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I planted more than a million trees with my own hands and it didn’t really help the climate.

One of the most powerful ideas of our time is that people can put things right in the world by protecting and restoring Earth’s natural systems, including planting billions of trees to reverse climate breakdown. I believe deeply in this vision – I’ve devoted my life to it by co-founding Community Forests International – and this is exactly why I’m so critical now.

A pivotal study titled Natural Climate Solutions describes how combining deep fossil-fuel reductions with equally ambitious ecosystem-restoration efforts globally gives us a solid chance of keeping heating below the Paris limit. There is still hope in the 11th hour, even as the UN warns we have only 127 months left to make this happen. Planting trees is the most popular natural climate solution right now and is rapidly gaining investment from businesses and governments around the world.

The Liberal Party of Canada has pledged $2 billion to plant two billion trees over the next 10 years, which equates to reforesting a million hectares of land. To put this in perspective, that’s only 0.25% of the country’s total forest area. It’s a start, but it’s an underwhelming target for a nation with such immense natural landscapes and a capacity to deploy natural climate solutions at a globally significant scale – especially considering that we’re talking about our best response to the sixth mass extinction event in roughly the last 443 million years, this one caused by people.

In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia alone, more than 100,000 hectares of forest are clear-cut every year. All two billion trees could be planted within these two small provinces and it wouldn’t keep pace with the cutting. What’s more, replanting a hectare of land for every hectare of forest cleared is not equivalent, because it takes upwards of 100 years of ongoing protection and restoration to successfully rebuild a healthy forest. Tree planting is often treated as the final act of restoration, but putting a seedling in the ground is just the first step.

Crowther Lab, an ecosystem research group whose work inspired the recent surge in tree-planting ventures, estimates that Canada could be planting 20 times more than the present target. Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, announced at the World Economic Forum that his 1t.org initiative will plant between 50 and 100 billion trees in the United States and one trillion trees globally by 2030. Crowther Lab’s research suggests that achieving the trillion-tree target would store about two thirds of all the carbon emissions produced since the Industrial Revolution. This is the level of ambition we need – something for the next generations to remember us by – but even so, all these targets are misplaced.

Several scientists have pointed out flaws in the Crowther Lab model, including recommendations to plant trees in areas where they don’t grow naturally or where they might even heat the planet rather than cool it. But the most critical point missed in all this is that planting more trees doesn’t always grow more forests – and it’s entire forest ecosystems that store the lion’s share of carbon, not just trees. For example, an average of 70% of the carbon stored in healthy forests is actually stored in soil.

 

Planting more trees doesn’t always grow more forests –

 it’s entire forest ecosystems that store the lion’s share of carbon.

 

The Canadian government will pursue a 50% cost-share to deliver its program, aiming to raise $4 billion overall to plant two billion trees – a $2 per tree budget. That $2 must go a long way. It has to cover the costs of growing a seedling, which takes at least two years of professional care. Then there’s readying a planting site, and in the best models this includes securing legal land title or some comparable land covenant to ensure the trees won’t get cut down. Then comes transportation and caring for planting stock and, of course, the actual planting. Volunteers can help, but most of them tire after their first thousand trees (and often plant those incorrectly, I’m afraid, resulting in low survival rates, like the 90% mortality reported in Turkey’s recent 11-million-tree mass planting effort).

A professional tree-planter plants around 2,000 trees per day and 100,000 per season on average, although the intensity of the terrain and length of the planting seasons vary widely across Canada. This checks out with the Liberals’ estimation that the program will support 3,500 seasonal jobs. These are extremely demanding jobs though, and out of the $2 per tree workers themselves will likely receive only 15 to 20 cents, or $15,000 to $20,000 gross per season.

To make ends meet the rest of the year, tree-planters often work temporary service-industry jobs, and the unfolding COVID-19 crisis now puts them in even more precarious employment. Anyone who has worked in a tree-planting camp can tell you how tenuous occupational health is, too, when all the workers live in tents, drink chlorinated lake water and perform like professional athletes every day – without so much as duct tape to protect raw hands, or sometime faces when the blackflies are especially bad. It raises the question of who will actually bear the costs of achieving these targets. Restoring Earth’s ecosystems is among the most important work on the planet right now, and the two-billion-tree program could go a lot further to acknowledge and remunerate the worth of these jobs.

Canada could reach for a much higher goal than two billion trees over 10 years. The country’s forestry industry already plants more than 600 million trees per year – three times more than the output the government is targeting. If Canada responded to climate breakdown like the emergency it is and invested proportionally, the country could undoubtedly plant an additional 10 billion trees. Simply scaling up existing models will not bring about a transition to a fair, climate-smart economy though. We need entirely new models. Besides, the opportunity cost of doubling down on this tree-planting pathway is potentially much higher than any cash outlay we can imagine.

Tree planting is charismatic and when done effectively is definitely beneficial. Its broad appeal is invaluable, considering how politics have hindered climate action ever since the first international climate treaty in 1992. In this crisis, the pace of our response is critical; the impacts of a changing climate accelerate over time and if left unchecked will outpace our ability to respond altogether. Planting more trees is being presented as a low-cost pathway out of the emergency, but it isn’t fast and it isn’t adequate on its own.

A recent analysis from the Smart Prosperity Institute estimated that Canada’s two billion trees would deliver carbon sequestration at a rate of $20 per tonne, well below the $50 per tonne cost-feasibility threshold. The impact is achieved over the lifetime of the trees though, not immediately, because it takes decades for a tiny seedling to grow up and have a positive effect on the climate. Planting trees is always an investment in the future, and today it’s an invaluable investment in the future of our climate, but if we don’t match this with immediate emission cuts we’ll lose by winning slowly.

Prime Minister Trudeau stated that Canada will finance the two-billion-tree program with revenues from the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a major piece of oil-and-gas infrastructure the government purchased from Kinder Morgan in 2018. This illustrates a fundamental and often overlooked point: investments in natural climate solutions stand a chance of working only if they’re paired with sweeping reductions in fossil fuel extraction. We can’t do one without the other and expect anything but failure. The climate responds to physics, not spin.

Canada’s vast forests could be protected and restored as some of the planet’s greatest climate safeguards, holding enough carbon to help save the world. But that’s not the path we’re on. With intensive harvesting and natural disturbances worsened by climate change, Canada’s forests presently emit more carbon than they absorb. When trees are cut down or burned, they release emissions back into the atmosphere. That’s why the million trees I planted didn’t really help the climate: I planted them on industrial forestlands across Canada, lands destined to be clear-cut again on short rotation.

To make tree planting count for the climate, we have to focus on natural forest regeneration and durable improvements to ecosystems, using proven strategies like legal rights to Indigenous and other collective communities that do a better job of keeping forests intact over the long term – that’s what the science supports. And Canada can go so much further than planting two billion trees. The other 99.75% of the country’s immense forests, including industrial forests, could be transitioned to climate-smart management optimized for carbon drawdown. Transferring land back to First Nations with ongoing reparations to support forest protection could move us closer to socially just solutions.

Protecting existing forests in all these ways, unlike planting new trees, would have an immediate impact on the climate. This is Canada’s real opportunity to deliver natural climate solutions at a historic scale and speed.

Reducing a complex problem into a simple solution, like reducing a complex forest ecosystem into a simple number of trees, is an effective way to gain mass appeal but disappoints when it comes to delivering real results. We’re literally at risk of losing sight of the forest for the trees here – and the trees are good. They’re just not enough. If we’re betting on natural climate solutions to secure a liveable future, we really need to get this right.

 

How to move the federal Two Billion Tree program forward:

5 steps the federal government can take right now

1) It takes advance time and investment to prepare for tree-planting efforts and to grow the necessary seedings. Tree nurseries will need to start seeds now to have planting stock in two years’ time. By issuing the RFPs now (even with just approximate estimates of seedling allocations per Province and Territory), the federal government would provide both nurseries and tree-planting organizations across the country with some security around which to plan and make necessary preparations. This is particularly critical and potentially valuable right now given the larger context of economic uncertainty created by the COVID19 pandemic.

2) Look to existing processes such as the Pathway to Canada Target 1 Challenge to accelerate the Two Billion Tree Program and achieve durable forest restoration and protection outcomes.
The federal government’s Canada Target 1 funding programs are already structured to support the widespread protection of ecologically-sensitive land via land trusts, Indigenous organizations, and Provincial and Territorial governments. These programs could now be expanded and adapted to include degraded lands in need of restoration, through which the Two Billion Tree Program restoration efforts could flow in an accelerated way that also ensures restored forests are protected over the long-term.

3) Focus particularly on the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA) process already underway under Canada Target 1 to inject funds for restoration into the land-back movement.
The IPCA program focuses on protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems; several IPCAs are currently already underway under Canada Target 1. Considering that a lot of the land available to Indigenous communities is in need of restoration, the IPCA program in particular should be expanded to receive Two Billion Tree Program support for securing, replanting, and stewarding degraded lands by Indigenous communities and organizations.

4) Send clear statements against industrial exploitation, and then take clear steps to establish those safeguards.
These Two Billion Tree Program must be additional to the status quo planting that is done yearly by the forest industry – i.e., the two billion trees must be protected from future harvesting so that they can continue to grow, sequester carbon, and mitigate climate change. The Two Billion Tree Program will need to build and support long-term protections for these newly reforested lands, and this will be especially important after the honeymoon phase of the initiative has passed (and the public eye is no longer directly tuned to it).

5) Commit now to additional support for long-term stewardship of the planted trees and reforested lands.
Planting trees is only the first step in the very long process of forest restoration. The 2 billion trees and 2.5 million acres of replanted land will need ongoing care to ensure successful seedling establishment and durable results. The Two billion Tree Program will need to be expanded to include support for long-term stewardship of the newly planted forests, including support for adaptive management as unpredictable impacts of changing climate place additional stresses on our forest ecosystems.

Daimen Hardie is co-founder of Community Forests International

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