Can planting trees really compensate for flying?

3 May

No, of course it can’t.

By Jutta Kill and Chris Lang. Published by undercurrents in Reach for the Sky, 2006.

According to Giovanni Bisignani, chief of the International Air Travel Association (IATA), the airline industry is facing not four, but five horsemen of the apocalypse. “Last year, we survived the four horsemen of the apocalypse – SARS, conflict in Iraq, terrorism, and the economy,” he told IATA’s annual meeting in June 2004. Bisignani’s fifth horseman comes in the shape of rising oil prices: “If oil prices average $33, we break even. At $36, we could expect three billion dollar losses.” In the first week of June, the benchmark price of oil reached $42. But Bisignani should have added a sixth, genuinely apocalyptic, human made horseman: climate change.

“Travelling one hundred passenger-kilometres in a car or in an aeroplane consumes a similar amount of energy. However, the impact on the climate produced by the aeroplane is between two and four times as large, because the plane – unlike the car – in addition to CO2 emissions also emits water vapour and nitrogen oxide which also have an effect on the climate,” says Dr. Karl Otto Schallaböck, transport expert at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

Recent initiatives, such as those of Future Forests, Prima Klima or Fairfliegen in Germany, claim to have an answer to air travel’s ever-increasing contribution to climate change. Prima Klima’s “CO2 calculator” computer programme calculates how many trees need to be planted to compensate for personal energy consumption. To compensate a flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok, you would need to plant 0.3 acre of trees, at a cost of more than €200. In fact, this is not climate protection but emissions trade, which is based on a scientific fraud. The fundamental difference in terms of climate change between carbon in fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) and carbon in trees is simply ignored.

Fossil fuels, which have been stored for millions of years below the earth, only emit carbon to the atmosphere if they are dug out and burned. The release of carbon is a one way street, because the earth takes many thousands of years to produce fossil fuels and thus to remove the CO2 permanently from the atmosphere. Trees store carbon for a relatively short period. While trees grow they absorb carbon, but this is released after a few years to the atmosphere. Trees die and decay. They can be attacked by pests. During heat waves they can go up in smoke and flames. They can also be logged and made into furniture, buildings or paper, which are not long term carbon stores.

In order to have a noticeable effect on the climate, immense areas would have to be planted with trees. Dr Dan Barlow, head of research for Friends of the Earth Scotland, warns: “To deal with the increased carbon dioxide emissions we face over the next half century, you would have to completely cover Europe – from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains – with trees.”

The benefits of this carbon fraud go to timber plantation companies rather than to people or nature. In Brazil companies are using this new subsidy to finance the expansion of their eucalyptus plantations. Forgotten in the process are the serious environmental impacts that large plantations have in almost all cases, whether caused by the dramatic lowering of the water table, or the high use of pesticides, or the drying up of nearby wetlands.

Forgotten is also the high price that the local communities pay in many countries of the South, when their fertile farmland or their forests are converted to timber plantations. The people affected by eucalyptus monocultures, such as those in Espirito Santo in Brazil, have with good reason defended their land and livelihoods against the expansion of these industrial timber plantations.

Wuppertal Insitute’s Schallaböck says “In principle it does not matter which factors impact the world’s climate. Yet one should not create the illusion that through maintaining forests one can actually compensate for flying. The ‘black’ carbon in the form of oil is taken from the ground and therefore becomes part of the climate system where it then disturbs the radiation balance.”

This is an edited version of an article first published in Verträglich Reisen, November 2004.

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