A new strategy put forward by fossil fuel corporations to plant trees as ‘compensation’ for climate change is not only a greenwashing gimmick, but a dangerous tactic that could exacerbate the problems caused by fossil fuel exploitation.
Fossil fuel giants ENI (Italy) and Shell (the Netherlands) have announced reforestation programmes as compensation for carbon emissions, in a push to greenwash a corporate model that has caused widespread environmental devastation, land grabbing and the destruction of livelihoods. The two companies are responsible for environmental disasters and crimes as a result of their fossil fuel activities in Nigeria and many other places across the globe.
ENI is currently undergoing a massive operation to exploit new gas reserves in northern Mozambique. For years, the company has engaged in extremely damaging gas flaring in the Niger delta – a practice which is still underway, long after ENI promised to quit gas flaring at its 2011 Annual General Meeting. Only last year, the Nigerian Ikebiri community took ENI to court for pollution of their lands and water. The company is also on trial in Basilicata – a small region of southern Italy nicknamed the Italian Texas because of its oil activities – where ENI stands accused of illegally dumping hazardous waste into the environment.

Shell is one of the world’s top 10 climate polluters, and since the 1980s has operated in the knowledge that burning oil and gas would have disastrous consequences for the climate. Yet the company continues to spend billions of dollars seeking out new oil and gas fields, and spends a further $49 million each year lobbying for fossil-fuel friendly policies. Shell has been involved in, and their executives were probably aware of, numerous murders, tortures and rapes carried out by paramilitary organisations in Nigeria during the 1990s. Its current activities in Groningen, the Netherlands, are the cause of earthquakes that are destroying peoples’ homes.

Now, ENI and Shell are pushing a new and dangerous tactic. ENI has announced plans to plant 8.1 million hectares of trees in Mozambique, South Africa, Ghana, and Zimbabwe. CEO Claudio Descalzi announced ENI’s objective “to achieve net zero emissions in our upstream business by 2030,” in the company’s strategy update on 15 March 2019. Meanwhile, Shell has presented its plan, launching in 2019, to reduce its “net carbon footprint by 2%-3%”. The plan will include reforestation of false forests, with the company offering carbon credits to its customers so that they may offset their emissions. Shell is also pushing controversial schemes such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), which not only fail to reduce greenhouse emissions, but lead to the violation of environmental and human rights, the exacerbation of corruption and the corporate capture of vital climate funds. REDD+ projects reduce nature to a commodity to be bought and sold, and local communities are either expelled from their land in the name of ‘preservation’ or employed as private conservationists, while traditional land management practices disappear. Meanwhile, by focusing on the community’s responsibility for deforestation, the central role of large corporations and the state as the primary actors in environmental destruction is underplayed.

The protection of critical natural ecosystems such as mangroves, forests, dunes, wetlands is crucial, and will help the planet to naturally absorb carbon emissions, while also providing livelihoods to local communities and warding off extreme weather events. However, strategies put forward by Shell and ENI will do nothing to contribute to these aims – far from it.

Furthermore, through this plan, ENI and Shell intend to introduce tree plantations to an area larger than the whole of Northern Italy, ENI’s homeland – or double the size of the Netherlands, from where Shell hails. This raises serious questions. Where on Earth will ENI plant these 8.1 million hectares of fake forests? Where is the land to do so, and whose land will they grab to do this planting? What would ENI say if the tables were turned, and Africans wanted all of Northern Italy to plant trees?

There is no unused land available at this scale, which means millions more people will be affected, through the loss of their land, homes and forests. Areas teeming with biodiversity will become monoculture plantations. This will undoubtedly have calamitous impacts on the food sovereignty and rights of people across Africa.

Neither ENI nor Shell have the right to impose such tree plantations on the lands of local communities and indigenous peoples. For generations, communities have taken care of their forests, often fighting off their own governments to retain ownership and control. Many communities are already resisting dirty energy, agro-commodities, infrastructure and large commercial projects that drive deforestation. The new spectre of corporate climate ‘compensation’ schemes headed by the dirtiest fossil fuel corporations is a ludicrous affront, and one which will be fought wherever it rears its head.

A group of 115 NGOs wrote a letter requiring deep, urgent and immediate emissions cuts to address climate change and to cut their emissions at source: fossil fuels need to be stopped at source, and cannot simply be ‘compensated’ elsewhere in the world. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground, but instead, ENI and Shell do not even pretend to deal with this reality so far, investing billions in the quest to find further reserves.

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