Can Tree-Planting Really Offset Our Carbon Footprint?

Trees could play a key role in capturing carbon emissions released into the atmosphere through human activity. And I have finally begun to deal with my own footprint.

I am a car driver. And I have not only been driving for a long time, but I’ve done so with a passion. However, in recent years, I’ve been increasingly plagued by a guilty conscience while sitting at the wheel. Not long ago, a friend offered a suggestion. “You could try and do something on your own to compensate for your annual CO2 consumption – just like the offers you get when booking a flight.” The idea of purchasing trees to capture the CO2 emissions from all the kilometers I had driven seemed sensible enough. But is it really that easy to make up for one’s past consumption through more consumption?

The first thing I do is to calculate my CO2 emissions over the past 12 months. According to the manufacturer, my car consumes 4.7 liters per 100 kilometers, and it produces 108 grams of CO2 per kilometer. Glancing at the tachometer, I see that I have driven 12,000 kilometers last year – or the equivalent of 1296 kg of CO2. For those with no information on their vehicle’s consumption from the car manufacturer, KlimAktiv provides a CO2 calculator, which, incidentally, also helps determine one’s CO2 surplus from a wide variety of activities.

The search for responsible tree planters

To compensate for your CO2 production, you need to find a responsible partner. Late last year, the tree planting community in Germany was thoroughly shaken by scandal and lost credibility among many observers. At the time, the German weekly DIE ZEIT published an article describing operations at the Plant for the Planet organization as non-transparent and questionable, even though it had prominent supporters such as the Fridays for Future movement on its side. Despite the accusations, Prof. Dr. Tom Crowther of the Institute of Integrative Biology at ETH Zurich does not call the project into question. “Plant for the Planet had to struggle a lot, and there were years of failure,” stated the renowned researcher for the record in an interview with Spiegel magazine. He went on to say that mistakes and setbacks can occur in almost every reforestation project.

But some projects work more transparently from the very start. Sören Brüntgens invites everyone who donates a tree – even me – to visit him in the forest and see for themselves what he is doing. I meet the founder of Plant-My-Tree in a wooded area near Hohengöhren in Brandenburg, where he operates one of his nearly 50 plots in Germany. He purchased his first plot of land at the start of the millennium and planted it with a few thousand trees. Initially, he did this just for himself, more specifically, to transform his conception of ecology into a contribution to the environment.

Sören Brüntgens of Plant-My-Tree

Brüntgens told others about his project. “And then, at some point, someone opened up their wallet, gave me 100 euros, and said I should plant a few trees for him too. It was then that I realized other people shared my convictions and were prepared to support the cause financially,” he said. In 2007, he founded Plant-My-Tree to create a bridge between supporters and suitable plots of land. He set up a website with a CO2 calculator and a tree shop, thereby becoming a pioneer in the tree-planting movement in Germany. He did not have to do much advertising, as things ran smoothly from the very beginning.

At some point, it became so much that he decided to sell part of his company and quit his old job in the demolition industry for good. Today, he and his team manage an astonishing 100 hectares of forest, an area covering around a million square meters. “Far too little!” says Brüntgens in his green work overalls, visibly committed to the cause with heart and soul. However, it is a real feat to establish a healthy mixed forest, which is an essential precondition for stable biodiversity amidst the local monocultures. There are certain things to keep in mind when reforesting. The land near Hohengöhren was cleared seven years ago and then lay fallow. “Wood factories!” That is how Brüntgens refers to the sections of forest where fast-growing spruce and pine trees are cultivated and then chopped down as quickly as possible.

Just planting trees is not enough

Many of the saplings that Brüntgens and his staff plant here in the nutrient-poor soil do not survive this initial phase outdoors, even though they are fenced off from nibbling deer and rampaging wild boars. The tiny trees also need to be surrounded by a protective ring of pioneer plants until they can survive on their own. “It will take decades until a mixed forest takes root here,” explains the head of Plant-My-Tree. Just planting trees in the ground is simply not enough. 

He must constantly revisit the reforesting sites, create optimal conditions for the surviving saplings to grow, and replace the saplings that do not survive. Besides, climate change introduces a new component that is difficult to assess. “We are forced to speculate today, which sorts of trees will be able to endure warmer temperatures in the years to come and then plant accordingly.” Since no one knows precisely which tree species have the best chances of survival in any potential future environment, Brüntgens and his team always plant at least five different sorts on a site. In Hohengöhren, these are oak, alder, black alder, red alder, and hazelnut.

When you take such details into account, the short-term nature of recipes like “One Euro a Tree,” promoted recently on television by German TV network Sat.1 in their “Forest Record Week,” is clearly apparent. Not only is the act of planting the tree important, but what is decisive is the necessary ecological knowledge and the subsequent follow-up care. In addition, the new forest must remain standing for many decades to provide for successful CO2 compensation. In order to ensure their preservation, Brüntgens is currently ceding his plots to the Plant-My-Tree foundation. “This will keep them protected for generations,” he says.

A good conscience is no reason to relax

Back at my computer in Berlin, I make a start. On Plant-A-Tree’s website, I buy the two trees needed to compensate for 1296 kilos of CO2. They cost me 30 Euros, and the compensation will happen over the next 80 years. Although I feel slightly better, it is pretty clear that we can’t continue indifferently with internal combustion engines, air travel, and other environmental excesses. Critics warn, however, that we can’t sit idly by after assuaging our conscience with a tree purchase. The reduction of carbon emissions must be the main priority, and everyone can put themselves to the test on this point. Trees can play a central role in capturing CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere through human activity, thereby alleviating climate change and the threat to biological diversity. At the same time, the main driving forces of climate change, such as the burning of fossil fuels and the alarming clearing of virgin forests, must be stopped.

As I close my laptop, I can still hear Brüntgens words. “If we don’t use this decade to turn the climate situation around, then we place the survival of future generations in great jeopardy. We must urgently do something. Just hoping that nothing will happen is much too great a risk to take.” I now realize that compensating for 12 months of driving my car is only a first small step.