There is one thing, still, that we all agree on. Trees. Everybody loves trees. In theory, anyway. So long as the trees don’t interfere with a prime view, or foundations, or a luxury housing development, like the ancient – but inconvenient – Bethnal Green mulberry in London, which Crest Nicholson got permission to dig up. Or the massacred Sheffield planes. Or the 30 Thameside trees that Boris Johnson and Joanna Lumley hoped to fell, as twin visionaries of the Garden Bridge (failed, at a public cost of £43m).
But the collective dendrophilia means that imperilled trees, like tragic puppies and kittens, make headlines. As the Daily Mail has illustrated, a demonstrable affection for trees does more than bring different factions together, it advertises, on the part of the tree enthusiasts – in this case the Rothermeres – a reverence for nature and the planet that does not, even from the creatives who bring us Mail Online, look instantly risible. The organisation is running an inspirational “tree angel” campaign, urging readers to help plant a million more trees, with a view to beautification and addressing climate change: “Britain is committed to becoming a ‘net zero’ emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050 – and to do this we will need to plant millions more trees.”
The good news continues. Celebrities and influencers, including Lumley, queue up to commend the Mail and proclaim their own love of trees. “Trees are our ancestors and protectors,” said Ms Lumley, which must gladden the trees’ hearts. Better one sinner that repenteth. Prince Charles is another supportive name, taking time between pointless flights and shuttling between his seven or so homes, to endorse a scheme that represents a “major opportunity”, he says “to help lock up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and prevent global warming”. Perhaps more persuasively, Clive Anderson, president of the Woodland Trust, has congratulated the paper on its lurch into planet-saving: “I am all for trees.”
Before the election, the prime minister, having left the Channel 4 climate debate to a more capable ice block, found time to assure Mail readers that their tree planting would be “a vital part of our response to climate change”. And especially vital for the party – endorsed by the Mail – that is committed to spending £28.8bn on road-building: ie encouraging, not restricting, transport emissions.
Following the Conservative victory, no tree angel need worry about frequent-flying levies, or public transport nudges, or disincentives on acquiring a new, pay-later, SUV that emits a quarter more CO2 than a medium-sized car. Last week, financing packages were cited as one reason that sports utility vehicles outsell electric cars in the UK by 37 to one, and threaten our ability to fulfil EU emissions targets. Globally, SUVs are the second biggest cause (after power) of the rise in CO2 emissions.
The beauty of organised tree planting as a demonstration of environmental concern is its essential conservatism. No behavioural changes are involved. People will still let your thuggish SUV out at city junctions.
Actually, planting trees for the planet is the probably the closest most of us will ever come to feeling like the frequent flier and busy package holiday escort Stanley Johnson. We may not be able to spell Pinocchio or spawn a Boris, but with one sapling and a trowel we can experience what it is to call oneself a committed conservationist without sacrificing anything larger than a plastic straw. Learn from Stanley. After sucking up to some Extinction Rebellion protesters, the supposed conservationist said he saw no need to stop flying. Ever. “I justify my flying pretty often on the basis I’m going there to do some speech about the environmental problems or write about the animals.”
Admirers of Stanley could argue that his shamelessness is no worse than Prince Charles’s serial hypocrisies, and may be more honest than claiming, as celebrities repeatedly do, that their emissions have been rendered harmless by tree planting or some other mysteriously purifying scheme. Long since George Monbiot tellingly compared offsetting with the medieval sale of indulgences, their popularity as a flygskam cure seems undimmed, including among the most prominently agonised. The model Bella Hadid confides, for instance, that she has recently donated 600 trees to obliterate three months’ worth of flying. Paul McCartney offsets. So does EasyJet. Greenpeace described the airline’s scheme as “jumbo-sized greenwash”.
It’s not clear that offsetting, even if the relevant projects do not fail, is as effective in reducing aviation emissions as frequent flyer levies would be, or even social pressure to fly less. Why would the proposal that emissions can be magicked away by new trees not be used to validate yet more flying and more complacency about industry emissions, neutered and otherwise?
The Mail’s angel campaign, basically a seasonal offsetting special, looks similarly unlikely to threaten the status quo, especially from a paper that remains a safe space in which to argue (with supporting quotes from the coal baron Matt Ridley) that global warming could be “a boon”. The campaign’s lead endorser, the prime minister, produced the election’s weakest manifesto on the climate crisis. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a conservation campaign with more appeal to phony or reluctant environmentalists. Much as soaring sales of SUVs make “a mockery” of the push for electric cars, according to the UK Energy Research Centre’s Prof Jillian Anable, inaction or lack of seriousness on their CO2 emissions exposes the limitations of tree planting. “We have been sleepwalking into the [SUV] issue,” she said. “We must start to phase out the most polluting vehicles immediately.”
That said, all credit to the Mail, formerly one of the world’s least tree-friendly communities, for its model exercise in greenwashing. If it leads to less in-house denigration of Greta Thunberg – “a somewhat distressed kid having a textbook teenage strop” (Sarah Vine) – so much the better.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist