‘Greenwash’: oil giant under fire over plan to protect tropical forests

One of the world’s biggest oil companies is set to join the fight against deforestation in the tropics as part of its climate change efforts – but the the move has been branded a “greenwash” by campaigners.

State-owned Norwegian firm Equinor has written to the UN’s climate chief to tell her it wants to invest in the protection of tropical forests.

The letter, sent less than a fortnight before the UN climate summit in Poland, is the latest sign that big oil sees a major role in forestry as a way to preserve business models based on drilling for oil and gas for decades when scientists say the world needs drastic emissions cuts.

Ben van Beurden, the Shell chief executive, recently said reforestation on the scale of the Amazon rainforest will be needed to meet a tougher global warming target. The Anglo Dutch firm offers forestry-based carbon offsets to business customers who buy its gas.

This year alone, BP signed a deal with Chinese firm Elion to buy forestry sector carbon offsets, and has invested in US forest carbon offsets company Finite Carbon.

French oil and gas giant Total told investors recently that “investing in [the] preservation of forests, mangrove and humid zones” would be essential as part of “carbon compensation for the long run”.

Eldar Saetre, the Equinor chief executive, said protecting tropical forests was “one of the most important and effective climate actions”.

The firm, formerly known as Statoil, said it was readying forestry investments equivalent to 1m tonnes of CO2, or the size of the footprint of its operations in the US and Brazil, which put no price on carbon.

In the letter to Patricia Espinosa, executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Saetre said the company wanted to see the creation of an international carbon market based on forests and the carbon locked within.

Asked if the interest in forests was simply an excuse to keep pumping oil and gas, an Equinor spokesperson said the work was in addition to its key climate efforts of reducing emissions from operations and growing renewables.

However, Simone Lovera, executive director of the Global Forest Coalition, an alliance of NGOs, said: “It’s absolute greenwash. By definition forest carbon offsets don’t add anything to mitigating climate change.

“The big problem is there is no guarantee when you plant trees that that forest will be there in 20-30 years, the emissions reductions might not be permanent.”

Reforestation was cited as essential in all the four scenarios recently laid out by the UN’s climate science panel if the world is to limit future temperature rises to 1.5C.

Other groups said Equinor’s letter was welcome but investments in forests had to be a complement to companies cutting their own carbon footprints.

“For it to be meaningful they must commit to hard measurable targets both for cutting emissions in their operations and for investing in renewables,” said Andrew Norton, director of the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

Oil industry watcher Wood Mackenzie said getting involved in tree-planting was useful as part of fossil fuel companies’ climate efforts, but would not be cheap.

Valentina Kretzschmar, the group’s research director, said: “Reforestation is one of the levers that that can be pulled to help mitigate climate change, however it will be expensive. Without regulatory changes, it is simply not commercially viable for any oil and gas company to start investing in reforestation.”