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Is the International Olympic Committee planting 300,000 trees in Africa a good idea?


Thousands of miles away fromwhere world-class athletes have just finished competing in Winter Games, another Olympic feat is preparing to get underway.

This does not include any of the skiing, sledging or ice-skating in the Beijing competition, but rather the planting of hundreds of thousands of new trees in Africa.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it plans to plant an “Olympic Forest” across 90 villages in Mali and Senegal to reduce its carbon footprint.

The scheme is estimated to result in 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide being absorbed from the air.

But while its offsetting credentials sound impressive, climate experts have questions over how effective it will be in the longer term

Martin Lukac, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Reading, tellsThe Independent t appears a good idea on principle – however it was a “quick fix at best”.

“Planting trees will not stop global warming, only decarbonising the economy will,” he says.

The plans for the Olympic Forest were announced last summer, which was billed as removing an amount of carbon dioxide from the air greater than the committee’s carbon footprint for 2021 and 2024.

It said work would be undertaken – such as talking to local communities about needs and identifying areas for the project – before planting 355,000 trees in the space of six months this year.

“Having to do all that and plant actual trees in April to September 2022 is a ridiculously short time period,” Prof Lukac says. “Normally it takes one to two years to just to produce seedlings in an existing nursery.”

He adds: “The signs are that this is a quick fix which will have a very short lifespan which is a pity. Done properly, the planting would actually stand a good chance to deliver many of the benefits mentioned by the IOC.”

Announcing the scheme, the committee says the tree-planting scheme would help to boost food and economic security for the local community.

“The IOC will work hand in hand with local communities to ensure the Olympic Forest creates diverse social, economic and environmental benefits in an area which has experienced increased droughts and floods, leading to a steady degradation of land and sources of food,” it said.

Dr Euan Bowditch, a researcher in forestry at the University of the Highlands and Islands, agrees the idea is “great” in principle, saying it will help to support livelihoods through the new resouces it will bring to the communities, such as food and timber products.

It feeds into the Great Green Wall project – which aims to grow nature across the width of Africa, he says.

But on its climate credentials, he says: “I think the offsetting through tree planting can deflect from activity that should be going on tackling the emissions directly at the source.”

The IOC says the tree-planting scheme will compensate for more than 100 per cent of its residual emissions.It has also been pitched as helping the committee to become “climate-positive” by 2024, or rather for the amount of carbon it removes from the air to outweigh any potential emissions from its operations.

But experts say it may be much further in the future until the Olympic Forest has this desired effect.

“Large-scale tree planting is only likely to become a net sink of carbon when the trees are larger – many decades into the future,” Emily Lines, a researcher from the University of Cambridge, tells The Independent.

Even so, she says: “Our global emissions are too high and offsetting like this cannot alone prevent damaging climate change,.”

The IOC says its Olympic Forest will be done in addition to reducing emissions – with a target of a 45 per cent cut by the end of the decade – to offset 100 per cent of its residual ones.

The committee has been approached for comment.

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