This article first appeared in our spring ’18 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Conscious Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 04 May 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
As the planting season draws to a close, the UK is over 1,600 native broadleaf trees richer thanks to a campaign by challenger energy supplier Octopus Energy. The company has been travelling across the country planting trees, after customers were asked to nominate the local schools and community groups they felt would benefit most from some extra greenery.
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A tree in your name
When World Environment Day arrived on 05 June last year, Octopus Energy made a commitment: for every new customer that signed up that day, a tree would be planted in their name.
The result was a promise to plant 250 trees, but the public’s imagination was captured and the plan was extended. Existing customers were invited to nominate their local area; within just a few weeks, Octopus Energy had an extensive list of locations – and increased the number of trees it intended to plant by 400%.
This marked the beginning of the company’s support of the United Nations BreatheLife campaign – led by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. The goal is to share air quality learnings between cities in order to improve air quality around the globe.
While reducing carbon emissions is the quickest way to slow climate change, tree planting plays a complementary role because trees lock up carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
The Forestry Commission has estimated that a tree locks up 0.546kg of carbon per year – the equivalent of 2kg of carbon dioxide. Through photosynthesis, the captured carbon is converted into everything from the trunk to the leaves, before returning to the atmosphere either through natural degradation or human interference.
The destruction of forests around the world means carbon is being released back into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate; it’s now more important than ever that trees are planted to replace them. Tree planting is particularly urgent in urban areas, which have higher levels of pollution. In London, for instance, 95% of the population lives in an area that exceeds the WHO’s recommended limits for air pollution by more than 50%.
Have pitchforks, will travel
Once the Octopus Energy planting team knew the scale of the task, it set to work. The long list of location nominations from customers around the UK meant there was a lot of ground to cover – through city and country, and from north to south and back again.
At St Andrew’s Primary School in Islington, the team partnered with Arsenal in the Community and was joined by team mascot Gunnersaurus, as well as Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins and ex-JLS pop star turned farmer JB Gill.
To celebrate the opening of a brand new Octopus Energy office in Leicester, and keen to become an active member of the local community, the team visited Spinney Hill Primary (main image). While this inner-city school had already got creative with its limited green space – which includes a brilliant ‘mud kitchen’ – the staff and kids were delighted with the addition of six native trees to provide some extra greenery.
In York, 50 hazel, hawthorn and holly trees were planted as part of an incredible project to transform a former landfill into a 21-acre Nature reserve. Local MP Rachael Maskell also rolled her sleeves up to lend a helping hand.
Not to be outdone, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, the MP for Brighton & Kemptown, braved the mud and worked energetically with the kids to plant trees for Woodingdean Primary. The resulting hedgerow of hazel trees is now providing the school’s new outdoor learning area with some much-needed protection from the chilly coastal winds.
Eco-warriors of the future
The need for trees was really highlighted to the team during a visit to Highgate Primary School in North London. Octopus Energy planted 100 trees along the fence of the school, which is 150 metres from a busy road that carries over 10,000 cars every day. With children among the most susceptible to the effects of air pollution, it was a reminder of how important tree planting really is.
But the benefits weren’t all directly related to air quality. The campaign also prompted some important conversations within schools about the need for environmental awareness; in many cases, the activity formed part of larger projects around Nature and the environment. From art competitions to a tree-themed reading room, the children took inspiration from their new broadleaves and relished the chance to dive headlong into all things environmental.