‘High-Tech’ Reforestation Company Starts Wildfire in Spain

‘High-Tech’ Reforestation Company Starts Wildfire in Spain
A view of the Ateca fire on July 20, 2022. (Photo: Fabián Simón, AP)

A Dutch company that claims it can help businesses “turn [their] CO2 into forests” using data, drones, and other tech is responsible for sparking a wildfire in Spain this week that has already burned tens of thousands of acres and caused 2,000 people to evacuate.

In a press release published on its website, Land Life, which is based in the Netherlands, said that a fire began on July 18 at one of its sites in the Ateca region in Aragon, Spain, when one of its contractors was using a piece of excavation equipment to “prepare the soil to plant trees later this summer.” The company said in its release that no one has been injured, but authorities told a local broadcaster that more than 34,500 acres (14,000 hectares) of land had already been burnt, while evacuation orders were issued across five nearby municipalities, including a nursing home.

Spain has been a hellscape of dry, hot weather this month. A scorching heatwave has been responsible for 1,900 deaths in both Spain and Portugal. More than 30 fires were burning throughout Spain this weekend; temperatures in some parts of the country hit 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) on Friday.

In its release, Land Life said its contractor had “extensive experience in the area” and had all the “appropriate authorization issued by the local and regional authorities.” But local officials criticised the company for working during the middle of the day in peak wildfire season. The local paper, Heraldo de Aragón, also reported that the company’s planting activities caused another fire on July 20 in the same area that burned almost 50 acres (20 hectares) but continued to work in the area after it was extinguished. Earther asked Land Life about that report, and a spokesperson referred us to the existing statement on the company’s website.

“They are going to repopulate 200 hectares and they are going to burn at least 1,000 pine trees that are 50 years old,” Antonio Borque, the mayor of the city of Bubierca, told Heraldo de Aragón.

No one disputes that trees are crucial to helping the planet. Reforestation and afforestation are absolutely essential to meeting Paris Agreement targets, and the trees that Land Life plants are going to do a great job as carbon sinks. And the demand for companies like Land Life is high: the company scored €3.5 million in Series A Funding in 2018.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems inherent with the model of using trees as a replacement for climate action. Trees are not a maths equation, and offset programs can, even with the best intentions, seriously overestimate just how much carbon is actually being accounted for. The concept of of allowing companies to keep polluting just because they’ve bought a few acres of forest does not help with the deep decarbonization that is so sorely needed, especially given the scale of the world’s carbon addiction: the New York Times calculated that offsetting the U.S.’s emissions from 2019 alone would require planting a forest about four times the size of California. In that light, Land Life’s promises to help companies “advance [their] sustainability agenda” to “compensate for businesses’ CO2 emissions and climate footprint” sounds like little more than greenwashing.

Many powerful forces — those most reluctant to pull the trigger on larger-scale decarbonization efforts — simply love to use tree planting as a stand-in for actual action. The GOP has made one planting a trillion trees a cornerstone of recent climate policy. There’s a deep irony that the climate “solutions” conservatives like to deploy involve a company scrambling to plant seedlings in a climate-ravaged hellscape so that other companies can claim carbon offsets — and then setting a fire because it’s too damn dry. It’s almost as if nature is telling us that, without the deep fixes needed, all the trees we plant won’t make a damn difference.