For years, planting trees has been an attractive prospect for soaking up greenhouse gas emissions that humans emit. Governments pledge to plant billions of trees a year, but is this just a cover up for their lack of effort to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and meet emissions targets like those pledged for the Paris Agreement?
The effortlessness of Government tree planting projects and the volume at which they shout about them should indicate that this single act isn’t going to make up for the billions of tonnes of pollution we produce every year. The UK government’s promise to plant 11 million trees by 2022 can’t all be for nothing though; as well as being a cheap solution, you would expect it to provide some relief to the climate crisis!
Forests are often referred to as carbon sinks, but increasing tree numbers is more complicated than taking the plug out of the atmosphere and watching greenhouse gases swirl away. Trees and other plants take carbon dioxide from the air and use the carbon to make their bark, leaves and other structures. In their lifetime trees can only remove a certain amount of carbon from the air and it has been projected to take about 100 years for a forest to remove ten years worth of human-made emissions!
Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing that planting trees is a long-term solution that needs to be passed from generation to generation and not simply a cheap quick-fix that so many paint it as! Many scientists agree that planting trees should not be our first and only priority; what about the three trillion existing trees in the world?
Deforestation around the world helped to contribute four billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2017. It makes sense that protecting existing trees and the homes they provide for animals and other plants is first on the list of things to do. This is in addition to restoring damaged forests to their former glory. We’re bombarded with scenes from the Amazon rainforest, but deforestation could be taking place closer to home. Globally, ten billion more trees are being cut down than are being planted!
For example, the woodland 30 paces from my house is under threat from a planning application to build more houses and I’ve joined a local group trying to prevent the application being accepted. This doesn’t mean that we should stop campaigning for an end to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, but destruction of woodlands could be going on under your nose and it’s incredibly hypocritical to value planting trees if we can’t even look after those we already have!
Planting and maintaining forests clearly does have it’s advantages for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as well as providing a home for animals and other plants. The process is not as simple as picking a patch of bare land and digging in a host of young trees; below are some ways that have been identified to make sure tree-planting efforts don’t go to waste:
- Cutting down existing forests and replacing them with just one, fast growing tree species cancels out the positive effects that trees have for providing homes beneficial to lots of different plants and animals. A mixed woodland with lots of different tree species can capture over 400 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare!
- Planting more trees in the tropics has greater benefits than planting in colder climates; the trees grow faster and capture more carbon during their lifespan.
- Local communities of poorer countries must be involved in tree planting and conservation projects. This makes sure that preserving the forests in their area economically benefits them and they won’t need to cut down trees to plant crops that bring them more money.
- Trees should only be planted in places that support tree growth; in the past peatlands have been drained to grow tree on, but this releases more carbon dioxide into the air than the new growing trees can remove. Repurposing some types of land to create forests might actually cause warming in those areas as the darker colour of the leaves compared to what was there before absorbs more heat from the sun!
- In cases where forests are planted so that they can be harvested for wood, the products they are used for should have a very long lifespan such as building materials so that the carbon gets locked up for a long period of time.
What I found whilst researching this post is that opinions about the effects of planting trees are very polarised and it really doesn’t have to be that way. There is scientific evidence that can be followed and sceptics should focus their efforts on obtaining that evidence before making a decision. I began this post hoping that planting trees was the cure-all that we’ve been hoping for, but at the same time knowing this was never going to be the case. Tree planting can work to reduce the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, but they should be planted in a way that takes heed of the scientific evidence available, and continue to learn and develop best practices as we go.
Natural climate solutions like tree planting could remove 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere per year, and so they are very worth doing, and worth doing well! We can’t forget that natural solutions must be implemented alongside active efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase usage of renewable energy technology and reduce waste as much as possible.
What assumptions did you have about planting trees before you read this post? Comment below or tweet me with your thoughts!
More information about greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide can be found as an infographic.
I hope this post has helped to dispel some myths about tree planting and give you some hope that it could work, but don’t just take my word for it. Below are some of the articles that I used to research what you’ve just read.
- Q&A: Is planting trees the answer to climate change? – Imperial College London
- How trees fight climate change – Woodland trust
- Planting trees doesn’t always help with climate change – BBC Futures
- Examining the Viability of Planting Trees to Help Mitigate Climate Change – NASA
- What role can forests play in tackling climate change? – Imperial College London