Stars help trees make a meal of car fumes

Rachelle Thackray
Saturday 20 June 1998 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


ONE day, choking on London car fumes in the heat of summer, entrepreneur Dan Morrell remembered what he'd learnt in a biology lesson at school: that trees soak up harmful carbon dioxide emissions by converting them into oxygen and wood.

An idea struck him. Why not plant trees to repair the damage the emissions cause? Nine years later, that idea is at last coming to fruition. His "carbon-neutral" campaign is being launched in earnest, with the backing of notables ranging from singer Neneh Cherry, fashion designer Alexander McQueen and artist Damien Hirst to Formula One racing chief Max Mosley andunion leader Rodney Bickerstaffe.

The top advertising agency, J Walter Thompson, is planting trees, Mazda is launching a carbon-neutral car and this week Glastonbury festival-goers will be asked to offset petrol consumption by buying tree saplings for pounds 3 for a "festival forest".

To get this far has taken a lot of battling and several false starts. Mr Morrell, 35, recalls: "I took my idea first to the AA, and they loved it and gave me pounds 7,000.They even took me on as a consultant, along with George Peterkin, one of the most respected authorities on the regeneration of natural woodland." (Britain, says Mr Morrell, has lost nearly all its natural woodland in the past three centuries, half in the past 50 years.) Despite initial enthusiasm, however, his idea was dropped.

Mr Morrell then went to Esso, suggesting that for every litre of petrol bought a tree could be planted to soak up emissions. Esso too was keen, he says, but this also came to nothing. So the indefatigable Mr Morrell, who also runs a music and advertising business, went to the RAC. "We had meetings with its head, who asked whether trees needed to be planted on roadsides to do the soaking up. They wanted it all scientifically backed in a study. They eventually said it wasn't a viable project. I was stunned."

However, he made overtures to other organisations, including BP, Shell and Green Flag, and started to link up with like-minded colleagues. Then a chance encounter regenerated his idea. "I was on a train to London, and who should be sitting opposite but Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of the Unison trade union. I'm fanatical about my tree project, so I just told him all about it." Mr Bickerstaffe publicised Mr Morrell's not-for-profit organisation, Future Forests, in his union's newspaper. It was taken up by TUC leader John Monks and other unions, and donations came pouring in. In March 1997, the first trees were planted in Upminster, Essex. Future Forests now has nine UK sites.

Even more exciting was the discovery that Max Mosley, head of Formula One and president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), was a fan of carbon sequestration - the technical term for the absorption process - and that Richard Tipper, a research fellow at Edinburgh University and now an associate of Mr Morrell's, had conducted a "carbon audit" on Formula One.

"We realised that an incredible body of research had been done and the science was more precise than we knew," says Mr Morrell, who lives in Somerset and describes himself as "not protest- green but encouraging- green".

Future Forests has gone from strength to strength. After last year's Glastonbury festival, Neneh Cherry paid for trees to be planted to offset the carbon costs of her tour, as did The Levellers. Whole Earth Foods has similarly offset emissions from manufacturing its cornflakes. Damien Hirst has made his Pharmacy restaurant carbon-neutral, and is to make a giant sculpture of blue carbon dioxide canisters on the Gatwick flight path near the M25. Mazda launches the first carbon-neutral car, the Demio, on 1 August, committing itself to plant sufficient trees to counteract emissions from all cars sold in one year. And after intervention from actor Keith Allen, Fulham football club is paying pounds 1,600 to plant trees: five trees a year can offset the emissions of a single car. "When it's on the terraces, it's mainstream," says Mr Morrell, who believes the time lag - 30 to 40 years - for trees to absorb emissions makes his project more attractive. "It's not a gimmick. Just think of the stuff we've got locked up there, about to kick in."

On a wider scale, the US government has pledged $250m to plant forests in Russia, and BP is looking at ways to neutralise its carbon output. "Our ambition is that this will become de rigueur. It's like being polite enough to shut the door behind you when you leave the room," says Mr Morrell, who now devotes three days a week to his project and is in talks with industry to develop a standard approach. "I have got used to a rollercoaster of disappointments over a nine-year period. It's taken up a quarter of my life already. But it's gone beyond a short burst of excitement; it's a steady curve of real satisfaction."

Future Forests can be contacted on 01963 350465.

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