Fighting climate change: is planting trees the answer?

Wine business are increasingly looking for ways to help save the planet. Robert Joseph considers how trees fit into this picture

Image by Vitor Monthay on Unsplash
Image by Vitor Monthay on Unsplash

Over the last two years according to ecologi.com, I’ve apparently planted 993 mangrove trees in Madagascar, 304 in Mozambique and 29 other tree species in Nicaragua.

If just 2,000 of the readers of this column signed up for a similar scheme, together we’d be planting a million trees a year. And we’d all feel quite good about ourselves.

As wine professionals, we could go further. We could link tree planting to the sale of bottles of wine. A growing number of companies have already moved in this direction, most recently including the Australian winery, De Bortoli, with its new 17 Trees brand which plants a tree for every six bottles sold. My friend and occasional work colleague, Polly Hammond has created a free app for clients of her 5 Forests consultancy that enables them to automatically plant trees as online wine orders come in. She also plants 500 trees every time she signs a contract with a new client.

But let’s put this into some perspective.

Trees vary widely in the rate and amount of CO2 they absorb, depending on the species and climate in which they are grown. My tropical mangroves are apparently better for the planet than the apple trees I’m planting in my garden in the south of England. On average, however, it is reckoned that a tree can absorb around 20-25kg of carbon per year.

A standard bottle of wine creates around 1.25kg. So, if I open, say, four or five bottles a week and avoid heavy ones and anything with bubbles, one tree could absorb the carbon created by a month of drinking.

Put that way, it doesn’t seem too bad, especially as I’m planting a tree a day, so might feel a bit less guilty about opening a sixth or seventh bottle this week.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. My trees aren’t actually going to absorb anything like this much CO2 until they’re mature, and the saplings’ first task will simply be to sequester the CO2 produced by the tractors used to plant them.

Stated brutally, planting a tree to fight climate change today is like having a child in order to solve an immediate manpower shortage.

This is absolutely not to say that tree planting is a waste of time. Quite apart from any additional benefit the new trees will provide in a decade or so, we urgently need to replace the ones that are being cut down every day. In 2020, loggers in Brazil reportedly destroyed a total of a million hectares (2.5m acres) of tree cover – an area the size of Jamaica. The figures for 2021 may be worse.

So, what should we do as well as planting trees. Obviously making our wineries and offices as carbon-neutral as possible is crucial. But we also need to ensure that our business partners share that vision. Tony Cleary of Greencroft, the UK’s biggest bottler is passionate about the windmills that not only power his business but also provide electricity for 800 houses. Greencroft’s warehouses are warmed by heat pumps using water from disused mines conveniently sited nearby, all of which supports its claim to be the world’s most environmentally friendly plant of its kind. But, as Mark Roberts, the company’s similarly passionate sales manager laments, some big customers don’t seem very interested. All they seem to care about is cutting costs and maximising margins.

Anne Burchett, whose experience includes distribution and public relations (she ran Sopexa UK) agrees. In an excellent piece for timatkin.com, she suggests that if buyers for big retailers refused to list wines in super heavy bottles “the problem would sort itself out pretty quickly…  in my experience, buyers sometimes request or used to request heavy bottles from their suppliers in order to create a point of difference on shelf.”

Encouragingly, Burchett notes that some UK retailers and Canadian monopolies are beginning to take bottle weight seriously, but I'd question how true this is elsewhere, especially in the US where bottle recycling rates are also woefully low.

Even for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have a windy hill or redundant mine shaft, there are many ways to make an immediately positive effect against climate change. I’m not going to list them here, but I would like to draw attention to one of my favourite initiatives whose widespread adoption might actually have a slightly negative impact on Greencroft’s business.

Instead of buying and selling new or recycled bottles of wine, we could shift our focus to selling the wine itself. As we report elsewhere this week, in response to a shortage of glass, Argentina is introducing a government-sanctioned system of retailing wine on draught. Customers purchase ‘growlers’ which they bring back for refilling when they have drunk the contents.

This model, which is only a revival of the way huge volumes of wine used to be sold, is already beginning to catch on elsewhere. My friend the marketing guru, Jeff Slater, is working with a reusable-bottle start-up called Good Goods while, in the UK, London-based Borough Wines sells a range of wines in returnable bottles (I can recommend the Fleurie), and has launched a brand called REFILL.

When you consider that the manufacture or recycling and transport of the glass bottle can be responsible for nearly half of a wine’s carbon footprint, it makes a lot of sense - at least sometimes - to remove that element completely from the purchasing process.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll consider the pros and cons of some of the other environmentally friendly options we might adopt, while we patiently wait for our millions of mangroves to mature.

Robert Joseph

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