companies deserve credit for this.”

It reminds him a bit of the green certificates in the energy sector. “With these, you can make electricity that is not green, green. Dutch energy companies buy these certificates in Norway, where they have a surplus of green electricity thanks to their hydropower plants. It’s actually a kind of sticker that lets us say: “Look! I have green electricity!’ But in fact nothing changes, because that green energy stays in Norway. It’s only on paper that Dutch energy is green.”

Dutch comedian Arjen Lubach explains green energy in The Netherlands.

Paying to leave trees in place

Auke is convinced that something similar is also happening when it comes to nature conservation: ” Nature reserves that would otherwise be cleared for plantations are being preserved. So, by saying that I am not cutting down trees, I am suddenly climate neutral? While the companies can go on emitting CO2 again with the CO2 credits that they buy. On paper it all adds up, but in fact nothing changes. There is no benefit to the climate. It is fairly ridiculous that companies are paying to leave trees in place while they carry on polluting.”

And by no means are those protected forests guaranteed of surviving either. Auke cites a 2019 article from the Dutch weekly Groene Amsterdammer. “With those CO2 credits, companies count themselves rich, while a forest could burn down, become diseased or even be cut down. Protecting them properly doesn’t always work out well by a long shot. The problem behind this is the limited amount of ground that we have. We want room for housing, food, nature, perhaps even biofuel. There is simply not enough space to honor all those ideas to use the land in useful and sustainable ways. So yes, I’m all for protecting forests and planting trees. But we are not doing the right thing if we use this to offset CO2 emissions or air travel.”