JNF ‘Greens’ Its Tree-Planting Program

But some wonder if group’s energies could be better spent

By Liz Galst

Published January 09, 2008, issue of January 11, 2008.
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It seems, at first glance, like an obvious idea for the Jewish National Fund: Take the organization’s signature program — tree-planting in Israel — and repackage it for a new generation and a new historical moment, as a way to combat global warming. (Trees absorb the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and transform it into wood.)

Called GoNeutral, JNF’s campaign is one of the first anti-global-warming programs targeted specifically at Jewish audiences. It encourages synagogues, Jewish community organizations and schoolchildren to “offset,” or compensate for, the greenhouse gases their activities create by reducing the presence of these gases elsewhere.

“We’ve found another benefit to planting trees,” said Alon Tal, a leading Israeli environmentalist who chairs JNF’s committee for sustainable development. “Yes, it’s repackaging, but isn’t recycling one of the great environmental issues?”

This shift in emphasis acknowledges the green movement’s new caché, but some Jewish environmentalists say that GoNeutral misleads an uninformed audience about carbon neutrality. They note that the consensus in the scientific and environmental community is that tree planting is, at best, an inefficient method of offsetting carbon emissions.

“Reforesting is a vital project, and the JNF should do it,” said Noam Dolgin, executive director of the Green Zionist Alliance. Though Dolgin is supportive of JNF’s overall environmental efforts, he says that to call GoNeutral carbon neutrality is inaccurate.”

Dolgin notes that most scientists say those seeking to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions should contribute to programs that generate renewable energy, or to those that invest in energy efficiency. Such projects reduce the need for fossil-fuel-burning power plants and thereby decrease resultant emissions of carbon dioxide.

Known in Israel as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, JNF is a 106-year-old organization founded in what was then Palestine to develop the land for Jewish settlement. The fund helped write Israeli history with its land purchases, which were crucial in determining the borders of the nascent state. Today, JNF owns 13% of Israel’s land, home to 70% of the population.

Among American Jews, JNF is known for its iconic blue-tin collection boxes as well as for its tree planting projects. Entire forests have been planted with the money of American bar and bat mitzvahs who gave $18 to have a tree planted and received a personalized certificate in return.

The new GoNeutral program, launched at JNF’s national conference in New York last fall, includes more than just the tree planting. There is environmental education and action for children, teenagers and young adults — many of whom, JNF’s surveys show, are more engaged with environmental issues than with Israel.

“Because this is an important issue for these Jews, we wanted to make a connection with them,” said Mara Suskauer, JNF’s executive director of the Israel advocacy and education department.

The central thrust of GoNeutral, though, is a Web site where individuals and community organizations are encouraged to calculate their carbon footprint — the volume of greenhouse gases their activities create — using JNF’s online carbon calculator. (The average American is responsible for about 26.5 tons of greenhouse gases annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.) Once the total has been computed, users can choose to offset their emissions by “Planting Trees in Israel” or “Investing in JNF Environmental Projects.”

Based on the idea that one tree can absorb up to a ton of carbon dioxide over an estimated 70-year lifespan, GoNeutral offsets a ton of carbon for $10 a tree. GoNeutral trees cost $8 less than regular JNF trees, Suskauer says, because of lower administrative costs associated with their purchase. “There’s no tree certificate, so we save money on printing, mailing and other costs.”

The design of the project is troubling to some Jewish environmentalists.

“The idea behind GoNeutral is to bring in people, institutions and groups that are not offsetting now,” said Yale environmental law student Jessica Gordon, who served this past summer as a climate intern at JNF’s Israeli parent organization. “My concern is that GoNeutral may lure people away from, or not give people the opportunity to learn about, scientifically validated offset programs, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand reduction.”

In search of Israel-based projects that follow the scientific consensus, the Green Zionist Alliance and the environmental education group Hazon have turned to the Good Energy Initiative, an offsetting project of the Tel Aviv-based Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership. The Heschel Center offers various programs for its offsets including one that provides solar water heaters for buildings in poorer neighborhoods that are currently using kerosene for fuel. Another converts waste vegetable oil into biodiesel for use in school buses. The use of these programs is a change for Hazon, which previously engaged in tree planting to offset its greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve been following the research that’s out there, and we’ve become more educated about the fact that carbon offsetting is more than planting trees,” says Nancy Lipsey, director of Hazon’s New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride. “There are things you can do that have a much greater impact.”

Even inside the JNF there is a recognition that many trees don’t survive long enough to absorb the amount of carbon dioxide the tree planting program anticipates. JNF asserts that 90% of its trees will survive long enough to achieve the promised environmental benefits. Trees that burn or decompose release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

“Until you’ve harvested the tree and turned it into furniture, you can’t be sure the carbon has been permanently sequestered,” said Tal, who is also a professor of environmental policy at Ben-Gurion University.

There are a number of circumstances that can interrupt a tree’s ability to sequester carbon. Drought and heat waves, both of which are expected to increase as the planet warms, can cause trees to respire — to breathe out — carbon dioxide.

And then there’s war: As many as 2 million trees in JNF forests burned during the recent conflict with Hezbollah, releasing almost as many tons of greenhouse gases.

There’s one more concern about the JNF’s plan: A significant percentage of the 6 or 7 million GoNeutral trees that JNF hopes to plant in the next five years will be sited in the desert. At present, deserts are known to reflect heat back out of the earth’s atmosphere through a process known as the albedo effect. Scientists are uncertain whether creating a dark-green tree canopy will cause arid lands to absorb more heat rather than reflect it, and thereby increase global warming.

Tal acknowledges these problems, but he says he’s confident that the desert tree planting will have beneficial environmental effects. Because scientists will follow the project closely, Tal believes that GoNeutral will make a significant contribution to the understanding of the environmental impacts of tree planting in arid lands.

Still, he said, “we’ve got to move beyond tree planting.”

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