Government officials worried that tree deal with Shell was “greenwashing”

Senior Scottish Government forestry officials feared that a £5 million tree-planting deal with the oil giant, Shell, could be viewed as “greenwashing”, according to internal emails seen by The Ferret.

One executive at Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) was worried that the government agency could “get worked over by Shell’s formidable PR machinery”. Another said that the deal was about Shell “reducing the harm that they do, not about them doing good.”

Campaigners have condemned the deal as “outrageous” and “nonsense”, arguing that combating climate pollution should not be outsourced to polluters. FLS, however, says that the deal will help lock up more carbon – and that it values a “free and frank” debate amongst staff.

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FLS signed an agreement with Shell in October 2019 under which the oil company will give £5 million over five years to fund the planting, or regeneration of, more than a million trees in Scotland. The trees, which store carbon as they grow, will earn Shell “carbon credits” to offset emissions from petrol and diesel sold to motorists at UK service stations.

In the next two years Shell’s money is due to fund 100 hectares of new native woodland at Glen Garry in Lochaber. Thereafter, the plan is to fund 220 hectares of native woodland or 440 hectares of peatland restoration at Comer in Ben Lomond, which FLS is negotiating to buy, or on other FLS land.

But emails released by FLS, set up to replace the Forestry Commission in 2019, reveal that senior staff expressed doubts about the deal in August and September. “I do think we need to be cautious about how we communicate this,” wrote Jo Ellis, FLS head of planning and environment.

“I don’t want us to come across as falling for the greenwashing. The fact remains that mitigation work such as tree planting will not be sufficient to offset carbon emissions for the long term (we need to be reducing the use of fossil fuels).”

She added: “The tiny amount Shell is putting into green initiatives is dwarfed by what it is still spending on investigating new oil and gas reserves, and in blocking initiatives to set legally binding emissions reductions targets.”

Ellis argued that the deal would not cut pollution, just net pollution. “What we should actually be doing is reducing emissions – e.g. stop using petrol, which Shell is not planning to do. But until such time as technology moves us to a low emissions, projects that sequester carbon such as this one will buy us time.”

She wrote: “Personally I would have a problem with them saying anything that implies that this is going to make what they do environmentally friendly. This is all about reducing the harm that they do, not about them doing good.”

Ellis was supported by FLS director of land management, Trefor Owen. “What Shell are offering us is relatively small beer for them, but it gets a shiny new organisation (us) to add to the list of green organisations supporting their offsetting ambitions,” he said.

“Nothing wrong in that, but we need to position this from an FLS perspective, and make sure we don’t get worked over by Shell’s formidable PR machinery.”

FLS’s media manager, Paul Munro, cautioned in September 2019 that there was “potential for us to come under fire from some quarters”. So FLS, helped by the Scottish Government, developed a media strategy to try and ensure that its narrative was “bulletproof”.

After the deal was announced, however, it ran into immediate criticism from the Scottish Greens. The party lodged a freedom of information request and has now obtained 90 files of emails from FLS about partnering with Shell.

“Shell are claiming this deal means they can offer carbon neutral fossil fuels, which is a nonsense,” said Scottish Green environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“Even Forestry and Land Scotland officials warned this deal was greenwashing, and that is exactly what Shell is doing in adverts in petrol stations across the country. The Scottish Government cannot outsource our future to fossil fuel companies.”

Ruskell urged the Scottish Government to show more ambition in tackling the climate emergency. “It can’t be beholden to the world’s biggest polluters,” he added.

Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that Shell’s money hadn’t made any real difference. “This is pure greenwash and senior staff at FLS clearly recognised this,” said the environmental campaign group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“Planting lots more trees in Scotland is really important but allowing Shell to claim that this in any way absolves drivers of their responsibility for the climate emissions from the fossil fuels they burn is outrageous.”

He added: “Scotland has ambitious tree planting targets, so these trees would have to be planted anyway, whether Shell was paying for them or not. Carbon offsetting schemes are often pretty dodgy.”

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The Shell deal was, however, defended by FLS chief executive, Simon Hodgson, as one way of combating the climate emergency. “Any money generated from corporate partnerships like this is to provide additional funds to allow Forestry and Land Scotland to deliver more activity – to plant more trees, restore more peatland and lock up more carbon,” he said.

“Any suggestion that any funds generated from such partnerships will replace existing funding is wrong. And we are very clear that we adhere to all relevant forestry standards and rules – and expect our partners to do likewise.”

Everyone had a role to play in cutting carbon pollution, Hodgson argued. “A move to a low carbon economy will not happen overnight and – in what will be a long haul – partnership working is essential,” he added.

“I also value the free and frank exchange of views amongst staff that allows us to determine the right course of action on this and indeed, on any activity that Forestry and Land Scotland is engaging in.

“That makes for better decision making and will ensure we engage in the right partnerships at the right time. We now have a robust process in place which will apply to any and all corporate partnership proposals.”

Shell has denied that the tree-planting deal was greenwash, pointing out that it backed the UK government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050. “Our work with Forestry and Land Scotland will generate carbon credits for Shell,” said the company’s UK chair, Sinead Lynch.

“Each credit, independently certified, represents a tonne of carbon dioxide either removed from the atmosphere or prevented from entering it. We can then use these credits to help compensate for emissions.”

Lynch accepted that this was not the whole solution. “But buying high-quality, independently certified carbon credits, that help protect and restore forests and other eco-systems, can be an important part of tackling climate change,” she maintained.

“Offsetting allows people, and companies, which may have no viable alternative to the use of fossil fuels today, to take some action to make a difference.”

Photo thanks to iStock/espy3008

Poll: Are companies that plant trees to offset carbon emissions “green washing?”

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