Planting billions of trees could be natural climate solution

Illustration by Kaley McKean

The latest reports on the state of the world’s trees will knock the wind out of your lungs. The planet is losing an area the size of the United Kingdom in forests every year. And tropical deforestation is showing no signs of slowing, despite corporate and government pledges to the contrary.

But since images of wildfires ravaging the Amazon rainforest captured global hearts and minds, efforts to reforest the planet have taken centre stage. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg began urging political leaders in Canada and around the globe to look to tree planting as part of a Natural Climate Solutions campaign to tackle global heating. Adding fuel to the tree-planting fire, a Swiss study published in the journal Science made waves when it concluded that planting 1.2 trillion trees worldwide could absorb and store an astonishing 205 gigatonnes – effectively removing two-thirds of all human-made carbon from the atmosphere, once those trees fully mature.

Keeping a trillion young trees alive all the way to maturity in the face of climate-change-aggravated droughts, wildfires and pests, as well as human pressures, will be an enormous challenge. As well, the Guardian’s George Monbiot (a founder of the Natural Climate Solutions campaign) recently cautioned that “in many places rewilding, or natural regeneration – allowing trees to seed and spread themselves – is much faster and more effective, and tends to produce far richer habitats.”

Regardless, the wave of mass tree-planting pledges has begun. Here’s a sampling of the latest initiatives:

• Ireland plans to plant 22 million trees every year for the next 20 years, totalling 440 million trees.

• New Zealand aims to plant a billion trees by 2028.

• A record-breaking 350 million trees were reportedly planted on a single day in July in Ethiopia, as part of a push to plant four billion trees there by October.

• Pakistan has committed to planting 10 billion trees over the next five to eight years.

• More than 20 African countries are in the midst of planting a Great Green Wall, with plans to reforest 247 million acres of degraded land.

• In Canada, the federal Liberal Party promised, if re-elected, to use revenues from the Trans Mountain Pipeline to pay for two billion trees to be planted.

Not that tree planting should negate efforts to decarbonize the economy, but as Swiss researcher Jean-François Bastin says, “Governments must now factor [tree restoration] into their national strategies.”

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