Trees are the next big thing everyone seems to be talking about. But could planting a load of them really save the world?
One study released in 2019 referenced trees planting as “the most effective climate change solution to date.” However, this has been widely discredited by scientists and we’ll look at why in this post.
The truth is, the climate catastrophe we are experiencing is extremely complex; and so, the solution that will help us reach a sustainable life (net zero emissions) is likely to be of equal complexity.
Join me today as we take a deep dive into the effectiveness of trees for combating climate change, why some people don’t see it as the “most effective” solution and what the best practices are for ensuring this solution’s potential is maximised.
What are the benefits of tree planting?
Trees are magical.
They protect naturally formed ecosystems by providing food, protection and homes for many birds and mammals, raising the biodiversity on our planet as a result.
They are a fantastic form of natural carbon capture and as a result have been looked upon as a potential solution to climate change. Often described as being able to ‘breathe’, they draw carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air through the process of photosynthesis, then release oxygen (and some CO2) back into the atmosphere.
In sum, they produce some of the oxygen we breathe, making them essential for life, and are a proven way of reducing the carbon levels in our atmosphere.
All sounds great so far, right?
But, could trees really save the world?
The simple answer to this question is no. Not alone.
Trees are a superb medium for reducing the carbon we’ve already put into the atmosphere, and if they were planted correctly, then, in theory they could help us reach net zero emissions.
The problem though, is that if we simply planted trillions of trees, we’d be successful in withdrawing some of the carbon from our atmosphere, however, we wouldn’t reduce the ongoing emissions being produced by our industrial sectors.
It’s kinda like trying to turn a toxic lake into drinking water by pulling all the toxins out, without even stopping the flow of waste being dumped into the lake in the first place.
You might make the water a little cleaner, but in the long-run you won’t have solved the problem.
Consequently, if we solely planted trees we wouldn’t reach the UN’s goal of net zero by 2050 – which is what we need to do to “save the world” and prevent a 6th mass extinction.
If we did so, we would only slow the process.
What needs to be implemented, as outlined in this post, is a mixture of political, economic, technological and social solutions for breaking our reliance on the use of fossil fuels. With a heavy focus on reducing the emissions from our energy sectors, which account for 73.2% of global emissions.
Can trees really help then?
Although tree planting cannot tackle our carbon problem single-handedly, there is something it could be very useful for.
Buying us time.
According to a study, planting 1.2 trillion trees could cancel out a decade’s worth of global CO2 emissions.
As we only have thirty years to reach net zero if we are to avoid what the UN calls “catastrophic warming”, a little extra time is very much needed.
Consider what we’ve got to achieve in this time…
We’ve got to create a whole host of new technologies to help us shift away from our reliance on burning fossil fuels for our power.
And the truth is that many of the technologies haven’t even been fully invented yet, look at the UK’s 10 point climate plan, half of it relies on technologies they plan to develop in the coming years.
If we’re honest, the amount of change and innovation that needs to happen in the next 30 years if we are to reach net zero seems practically impossible. Individuals, businesses and governments are too entrenched in their business practices and too dependent on the polluting technologies we’ve created to change all this in such a short space of time.
Based on this, we see tree planting as an awesome option for slowing down the warming of our planet.
Because trees are a proven form of carbon capture, that already exist and can feasibly be used on a mass scale.
So, our question is: why rest the fate of the future of all of humanity on technologies that are yet to be invented?
Especially when we’ve got a solution that we know will buy us time, if executed correctly.
This final point is an incredibly important consideration when it comes to tree planting, and although many have credited the one trillion tree study, many have also raised the point that the trees must be planted in a sustainable and effective manner if they are going to buy us this time.
Considerations for sustainable tree planting
Many people seem to think that if we just plant billions of trees then we can solve the climate crisis. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
The truth is that tree planting is a fine art. In order for it to be done in a sustainable way, it requires continuous attention and orderly planning.
Here are a few considerations that, if missed, would dramatically reduce our ability to make mass tree planting a viable solution:
Trees grow very slowly and it’s not enough to simply plant them, leave and never return.
When they are saplings they are vulnerable to a whole host of threats, from storms and droughts, to pests and diseases. As a result, on average around a quarter of these young trees will never make it into adulthood.
Thus, all trees planting projects will need to take this into account when planning for reaching their targets.
Trees do not intake significant volumes of carbon until they are 20-30 years old. And once they reach this age, some of the trees in the forest will need “thinning” to make space for others to grow.
Planting initiatives will also have to take this into account in relation to targets.
Using the Timber
When trees are cut down for timber, if the wood isn’t used and is left to rot, then the carbon stored within will be released back into the atmosphere.
In contrast, if it is put to good use – in buildings, for example – then carbon will be locked up and stored within the wood for a lot longer.
This shows how we need to pay special attention to the trees we do cut down, making sure they are put to good use.
Finally, if tree planting is to truly make a difference, then we need to stop cutting down so many of the trees we’ve already got.
Currently, it’s estimated that 15% of global emissions result from deforestation.
In fact, 500 trees are cut down every second.
If we have a hope of making tree planting a climate solution, we first need to drastically reduce the amount we are cutting them down already.
(Learn more about what drives deforestation here.)
So, the key to sustainable and effective tree planting is to carefully manage and plan our initiatives.
As stated above, it’s not enough to simply plant them and walk away. Time needs to be spent cultivating and nurturing the forests so we maximise their carbon intake and ensure they do their job of lowering the CO2 count in the atmosphere.
This is something everyone involved with tree planting initiatives should consider, if we want to continue to utilise this natural form of carbon capture in our fight against climate change.
Check out this BBC article for more info on the best practices for tree planting.
Trees are magical.
They offer so many benefits to us and our wildlife, meaning we should protect them regardless of the condition of our climates.
In relation to reaching net zero emissions, they could certainly be part of the solution, however they must be accompanied by other carbon reduction projects and initiatives.
The greatest benefit tree planting can bring to us now is giving us more time before we reach the climate catastrophe predicted by the UN.
If we want to use them in this way then we need to carefully manage our tree planting initiatives and look for the more efficient ways of using this natural carbon capture solution. For instance, trees planted nearer to the equator are especially beneficial as they grow much faster in the warm, wet and humid conditions.
(This is where we plant our trees, check out this post to learn more)
The more research is done into the more effective ways of using these incredible beings, the more we can move towards a life in balance with nature.
I’d personally like to see more natural climate solutions in our future climate plans.