The international oil company Shell is responsible for about 3% of global CO2 output. During the last year it has belatedly recognised its role in climate change and has started to counterbalance some of the emissions from oil and gas by setting up schemes for reforestation around the world. It says it will offset 2-3% of the CO2 output from its fuels in this way. Shell proposes to spend $300m over the next three years, a rate equivalent to about 0.25% of its ‘free cash flow’, a measure of how much the company has available to spend each year.
Shell is right that the world urgently needs more forest cover. Woodland stores carbon dioxide as a result of the photosynthesis process, offsetting CO2 emissions. Even if the global societies successfully move to zero greenhouse gases by 2050 - which is probably the latest possible date to avoid a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees - reforestation will be highly beneficial. It helps maintain biodiversity, usually adds to local incomes and may even help increase rainfall levels in some dry areas.
Trees planted in forest area.
The Italian oil company ENI has made a more specific commitment than Shell, stating in early 2019 that it will create a new forest in southern Africa that will completely offset all the emissions from its own operations. This will include the methane lost from gas pipelines and the greenhouse gases from the energy that the company uses in its production processes. (But, unlike Shell, it is making no attempt yet to compensate for emissions when the oil and gas it has produced is burnt for energy). It proposes that the woodland that it replants will cover about 8 million hectares, an area equivalent to a quarter of the Italian landmass. ENI states that this new forest will take in about 20 million tonnes of CO2 a year, or 1/2000 of all global emissions.
Similarly, the French fossil fuel company Total has said it will put $100m a year into forestry from 2020, intending to sequester 5 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030, probably about half a percent of the CO2 arising from its products. The CEO stated that he believed that forests could capture greenhouse gas for about $10 a tonne, a figure that is far lower than any alternative carbon removal technology in prospect.
All three of these major oil companies have moved into reforestation just in the last few months, seeming to have concluded that their businesses are increasingly exposed to political and shareholder criticism if they do not begin to ‘offset’ the emissions from their operations.
And the scope for worldwide reforestation is probably huge. A recent paper in the respected journal Science stated that about one third of the world’s surface area is suitable to grow trees but only just over 20% is currently forested. The scientists wrote that they believe that about 900 million hectares is available for new tree planting and this area could eventually store the equivalent of 200 billion tonnes of CO2, or around five times the world’s annual emissions. The paper provoked some criticism, with many researchers claiming that the scope for global reforestation was exaggerated. However, few doubts that massive reforestation is an important tool for helping to hold down the rise in atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
Many commentators have nevertheless rounded on the oil companies and their recent conversion to the advantages of planting trees. These critics have pointed to the uncertainties of how much the global stock of wood will increase as a result of the efforts of Shell, ENI and Total. And, of course, they also have pointed out that even under the most optimistic scenarios for the rate of carbon capture, the oil giants will only be offsetting a very small fraction of their total emissions.
Forest reforestation in Australia.
So, while we should welcome the recent interest in reforestation from the world’s largest emitters, we cannot allow them to position their tree planting as remotely sufficient to counteract the climate impact of the oil and gas they extract. The evidence from this year is that the large oil companies are beginning to see forestry as the means by which they persuade us to allow them to continue to operate as they always have. Reforestation will be the excuse for otherwise doing little about cutting CO2. The new pledges on tree have helped Total, for example, to justify the conversion of one of its French refineries to palm oil, a biofuel which is contributing to the loss of tropical forests. However, the overwhelming reality is that the only response to the climate crisis is for the world both to rapidly move away from extracting and burning oil and gas, at the same time as reforesting perhaps one tenth of the world’s land surface. As well as supporting the fossil fuel industry’s recent conversion to the importance of tree planting, we need to continue to insist on a rapid rundown of the global oil and gas business.