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by Andy Wightman
18 April 2022
Andy Wightman: We can't see the wood for the trees

It's time to take a look at corporate involvement in our landscape, Wightman says

Andy Wightman: We can't see the wood for the trees

'This market is now very lucrative but, critically, it is private and unregulated'

In the early Spring sunshine recently I enjoyed a cycle in Glen Garry. It’s a lovely area and if you continue west you eventually reach Kinloch Hourn at the head of Loch Hourn and the gateway to the north of the Knoydart peninsula.

Like many parts of Scotland, the hills were extensively planted with spruce plantations after the war, but now work is underway by Forestry and Land Scotland to restore the Caledonian pinewoods that have been widely degraded over the centuries.

The project is being supported by a £5m partnership with oil giant Shell as the first of the Scottish Government’s programme of corporate partnerships which encourages corporations to invest in the National Forest Estate for the purposes of (among other goals) obtaining carbon credits which can offset carbon emissions elsewhere.

Forestry and Land Scotland’s website promoting such corporate partnerships cites one of the advantages as being to “create a diverse portfolio of carbon projects that can offset unavoidable emissions for decades to come”. Ministers have committed to increasing the carbon market by 50 per cent by 2025.

Shell is using the scheme as part of its Drive Carbon Neutral campaign, whereby the company claims you can be carbon neutral whilst driving fossil-fuelled vehicles. The claims have already been ruled misleading by the Dutch advertising watchdog and are a good example of the controversial concept of carbon offsetting.

Put simply, to tackle the climate crisis we need to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and peatlands. Both are vital. Offsetting is the term used for investment in projects that sequester carbon to compensate for emissions elsewhere. For example, a cement factory might invest in afforestation projects and use the carbon captured to offset emissions at the factory and thus become a “net-zero” cement producer.

With many commercial organisations from airlines to oil companies wanting to “go green” there has been a rush to both buy carbon credits and to buy the land that can produce them. This market is now very lucrative but, critically, it is private and unregulated. The consequences are being felt in the Scottish land market as investors, speculators and corporations rush to acquire land across the country.

In a recent tweet from a property investment company, we were informed that “Jock” was on a “tailored road trip with an overseas investment client to see four large-scale commercial forestry opportunities across Scotland”. Such activity is just one example of an upsurge of interest by commercial entities in Scottish land as part of the new carbon economy.

Private forest ownership has seen double-digit returns on average over the past 20 years, greater than any other asset class including residential property, gilts, equities or gold. With carbon markets now established, the prices for forestry land are rising fast.

The climate crisis demands that we reduce emissions and sequester carbon. But every ton of carbon sequestration used to offset emissions is a ton of carbon that is not available to reduce global heating. In this essentially unregulated market, there is a risk that much of the offsetting activity is merely a lazy way for companies to avoid cutting their own emissions or, just as commonly, a form of greenwashing designed to promote an environmentally friendly image.

The Scottish Government recently announced new interim principles around investment in “natural capital” but as with all such principles and codes they are voluntary and will be widely ignored. One of the principles states that offsetting should not be a replacement for emissions reductions and yet Shell is actively claiming petrol-powered cars can become carbon neutral.

The consensus among scientists is that offsetting should be a last resort for hard-to-abate or unavoidable emissions and that carbon captured by ecosystems should contribute directly to reducing global heating. Scotland and the UK have developed the Woodland Carbon Code to attempt to bring some standards to carbon accounting in forestry.

Over 100,000 acres of land across Scotland are now registered with the Woodland Carbon Code but there is no requirement for any disclosure of the buyer of the carbon credits. Are they indeed being used only to offset unavoidable emissions or might they being used simply for greenwashing or avoiding emission cuts? Nobody knows.

The growing criticism of “green lairds” is a debate about how to address the climate crisis but is also just as importantly an illustration of how far we have yet to go in securing meaningful land reform. Just as the 7:84 theatre company was arguing in The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil 50 years ago, Scotland’s land and natural resources are once again being sold to the highest bidder to secure commercial benefits for overseas corporations. Without reform in land and carbon markets, “Jock” will no doubt be making many more trips around Scotland.

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