Does planting new trees help to slow climate change?
Increasingly, businesses and governments are promoting tree-planting campaigns as the answer to slowing climate change. While some of these campaigns are well-intentioned, others—especially those touted by big industry—are deceptive, a PR stunt aimed to distract from the irreparable damage their business practices daily inflict on the health of the planet and those who inhabit it.
Planting trees won’t change the climate picture over the next 10-30 years.
Well-intentioned or not, what’s true of all of these tree-planting campaigns is that they lack the power to meaningfully move the needle away from climate catastrophe. Doing that requires leaving existing forests in the ground, not planting new ones.
Afforestation and Reforestation are not the urgent solutions we need to fight climate change.
Afforestation—planting trees in places where they never existed before—and Reforestation—replanting trees in places that were previously clearcut—are strategies that have been put forth as solutions to help balance the carbon cycle. Trees, after all, are one of the most efficient means of removing carbon from the atmosphere on earth, removing over 30% of fossil fuel emissions in the period between 2009 and 2018. The problem is that trees take time to reach maturity, and it is only in their maturity that trees really begin to sequester carbon efficiently.
Globally, more than 40% of the above ground carbon (AGC) stored in the world’s forests is stored in the largest 3% of trees. A large diameter tree can store more carbon in a single year than a young tree can in twenty. For this reason, trees planted now would through Afforestation and Reforestation efforts would take decades to reach the size necessary for them to sequester carbon in any significant quantities. The solution? Proforestation: policies that allow existing forests to grow intact to their full ecological potential.
We have to preserve existing forests, which are the planet’s strongest lines of natural defense against an overheated planet.
During the critical next decades in the fight against climate change, it is preserving existing forests—and the large diameter, centuries-old trees that form their backbone—not replanting new ones—that offers an immediate, low-cost, nature-based solution, enhancing biodiversity, water and air quality in the process.