Going in search of the magic money tree

If we’re going to fight the climate crisis we need more trees. Lots of them. But can reforesting the land turn a profit?

In these uncertain times there is one thing you can bank on – we need to plant more trees.

One trillion of them, in fact. They play a huge role in absorbing the carbon emissions that threaten to destroy the planet as well as working wonders for biodiversity and preventing flooding.

Planting that many trees makes it something of a growth market and with the increasing trends moving towards ethical investments, it’s time to ask: does investing in trees offer a viable financial return?

A study released by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the Crowther Lab – an authority on the subject started by star ecologist Thomas Crowther – has taken on the task of mapping out where they could be planted. Planting the required one trillion trees could suck 205 gigatonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere and Crowther Lab’s online map lets you know which species to plant in which area.

They say that 3.5 million square miles would be enough space to fit them in – that’s roughly the size of the United States – and they could be squeezed into spaces in the US as well as Russia, Canada, Australia, China and Brazil.

Of course, parts of Brazil already house the Amazon rainforest, currently suffering catastrophic fires (catastrophic unless you’re Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, that is) and play a pivotal role in protecting the environment, acting as the “lungs of the world”, in the words of French president Emmanuel Macron.

In England, 1,420 hectares of trees were planted in the year to March, which was 71 per cent shy of the 5,000-hectare target. In his stint as Environment Secretary, Michael Gove pledged £50m to plan 10 million new rural trees and £10m for 130,000 urban trees through the Urban Tree Challenge Fund – but these investments are yet to bear fruit.

The total tree coverage remained the same at 10 per cent in England, 15 per cent in Wales and 19 per cent in Scotland.

The Scots fared the best out of the trio, according to Forest Research’s annual figures, with 11,200 hectares planted, above their 10,000-per-year target and accounting for the lion’s share of the decade-high 13,400 hectares planted overall in the UK. “The arguments for tree planting in towns and cities have grown and grown in recent years,” says David Elliott, CEO of charity Trees for Cities. “It would take a significant change across the UK in terms of land use to hit the one trillion global target.

Reducing our carbon emissions will never be enough

 “There needs to be a complete revolution in the way that we manage land in this country – two thirds is still put aside for agriculture and we still need to feed everybody, but we need to be thinking about how we can parcel up that land for trees and how we can better blend together farming and forestry.”

However, there is no shortage of efforts to boost that number in the UK as well as reforestation efforts abroad.

The Woodland Trust is currently mobilising a Big Climate Fightback, asking one million people to pledge to plant a tree on November 30. The event is an acknowledgement that “reducing our carbon emissions will never be enough” and is in addition to the free tree packs that the charity is offering to schools and communities around the UK.

The trust is also hoping to tap into the young environmentalist movement by planting a Young People’s Forest in Heanor, Derbyshire.

That is in the vein of the Heart of England Forest – the roots of which came from late publishing giant Felix Dennis. He wanted to create a native forest to bring back trees to the local landscape for the good of the wildlife and planet. What started as a small wood near his home in Dorsington, Warwickshire, in 1996 has been growing every year and is now 3,600 acres.

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The need for trees has also seen links grow between the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), BirdLife International and WWF, which teamed up for a conservation project.

The Trillion Trees initiative’s international work sees them run large-scale conservation projects in areas where governments lack resources to do the essential work.

WCS’ Tim Rayden told The Big Issue that East African farmers have been receptive to the NGO’s work in the country, as planting trees on their land can offer them financial benefits.

“One of the things that we see quite a lot in East Africa is that if farmers plant a wood lot as part of their farm then it almost acts like a savings account and buffer that you can dip into from time to time,” he says. “You can cut down a few trees and sell a bit of timber for cash, but it’s also like your pension fund for a rainy day. There are immediate-term benefits from planting trees, it might be raising some shelter and improving growing conditions on the farm. Then there is the longer-term pay-offs of increasing financial stability for the farmer to have a pension fund or money for a rainy day at the end.”

The battle to stop global temperatures from rising beyond the 1.5-degree danger zone takes more than a green-focused few, it takes everyone. That’s why the race to plant trees has moved from the sphere of soil and water to smartphones and tablets.

Alternative search engine Ecosia launched a decade ago to “hack the system”, bringing tech and conservation together. They take the ad revenue that would ordinarily be heading to the pockets of Silicon Valley fat cats and instead put it towards planting trees with every web search.

“Around the Brazilian fires we’ve seen a huge increase in people coming to us – the Ecosia app went to number one in over 20 countries and we saw over half a million people switching to us,” the firm’s chief marketing officer Hannah Wickes tells The Big Issue. “It’s really important that businesses put serious actions in place to mitigate the climate crisis, and that means becoming net zero.

“And I think it’s on every business leader and person in the business to think about it. At Ecosia, our purpose is to plant trees at scale around the world.

“We make money to plant millions of trees around the world and the ways that those trees are planted matters – you need to know what you are doing in this area.” 

They’re not the only ones looking to tech.

Plant for the Planet was started in 2007 by nine-year-old German Felix Finkbeiner – think a proto-Thunberg. It’s a campaign that originally started to get children to plant one million trees in every country on Earth.

Now, it’s an app that is an easy gateway into the world of tree planting, offering a way to find conservation projects to donate to and keep track of how far away we are from that mythical one-trillion tree target. We’ve planted 13.6 billion so far, at the time of the writing, and there is even a leaderboard to keep track of which counties, companies and individuals are pulling their weight. China leads the way at the moment with 2.4 billion trees. The UK is languishing down in 40th with 14.4 million.

But what about the chances of making money off this market?

Rayden says that making a return on your money isn’t yet straightforward.

“If you look at it from the investor point of view, trees and forests do not tend to be attractive because of the long-term nature of it,” he says.

“One of the problems is that money pushes for quicker turnaround so you end up planting exotic trees that will grow faster so you get your money back quicker than planting native species that would be better for biodiversity. So there are lots of challenges with investment in forestry.”

New tech allows them to plant 400,000 seeds per day at a speed 150 times faster than humans

BioCarbon Engineering may have mastered that challenge. They were featured in last year’s ‘The Business of Planting Trees: A Growing Investment Opportunity’ report by the World Resources Institute. And they earned their spot among the other 13 companies profiled with their innovative use of seed-planting drones. The tech allows them to plant 400,000 seeds per day at a speed 150 times faster than human hand-planting in large-scale projects in the UK, Australia and Myanmar.

Such a high-tech solution to keeping up with the 15 billion trees that are chopped down each year is not cheap and that’s why the firm attracts investment alongside its planet-saving operations.

On a smaller scale it’s harder to make a profit from planting in the UK. The Forestry Index’s figures reckon that investing in forestry returns a 13.9 per cent annual return on your investment with a three-year return of 11.6 per cent, although these percentages are much lower than 2010 levels and considers sales of timber as well as the value of the woodland.

However, the Woodland Carbon Fund launched in England back in 2016, allowing landowners, land managers, local authorities and public authorities to claim up to £6,800 per hectare – or £8,500 if it is near urban areas and offers public access – from the Forestry Commission towards planting trees at the scale of 10 hectares or more.

But none of these funds represents the proverbial magical money tree for you and me.

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In fact, carbon credits – the commodity traded in carbon markets in a bid to reduce pollution – could be affected by a no-deal Brexit, with the Financial Times warning that the UK may miss out on £1.1bn.

Niklas Hagelberg, a senior programme officer at UN Environment, wrote earlier this year that neither tree planting nor carbon offsetting markets like this will save us from environmental ruin.

He said: “Trees planted today can’t grow fast enough to achieve this goal. And carbon offset projects will never be able to curb the emissions growth, while our growing global population continues to consume as it does today.”

So while the opportunities to make a fast buck from planting trees are limited, that should not diminish the need to get roots in the ground. After all, without more trees to absorb carbon emissions as well as a host of other concessions to save the environment, money will be the least of our worries.

This article was originally published in The Big Issue magazine. Get your copy now from your local vendor or Big Issue Shop.