Looking for a simple way to help the world around you? Plant a tree. Or, if you have the space, plant as many as you can. Reforestation could be the solution to the climate crisis we’ve been looking for all along.
Although it is hard to see the effectiveness of such projects on a small scale, some countries are beginning to take this approach very seriously. Recent research from Dr Thomas Crowther and his team in Zurich suggests that a massive tree-planting initiative may be significantly more beneficial than it has been assumed in supporting biodiversity and combating climate chaos.
While it is important and necessary to curb deforestation, added emphasis needs to be directed to planting and cultivating; and not only in areas that have been stripped down (reforestation), but in new and dedicated spaces too (afforestation).
A major drive to re-introduce our deciduous and coniferous friends to parks, unused farming areas, and abandoned lands could cancel out years of emissions and provide sanctuaries for rebuilding biodiversity.
Dr. Crowther and his colleagues estimate that we can cultivate over a trillion trees in accessible areas, a figure they reached using a combination of survey datasets, satellite information, and artificial intelligence. This builds on a previous study from Crowther, in association with the Yale School of Forestry, which used similar techniques to determine that the number of trees living on the planet right now is estimated at three billion; adding one-third of this again, therefore, is the goal.
Unpredictably, our planet actually has more foliage than it did twenty years ago. India, one of the fastest developing countries in the world, as well as the super nation of China, are the world leaders in re-greening, accounting for the majority of the increase in green leaf area over the past two decades. While much of this comes from conservation and green expansion campaigns, a large percentage is also attributed to an explosion of food cultivation, signalling population increases. However, India’s massive population has actually been a positive enabler in this climate battle – on July 02nd, 2017, the country planted a record-breaking 66 million trees in 12 hours.
While growing forests seems like an intuitive idea to fight climate chaos, it has resided way down the list of various emission-cutting techniques for years. Crowther points towards Project Drawdown – a large collaboration designed to award rankings to climate solutions – as being somewhat naive of the implications of re- and afforestation; at the scale he is suggesting, the expansion of woodlands could dominate the solutions table.
Nations and communities are catching on. The government of Australia is preparing a 30-year planting spree which they hope will add a billion trees to their country, which, in addition to culling millions of tonnes of emissions, will boost the economy with a swathe of jobs. In Northern Italy, Milan intends to plant 3 million trees in the greater city area, which should also reduce the sweltering city temperatures of summer as well as reduce air pollution.
Last December’s UN Climate Conference in Poland gave the Polish community a chance to vocalise their support of tree planting. The Environmental Minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, urged all nations to take concrete steps towards afforestation, and Poland has its own Carbon Forest Projects (although the country also has a disreputable recent history of logging).
The forestation plan is not without its liabilities and critics. For a start, it needs to happen soon and on a massive scale; all countries need to survey and account for any applicable land they have, and start planting immediately. In order to get these forested areas going, they may need large quantities of fertiliser (which add more emissions) and water. The size of the endeavour is difficult to grasp; one IPCC report says that to limit temperature rise, an area the size of China needs to be afforested. This problem is compounded by the regularity of devastating forest fires attributed to global warming, although one U.S. company is using drones to safely and quickly replant after the fires have passed, and Australia are doing the same.
There’s work to be done. The United Nations has launched the Trillion Tree Campaign, along with a companion app, in order to bring attention to tree-planting initiatives globally. Currently, they have accounted for 14.8 billion trees. Additionally, there is the Bonn Challenge, an international campaign to recreate degraded and deforested landscapes, which has a pledge of 170 million rescued hectares and a commitment to 350 million by 2030.
Planting trees is effectively win-win. As gigantic carbon sinks, vast woodlands can turn back the tide of global warming. More trees also lead to healthier environments, better air, and stronger eco-systems.