Today Landcare launches CarbonSMART, the latest carbon offset program that will work in conjunction with farmers maintaining trees on their land. Planting trees to offset carbon emissions sounds great, on paper. But what about the communities that have been displaced and the environmental degradation that can come at the cost of carbon credits schemes attached to tree plantations? 

The idea of using industrial scale tree plantations to sequester (or store) carbon dioxide was born in 1997 at a meeting in Kyoto. But since then, according to forestry expert Tim Cadman, a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania, a “policy free-for-all has emerged for anybody who wants to buy, and anybody who wants to sell”.

Several schemes have sprung up with “no external scrutiny, no involvement of climate experts, no NGO participation and no proper governance systems,” he says.

In 2000, Cadman prepared a report for a Kyoto climate meeting at the Hague on behalf of Greenpeace and WWF which attempted to show how plantations used for carbon trading were being established by companies such as North Forest Products (now Gunns) at the expense of old growth forests in Tasmania. Some of these forests had been clear felled and burnt prior to conversion to tree farms. 

A Tasmanian old growth forest cleared for a North (now Gunns) carbon plantation in 2000.

After concerns were raised during a 2000 Senate Committee, “The Heat is On: Australia’s Greenhouse Future“, ASIC investigated some of the companies operating in Tasmania and changed some of the disclosure rules.

Seven years on, as the carbon credit concept grows in popularity, tree plantations in Tasmania have been handed carbon accreditation as companies scramble to attach their name to a credits scheme. “Carbon is just another value added commodity on to these things…” says Cadman.

Landcare’s new scheme CarbonSMART proposes to pay farmers for not cutting trees down rather than rewarding them for planting new trees. Experts are concerned that the scheme will simply transfer money from electricity consumers to farmers, without achieving any meaningful cut in greenhouse gases.

In developing countries, the establishment of carbon sinks in some cases has led to the displacement of local communities. In Latin America traditional access of local people to land is being denied, and vital foraging areas have been converted to tree farms. And in Uganda, one local community is now being forced to work on carbon-offsetting tree plantations for below cost wages. 

It’s also worth remembering that old growth forests store up to more than three times more carbon if they are left in the ground than tree farms, which in many cases get logged and burnt every ten years or so, releasing CO2 from the logging slash and the soils. Some offset companies, such as Easy Being Green, prefer to channel carbon trading schemes into alternative processes, like reducing electricity demand rather than tree planting schemes. 

Origin Energy uses tree plantations as part of their carbon offset program. Under the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme, Origin accesses carbon reduction credits created from the reforestation of Oil Mallee Eucalypt trees

Origin spokesperson Petrea Bradford says that when choosing their sequestration scheme, Origin considered biodiversity, salination, social benefits for farmers, native trees, and carbon storage capabilities “as well as a robust accounting strategy…”

We “make sure that the scheme increases biodiversity” rather than depleting it, Bradford told Crikey. “But you need to know what you’re buying.” There has to be scrutiny, says Bradford, but at the same time “businesses should be encouraged” in this area of innovation.