SLU news

Does climate-compensating tree planting benefit local people?

Published: 14 March 2023
Photo of a house surrounded by trees planted  to provide shade and protection from wind.

"Planting trees in Africa" has become a popular way to offset carbon dioxide emissions. However, research shows that tree planting projects often put too little focus on benefiting the people on site. SLU researchers Flora Hajdu and Linda Engström have therefore developed a web-based guide that makes it easier to assess the social consequences of such projects.

"Planting trees in Africa is often presented as a simple solution", says Flora Hajdu, who is professor of rural development at SLU. "But in reality, many and often complex factors need to work together for local communities to benefit from the projects - and it also happens that they experience negative effects by the projects".

The guide is aimed at consumers, organizations, companies, carbon retailers and others who want to know what questions to ask about projects in order to find those that have potential of benefiting the local population and are socially sustainable.

Tree planting projects that aim to increase carbon storage by, for example, preserving, restoring or planting trees, span from large plantations of the same tree species to small-scale so-called agroforestry projects and pruning of trees to stimulate regrowth from stumps. If the right kind of trees are planted in close cooperation with the local population, their access to fruit can increase and they can get more firewood and timber from, for example, thinning. In addition, soil erosion can be reduced when the roots bind the soil and in dry periods tree shade can provide better harvests and protect houses from strong wind. Research shows that such positive effects have rarely occurred, however, and that the projects instead had negative impacts on the local population.

The guide provides guidance in five areas that research has pointed out as important to people and also complicated to manage in development projects. One such key area is local people's access to land.

"A major risk with tree planting projects is that the local population loses access to important agricultural and grazing land. This applies especially when trees are planted in large plantations, but access to land is an important issue regardless of which method is used", says Linda Engström, researcher in rural development.

Other key areas are to have a solid understanding of the place's environment, history and culture, giving local people influence and being aware of power relations.

"If you assume, for example, that it is the local population's overexploitation that creates deforestation in the area without a deeper problem analysis of how the forest is being used, has been used over time, why and by whom, you will not design a good solution", says Linda Engström.

Other social risks are that people will have reduced access to firewood and timber and that their ability to quickly get cash in a crisis situation disappears if they are no longer allowed to cut down trees. The projects can also increase class differences within communities if mainly the wealthier sections of the local population benefit from them, while the most vulnerable are disadvantaged.

The guide is based on another important conclusion from the research, namely that investments in climate projects such as tree planting projects should not be seen as compensation for fossil emissions.

"If we are to reach the climate goals, we need to both reduce emissions quickly and invest in various carbon storage projects. Therefore, we should not count tree planting as compensation, but rather as a complement", Flora Hajdu emphasises.

The work on the guide was financed through a call from Formas (a government research council for sustainable development): "From research to practice - methods and knowledge transfer of research results" (FR-2019/0004).

Contact persons

Flora Hajdu, Professor
Department of Urban and Rural Development
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
018-67 21 62,
Linda Engström, Researcher
Department of Urban and Rural Development
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
018-67 26 41,

Link to the guide "Social benefits of carbon projects"