A proposal to plant a trillion trees to save us from climate change may not be realistic. here’s why

During his 2020 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump – whose presidency had yet to be derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic – attempted to impersonate an environmentalist by putting everything its weight behind the One Trillion Trees initiative. The future president described it as “an ambitious effort to bring together government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and around the world.”

Unlike many Trump initiatives, this one has been well received on both sides of the aisle. A few months later, a bipartisan bill was introduced to “reduce carbon in the atmosphere by restoring and conserving forests, grasslands, wetlands and coastal habitats”.

The logic of the bill seems obvious: the planet is heating up because industrial civilization pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Trees absorb one of these gases, carbon dioxide.

Such a “solution” to climate change may be attractive because of its simplicity. Unlike technologically intensive proposals, like geoengineering or building industrial carbon removal facilities that suck carbon dioxide out of the air, planting trees is a stylish solution. Unlike the above, it is not technologically or technically intensive.

Unfortunately, the solution to stopping climate change may not be so simple.

John Lotspeich is the Executive Director of Trillion Trees, an organization whose stated mission is “to end deforestation and restore tree cover.” Based on the title, you might think Trillion Trees thinks that planting a trillion trees alone could do the trick and solve the problem of climate change. Yet while having more trees will likely help, the problem of global warming is not that simple, even though Trillion Trees does aim to protect or restore a trillion trees on the planet here. 2050.

“Essentially, Trillion Trees’ mission is not just to prevent the destruction of our current forests, but to increase forest cover on the planet,” Lotspeich told Salon. He said Trillion Trees believes “it’s important to get as close to forests as possible in order to provide the benefits of what existed before, as much as possible.”

“As conservation organizations, we are concerned not only with the climatic benefits of forests, but also with equity around the communities that work and live in the forest, as well as the rich biodiversity they provide,” he added. He also noted that the genesis of the world vision around a “trillion trees” is generally taken from a 2019 article in the journal Science which proposed that the world’s ecosystems could support an additional 0.9 billion hectares. forest continues and would have the potential to store the equivalent of 25% of the current atmospheric carbon pool.

This speaks to a very important point about environmentalism – the need to recognize that even plans that could help correct global warming should not be reduced strictly to budgeting for carbon. Trees are essential to the health of our planet, improve the quality of our air, and are home to millions of species of plants and animals. No serious environmentalist would claim that we should not do more to conserve our forests.

Still, it’s important to be realistic about what the specific act of planting trees can accomplish in terms of global warming.

“The really important question to ask is how many trees can be grown to maturity,” Stanford University climatologist Chris Field told Salon via email. “Planting billions of seedlings is easy. Caring for these trees as they grow, weather droughts, insects, wildfires, and logging is much more difficult. He pointed out that trees can take decades or more to fully realize their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Additionally, since trees’ ability to store carbon depends on the area covered by trees, it would take an absurd amount of land to plant enough trees to solve global warming.

“If we want annual growth to remove 1 billion tonnes of CO2, that requires a lot more land, probably in the order of 200 million acres, and removing 10 billion tonnes of CO2 a year would require growing plants. forests on something like 2 billion acres, ”Field claimed.

Anna Trugman, an assistant professor in the geography department at the University of California at Santa Barbara, tells Salon that trees can offset carbon dioxide emissions. Still, Trugman says there are a number of problems with relying solely on tree planting to combat climate change.

“First, the carbon fixed in biomass is not permanently sequestered,” explained Trugman, noting that trees release carbon into the atmosphere after they die and decompose. Trugman argued that climate change can also cause trees to unintentionally accelerate their carbon release, as global warming produces more droughts and wildfires. This is because increasing the amount of forests can actually have a net warming effect at higher latitudes “because trees greatly increase the amount of shortwave radiation absorbed by the sun and this counteracts the moderating effect. that trees have on CO2 “.

All of this helps explain why, as Lotspeich notes, Trillion Trees is not so much about planting a trillion trees as it is mixing tree planting with the conservation of existing forest areas.


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“Trillion Trees isn’t just about putting a trillion trees in the ground,” Lotspeich observed. “It’s about protecting what’s already there, preventing deforestation, and then adding where it’s possible in the best possible way.”

The best way to tackle climate change, says Trugman, is to focus on stopping new emissions.

“The cheapest and safest way to deal with climate change is to avoid emissions at the source through increased top-down government regulation,” Trugman told Salon. “The longer we delay substantial emissions regulations, the more difficult and costly mitigation and adaptation to climate change becomes.”

Indeed, as University of Utah associate biology professor William Anderegg told Salon via email, scientists aren’t sure whether all the carbon offsetting policy will work.

“The research is still not clear here because when you dig into it, the strategies that often look incredibly cheap on paper actually don’t work to offset carbon emissions,” Anderegg told Salon. “Carbon offsets have a long and heavy history and in the vast majority of studies that have examined them, they don’t seem to work particularly well for a multitude of reasons. They often don’t lead to further emission reductions beyond what would have happened anyway. “Like Trugman, Anderegg says,” It seems pretty clear that offsetting carbon emissions should play a fairly small role. in global climate policy and the vast majority of the fight against climate change must come from direct reductions in fossil fuel emissions ”.

And make no mistake, it is absolutely imperative for the future of the Earth that we reduce carbon emissions. If you imagine the planet as a human patient visiting a doctor, the prognosis is pretty gruesome. As Chris Field explained, it is as if “the planet is under attack every day by deforestation, air and water pollution and climate change. Earth’s basic systems for rejuvenation are mostly in good shape, but we need to stop the daily assaults for them to have a chance to operate.

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