In the Negev
the people of Israel
shall be tested

David Ben Gurion

We abroad are used to believing that Eretz Yisrael is now almost totally
desolate, a desert that is not sowed....But in truth that is not the case.
Ahad Haam, "Truth from the Land of Palestine"

Analysis: JNF Go Neutral Campaign

This analysis was commissioned by the Green Zionist Alliance. Carbon offsets through tree-planting are controversial, and some of JNF's calculations may be off. Engage in JNF's Go Neutral campaign with moderate caution. For more information or references, contact Jessica Gordon (Jessica.Gordon at

GZA Analysis: JNF Go Neutral Campaign

JNF’s “Go Neutral” campaign is designed to educate individuals and institutions about the scourge of climate change and offer them suggestions and opportunities to reduce or mitigate their contributions to the problem. While the campaign clearly was conceived and designed with positive intentions, several aspects of the campaign either fall short of other options or actually undermine the campaign’s ideals.

Carbon Calculation

Though JNF’s calculator is apparently based on that of the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA’s version does not include air travel, and JNF’s calculations seem far too low. JNF’s calculator reports that two long and two medium flights (e.g., a roundtrip flight between New York and Tel Aviv with a layover in Western Europe) produce 2,850 pounds of carbon dioxide. (The calculator also translates this as two tons of carbon dioxide, though a ton is conventionally 2000 pounds.) Other reputable calculators’ estimates range from 4,415 pounds (TerraPass) to 12,408 pounds (Atmosfair). (The disparity among carbon calculators underscores the importance of having all JNF/KKL offices on the same calculation system, such as the one currently being developed by ASSIF Strategies for KKL.) Further, the calculator needs to clarify how to count a long flight with a layover. Since most of a flight’s greenhouse gas emissions occur on takeoff, a long trip broken into two flights emits significantly more than a direct flight. Finally, scientists say that livestock contribute 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. The calculator should acknowledge this contribution in a similar way to the question of waste and recycling: by calculating the average American’s greenhouse gas emissions from meat and dairy consumption, then reducing the calculations for less meat-eating, vegetarianism, and veganism.

Sequestration Calculation

JNF currently calculates that one tree planted in Israel will absorb one ton of carbon over its lifetime of seventy years and consequently asks clients/consumers to plant one tree for each ton of carbon emissions. However, according to KKL Afforestation Division Director Zvika Avni, most saplings planted do not reach their expected lifetimes. Given this, JNF must reconfigure its method of calculating carbon sequestration. A far more appropriate method would be to calculate expected sequestration only in the first portion (e.g., twenty years) of a tree’s lifetime and to consider two saplings equivalent to one mature tree. Additionally, the one-tree-per-ton figure does not appear to account for variable factors such as tree species, tree location, change in albedo (increased warming caused by a change from light-colored sand/soil to dark-colored leaves), and carbon released in the planting process. While these factors may be considered too exacting for JNF’s simplified model, they alter the amount of carbon emissions that any tree-planting offsets and therefore bear consideration.

The Shortcomings of Tree Planting for Carbon Sequestration

Part of the mission of “Go Neutral” is to educate customers about forestry’s prospects for mitigating climate change. This education should include clarification that forestry-based sequestration is temporary rather than a solution to climate change or an allowance for greenhouse gas emissions. It should also clarify that tree-based sequestration takes place over decades, rather than immediately neutralizing or offsetting greenhouse gases emitted today. Furthermore, carbon sequestration through forestry is highly controversial. Some of the criticisms include the following:

  • It justifies increasing or failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without contributing to production of clean energy or development of clean energy technologies.

  • Carbon sequestration is calculated over the expected lifetime of a tree; calculations fall short when a tree dies early.

  • Even when a tree fulfills its expected lifetime, carbon sequestration is temporary; the carbon returns to the atmosphere when the tree decomposes.

  • Carbon sequestration in trees is extremely difficult to calculate.

  • In some cases, afforestation actually does more harm than good.

  • People will offset each ton of carbon they emit only once, so offsetting with one method means that they will not offset with another. Though afforestation clearly has environmental and social benefits, including carbon sequestration, other offset methods are more effective.
  • According to a report of the well-regarded David Suzuki Foundation, "It is for these reasons that the international environmental community is almost unanimously opposed to the use of tree planting to mitigate climate change, and why this is expected to become a public relations issue for companies that use these types of offsets in the future" (emphasis added).


    Carbon offsets are only credible and ethical if they are additional, meaning that the project would not have happened without the opportunities provided by the offset program. JNF cannot ethically market trees as offsets if the trees would have been planted anyway. As such, all Go Neutral trees planting should be over and above current planting levels, and JNF/KKL should create separate “offset forests” in Israel to make additionality transparent.

    Other Projects and Education

    JNF justifiably prides itself on its educational mission and programs, so the organization should ensure that the information and messages it provides are as accurate as possible. Since JNF is presenting “Go Neutral” as an offsetting program, the projects must actually offset greenhouse gas emissions, and the results must be quantifiable. Unfortunately, “Go Neutral” offers projects that, while beneficial, do not clearly mitigate climate change and should not be presented as offsetting emissions. These positive but not quantifiable initiatives included tree planting and research and development on alternative power (without building infrastructure or providing the power.)
    JNF’s commitment to educational excellence should motivate the organization to be transparent about the rate of sapling death and limitations of carbon forestry, and willing to explore other offsetting options to ensure that “Go Neutral” is actually neutral.

    Alternative Carbon Neutrality Projects

    Given these issues, the best option for JNF, to both retain its historical role of planting trees in Israel and to try to mitigate climate change as responsibly and ethically as possible, would be to combine tree-planting with one or several other more quantifiable and scientifically accepted practices. Alternatives include production of renewable or clean energy, greenhouse gas capture, and steps that reduce energy demand, all of which could be done instead of or in conjunction with tree-planting. (For example, the Australian company Climate Positive offsets 100% of clients' emissions through clean energy production and then offsets an additional 30% of that amount through tree-planting.)

    Standard non-forestry offsets include:

  • Harnessing energy from solar, wind, small hydropower, and other renewable sources.
  • Capturing greenhouse gases (specifically Methane) from sources like landfills and livestock farms and using it as an energy source.
  • Reducing energy demand through educational campaigns and efficiency increases. Each type of project is already taking place in Israel, sometimes with KKL involvement.
  • Additional possibilities include:

  • Piping waste CO2 and hot water from the Ashkelon power plant to nearby greenhouses, increasing produce yields and reducing energy demand for heating.
  • Adopting energy-saving measures in greenhouses, including thermal screens, reduced greenhouse volume, heating plant roots instead of the entire greenhouse volume, and recirculating hot risen air from the top of the structure.
  • Covering reservoirs with plastic to both reduce evaporation and heat the water for energy -- but water health and algae blooms can be concerns.
  • Capturing methane released in the Hula Valley and burning it for energy or simply to convert it to carbon dioxide, a much less harmful greenhouse gas.
  • Constructing green roofs to minimize heating and cooling energy requirements (see, e.g.,
  • Campaigning to persuade Israelis to fully inflate car tires, use CFLs, erect clotheslines, etc.
  • Installing CFLs, installing solar water heaters on older buildings, etc.
  • Building transportational bike paths (though it is difficult to calculate the amount of greenhouse gas reduction).
  • Combining tree-planting with one or several of these alternative projects will increase the “Go Neutral” campaign’s effectiveness in mitigating climate change and credibility as a carbon-offsetter.



    Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006