In the wake of the Amazon fires, there’s been increasing contention in the media surrounding whether reforestation is the ultimate solution to climate change. While trees have enormous potential to absorb carbon, scientists say tree planting isn’t the only cure-all, but an important aspect of a much larger puzzle.
As our world hurtles toward the daunting reality of a 1.5 or even 2-degree temperature increase on the planet, solutions like mass tree planting to absorb carbon from the atmosphere are being widely discussed. Positive news, like Ethiopia’s recent efforts to plant a whopping 350 million trees in 12 hours feels like a soothing balm for climate related anxiety. These buoyant stories are welcome amidst natural disaster saturated broadcasts, which just this year reported images of Dante’s inferno roaring through California and The Amazon. But despite the good news of large scale reforestation, some scientists warn we’re not quite ready to take a hearty sigh and call it a blanket solution.
At the climate action summit in September this year, world leaders were asked to increase efforts to cut emissions and explore new solutions to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Reforestation was discussed as a key strategy to absorb CO2, clean the air and support biodiversity, in the context of avoiding past mistakes from poorly executed tree planting programs.
What happens when reforestation is done the wrong way?
Not all reforestation efforts have equal benefit to the environment. To understand how tree planting might go awry, we can reference history to find evidence of the negative financial and ecological implications that occur when trees are planted without a strategy. Look no further than the forests of Nishiawakura, Japan. From afar they look lush, but walking through them is reported to be an eerie experience. The trees are uniform, there’s no undergrowth and the forests are void of birdsong. Since evergreens don’t drop vitamin and mineral rich leaves for the insects to live off, there aren’t many fish in the river and without local residents, it’s a little bit like a show home. This is the result of poorly planned reforestation campaigns, using only one or two species that completely ignore biodiversity.
Despite the advantage of hindsight, reforestation campaigns around the world are still making the same mistakes. To tackle soil erosion and flooding from deforestation during Mao’s rule, China planted 69.2 million acres of abandoned farmland – the large majority of which is a single species that’s non-native to the area. By fulfilling just one intention, a host of important factors were bypassed including maintaining natural ecosystems and planting with biodiversity in mind. Farmers in China have already begun to plant mixed forests after realising that planting monocultures resulted in more diseases and pests, as well as being more vulnerable to marketplace changes.
“There is not much point planting trees if they are going to be eaten by livestock, or burned by wildfire, or cut for fodder within a few years.”
Shifting the focus to preservation and biodiversity
In a study published in the Science Advances, Chazdon argues that focusing on planting tropical rainforests is a better approach. Zeroing in on key restoration areas like Brazil, Madagascar and India is what she calls the “low hanging fruit” of restoration. Several scientists back this idea, including lead author of Science Study, Jean-Francois Bastin who tells Discover Magazine that what we need to aim for is “the restoration of natural ecosystems.”
Forest researcher at Southern Cross University in New South Wales Jerry Vanclay, echoes this idea of holistic reforestation saying, “there is not much point planting trees if they are going to be eaten by livestock, or burned by wildfire, or cut for fodder within a few years. Reforestation should not be seen as “plant and forget” but needs to include on-going management and continual reassessment of objectives.” Unlike Chazon however, Vanclay is not convinced that focusing specifically on planting biodiverse rainforests (otherwise known as ‘Rainforestation’) is a better solution compared to mass tree planting. “Some “rainforestation” recommends planting at 1×1 meter spacing’s, so it needs 10,000 trees/hectare at a considerable cost,” he says. “I’m more interested to find ways that we can plant a few hundred trees per hectare to kick-start natural regeneration, so that the same investment can afforest 20-30 hectares instead of just 1 hectare of rainforestation.”
While Vanclay believes trees are one of the best ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere, he highlights that the first priority should be keeping trees and coal in the ground. “Coal is one of the best ways to store carbon. Left alone, it stores carbon for hundreds of million years – whereas trees store carbon for hundreds of years.” Despite reforestation efforts around the world, satellite images suggest soccer-field-sized areas of rainforest are being cleared every minute.
“Just six countries hold over 50 percent of the world’s tree restoration potential.”
Next in question, is whether we have enough space to viably plant the amount of trees required to balance out our carbon emissions. According to Bastin’s science paper, just six countries (Australia, Canada, Brazil, United States, Russia and China) hold over 50 percent of the world’s tree restoration potential. If all of them are restored, they have the potential to absorb two-thirds of the world’s carbon emissions from the atmosphere, cutting down emissions by 25 percent. Meanwhile, scientists like Zeke Hausfather believe Bastin’s predictions are inaccurate and in actuality, only one-third of carbon emissions will be accounted for. Either way, the majority of scientists agree that reforestation is an important strategy. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Aside from preserving what’s already here, employing biodiverse carbon sinks in the form of marine permaculture, is another solution that’s being discussed. This is a newly developed strategy employed by Project Drawdown that restores the ocean’s ecosystems through planting kelp, which also helps sequester billions of tonnes of carbon and addresses the ocean’s increasing acidity levels. While protecting, restoring and absorbing carbon are three productive approaches, many scientists argue that the most sustainable way to reverse the climate crisis is to address the root of the problem; our unbounded economic growth.
“The systems that cause the degradation of forests and the need for coal, require a massive shift toward a new economic system that puts the natural world first.”
Changing how we consume and produce
Since so much of the damage to our environment was created by economic growth that ignores the finite nature of our resources, we must address the systems that are no longer sustainable and look at the whole picture. Cristiana Paşca Palmer, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity tells Press TV that the fastest way to have a lasting impact on the environment, is to take nature into account with all business dealings. “It’s about finance and trade and changing the model of development.” Stating instead that “we need to put biodiversity and natural capital at the centre of the economic paradigm.” There are many ways already available today that allows us to begin putting biodiversity first. One solution individuals can implement is divesting from companies that have stocks in fossil fuels and choosing to invest in companies that support pro-environmental businesses, like superannuation companies Verve and Australian Ethical Super.
There are many ideas being presented to shift the structure of our economy to become a more sustainable one, one of them being localisation. Championing this solution is a pioneer of Local Futures Helena Norberg-Hodge, who spent 14 years living in Ladakh watching her culture degrade due to a shift from a local to a global economy. Once pristine and peaceful, Ladakh experienced homelessness for the first time, along with unemployment, a polluted environment and friction between communities. These are changes that Helena says “had not existed for the previous 500 years.” In a recent article on Local Futures she states that “the real economy is the natural world, on which we ultimately depend for all of our needs. Only when we embrace a structural shift in the current economy – away from dependence on a corporate-run global marketplace, towards diversified local systems – will we be able to live in a way that reflects this understanding.”
Although planting forests is a powerful natural solution to the climate crisis, trees aren’t a Band-Aid solution. If we continue to emit carbon at our current rate, no amount of reforestation will solve the irreversible cascade effect it will have on our environment. In order to keep carbon emissions at safe levels, the systems that cause the degradation of forests and the need for coal, require a massive shift toward a new economic system that puts the natural world first.