1 trillion trees can't save the world
Trees, trees, and more trees. It's the wholesome, ‘simple’ and easy to understand option that everyone’s been talking about in the range of solutions to mitigate climate change. In recent years, tree planting campaigns have become all the rage, with influential figures across several industries, including presidents, scientists, and corporate leaders, presenting it as a solution to climate change.
Plant more trees, save the planet. But is it really that simple?
The list of major tree-planting endeavours sponsored by global organisations is endless, from the Nature Conservancy’s “Plant a Billion Trees” to the United Nations Environment Program’s “Plant for the Planet Campaign” to Donald Trump’s 1 trillion trees initiative.
It’s safe to conclude that people want to plant trees, and lots of them. How could this ever be a bad thing? The short answer is that promoting tree planting alone oversimplifies the solutions available when it comes to reducing/removing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change in the long-term.
Tree-planting became a trendy topic in 2019, when a study published in the journal Science drew attention to the idea that planting a trillion trees could capture more than a third of all the greenhouse gases humans have released since the industrial revolution. Naturally, a media craze followed, considering how seemingly simple this climate solution was. Trees? Saving the entire world and preventing collapse?! It all sounded incredibly appealing, until a group of 46 scientists responded to the study with their critique.
Joseph Veldman, lead author of the critique, wrote “Headlines around the world declared tree planting to be the best solution to climate change… We now know those headlines were wrong.” He made the argument that planting trees where they don’t belong can actually make matters worse, harming ecosystems, increasing wildfires, and exacerbating global warming. For example, the study considered planting trees on savannah and grasslands, where the intrusion of non-native trees could cause problems for local species and hinder biodiversity growth. Planting trees on snowy terrain that reflects the heat from the ground could turn these places into dark patches that actually absorb heat.
The critique stands true, with a new study published in journal Nature Sustainability in June 2020 that makes the point that campaigns to plant a large number of trees could backfire, and that they could contradict the real purpose of planting trees, according to co-author Eric Lambin. Tree plantations that are poorly enforced and monitored could be responsible for releasing more CO2 and losing biodiversity. “In light of global enthusiasm to plant a trillion trees, it’s important to reflect on the impact of past policies,” said the study’s lead author Robert Heilmayr, an assistant professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, US.
To give perspective, the researchers analyzed one of the world’s longest-running and influential subsidy policy and reforestation projects: Chile’s Decree Law 701. The law subsidised 75% of afforestation costs and offered support for ongoing plantation management. Poor enforcement and budget limitations led to a situation where in some cases, government subsidies replaced native forests with more profitable tree plantations. This in turn reduced native forest cover lands cropping up in areas where forests may have naturally regenerated, according to the study. So, not altogether a very successful endeavour to reduce emissions.
Similar to Chile’s Decree Law, the Bonn Challenge that seeks to restore forest area more than eight times the size of the state of California in the US by 2030 is also problematic. It was found that nearly 80% of the Bonn Challenge campaign commitments involved planting monoculture tree plantations or a limited mix of trees that produced products like fruit or rubber, instead of restoring natural forests.
So, what is the alternative? The critics of major tree planting campaigns are still fans of trees and believe forests play a role in solving the crisis. But there’s a big difference between a role, and an entire solution.
The skepticism is focused on efforts to plant trees in areas they weren’t before or planting large numbers of a single species to create “tree plantations” instead of forests. Another problem with the mainstream attention these tree planting campaigns garner is that they distract from the more serious issue of fossil fuel usage and deforestation. Ultimately, tree planting campaigns can give the impression we can continue powering our lives via fossil fuels, without making major systemic changes. Trees will not prevent the harmful effects from burning fossil fuels from occurring in the first place.
Although it's a complicated issue - we also wanted to mention that in many cases, it takes a tree at least 10 years to begin to properly absorb carbon dioxide, so the likelihood of these tree planting campaigns having the positive impact they are intended to have, is low.
The real solution: Instead of overwhelming the planet with misplaced tree plantations, allow forests to heal on their own terms, with a little help if needed. These forests end up being more resilient and helpful in the climate fight than newly planted tree plots.
How do we do that? Forrest Fleischman, who teaches natural resources policy at the University of Minnesota and has spent years studying the effects of tree planting in India. He suggested the best way to ensure there are enough trees to trap the carbon dioxide heating up the planet is to secure the political rights of the Indigenous people who depend on forests. Research backs him up. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises the significant harm to the planet caused when communities living in natural forests have their land rights jeopardised. Who better to restore and tend to these forests than those who have been safeguarding it for thousands of years?
A study published in the journal PNAS found that the most effective way to protect the Amazon rainforest is to leave it in the hands of its Indigenous residents, writing that “Maintaining the abundance of carbon stored aboveground in Amazon forests is central to any comprehensive climate stabilisation strategy. Growing evidence points to Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) as buffers against large-scale carbon emissions across a nine-nation network of indigenous territories (ITs) and protected natural areas (PNAs).”
Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2030 involves huge (and often positive!) changes in the way we power and live our lives. Whilst tree planting may be the easiest ‘sale’ to the masses as a simple solution, we hope that:
Indigenous communities are respected as land guardians
When trees are planted, they are done so in-line with careful guidelines such as the Miyawaki Method - to ensure that we are left with biodiverse and CO2-efficient forests, not ‘tree plantations’
Tree planting is not used as a political distraction to hide away from making more systemic changes such as moving towards renewable energy and making individual choices such as public transportation a safe and easy option
As for Capture, you may have noticed that the two of our offsetting projects offered through the app are nature-based solutions; reforestation and conservation. Please enjoy a few additional details below on the projects for those interested…
The two projects we have selected are in Panama and North America:
Panama is a region with especially high diversity of animals and plants. This project aims to combine sustainable cocoa and timber production with the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem restoration. Formerly fallow and degraded pasture land has been reforested with mostly native tree species and turned into mixed forests. As some of the land is used for sustainable production of organic cocoa and sustainable timber, it means that long-term employment opportunities are created, ensuring that the project benefits local communities for decades to come.
The second carbon offsetting project we provide is in North America, through an organisation named Pachama, a technology-verified carbon offsetting marketplace, supporting the protection and enhancement for four different forests throughout America, totalling over 15,000 acres. With a mix of tree planting and sustainable forestry management, the projects have led to improved sequestration from the land, along with protecting healthy rivers and supporting threatened species such as black bears, hawks, roosevelt elk and northern spotted owl.
Any questions or comments, feel free to join the discussions via our Instagram channel @thecaptureapp or say hi to the team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org