from Sunday Herald, 25 February 2007
Rock stars, multinational corporations and others keen to offset their climate-wrecking pollution by investing in a flagship Scottish forest have been misled, an investigation by the Sunday Herald can reveal.
Bands such as the Rolling Stones, companies such as Volvo and numerous individuals have paid out thousands of pounds in the belief that the money would be used to plant trees on the Isle of Skye. But according to the forest's managers and the contract governing the deal, that is not what the money was spent on.
What people actually bought were the "carbon rights" to trees that were being planted anyway, thanks to government grants. And the amount they were charged per tree was 18 times more than the amount that was directly invested on their behalf.
These revelations have raised new questions about carbon offsetting, now increasingly used by governments and the private sector to compensate for the pollution caused by flying or driving. Concerns about the credibility of such schemes have prompted the Department of the Environment in London to propose a voluntary code of practice.
Some experts have advised against offsetting carbon emissions with forestry projects, while environmentalists have condemned them a "dangerous distraction". The company behind the Skye forestry deal, however, insisted it was "delivered with integrity".
The forest on the Orbost estate on the shores of Loch Bracadale in northwest Skye was made famous by Joe Strummer, the singer with the punk band, The Clash. With the help of a company called Future Forests, he was one of the first to try and offset his carbon pollution by investing in trees.
After Strummer died in 2002, the forest was declared his memorial, and named 'Rebel's Wood'. Since then Future Forests, recently rebranded as The CarbonNeutral Company (TCNC), has been encouraging people to offset their carbon emissions by donating money to the forest.
Rock fans attending the Glastonbury festival, motorists and holidaymakers have all been urged to "dedicate" trees at £10 each. Famously, the Rolling Stones helped make their 2003 UK tour "carbon neutral" by getting more than 2,000 fans to pay £8.50 "to plant trees at Orbost."
The forest has also been chosen by couples due to be married as a suggested wedding gift. One couple is currently promising on TCNC's website that the company "will plant your trees in a beautiful place in an effort to soak up some of the carbon released into the atmosphere during all of our travels."
The Volvo car company has highlighted its investment in the forest, saying that "we shall be creating woodlands in Orbost". The adventure holiday company, Crystal, has said the forest is one where travellers can "get a tree planted" to offset their flights.
TCNC, reputedly born of a backstage conversation at Glastonbury in 1997, has grown into one of the world's leading carbon offsetting companies, serving over 200 business and government clients around the world. Its two leading shareholders are Zouk, a venture capital firm in London, and Triodos, a Dutch ethical bank.
Orbost forest was one of TCNC's first and most high profile projects, opening the way for a boom in similar schemes. But the reality of what has happened there is very different from the claims made by the company's clients.
The land is owned by the government's Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and managed by the forestry company, Tilhill. The confidential contract agreed in 2002 between HIE and TCNC's predecessor, Future Forests, has been released under freedom of information legislation (and can be downloaded below).
It shows that Future Forests agreed to pay HIE £34,275 in exchange for the "carbon sequestration rights" of the Orbost forest for the next 99 years. "This does not mean that we own individual trees," the contract states.
According to Kevin Sutton, the Tilhill manager of the forest, this has caused much confusion. He has had to try and explain it to the string of visitors from around the world who have come looking for the trees they thought they had bought at Orbost.
Carbon rights were "a very nebulous concept that people have difficulty grasping", he told the Sunday Herald. He welcomed the £34,275 from Future Forests as "extra money for something we hadn't really thought of".
But Sutton said that the woodland would have been planted regardless of the company's investment because it was fully funded by government grants. The extra money had been helpful in plugging a short term gap in HIE's finances, he said, and had paid for refurbishing a footpath.
The Forestry Commission has agreed new planting grants totalling £103,000 for Orbost, 70% of which was paid in 2003 with the rest due in 2008. No account was taken of any money paid for carbon rights, a commission spokesman said.
Some 128,000 saplings were planted on 80 hectares over the winter of 2002 and 2003. The saplings, including oak, birch and rowan, will gradually be thinned, leaving maybe half to become mature trees.
That means that Future Forests paid 54p or less for the carbon rights to each tree being grown at Orbost. This compares to the £10 it has charged customers for "dedicating" individual trees.
According to Graham Simmonds, the chief executive of the charity Trees for Cities, the forest had generated a lot of profit for Future Forests, and then TCNC. But he was worried that it would give tree-planting a bad name.
"It's a sad case of the marketing getting ahead of the reality," he said. Simmonds was responsible for getting the Orbost contract released, and has lodged a complaint with the trading standards authorities in London.
Friends of the Earth Scotland called for the carbon offsetting business to be regulated. "The public urgently needs protection from those who would try to con them out of their cash with schemes that do more to salve consciences than save the climate," said the group's chief executive, Duncan McLaren.
TCNC, however, denied that it had misled anyone over Orbost. "It's disappointing to find myself defending a project which was delivered with integrity," said the company's founder and creative director, Sue Welland.
Charging people £8.50 plus VAT for a tree dedication was a "fair price", given the costs associated with packaging, the website and customer services, she argued. TCNC also had to identify projects, contract and check them.
According to Welland, TCNC was no longer "actively marketing" Orbost forest. "It is new forestry," she said, insisting that the company had conformed to international rules designed to ensure that projects delivered additional benefits.
She agreed that standards were critical because of the rash of new carbon companies "seeing the opportunity for a fast buck". TCNC's projects were assessed by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management, and its systems were reviewed annually by the accountancy firm KPMG.
Because of these checks, Volvo Car UK was surprised by the allegations about Orbost. "To ensure that Volvo has not been misled over its investments, we will discuss this matter further with TCNC," said a company spokeswoman.
Download a copy of the Orbost carbon contract here (480KB pdf).