Does planting trees actually fight climate change?
As the world races to stop climate change, trees are receiving more attention for the role they play in cooling the climate – and for good reason! Trees absorb and store massive amounts of carbon, and unlike other carbon removal methods they don’t require expensive technology. Research indicates that natural climate solutions, such as forest conservation and restoration, can provide over one-third of the climate mitigation needed in the next decade to meet the Paris Agreement targets.
In recent years, a number of tree planting programs were launched. Some of these programs aim to plant millions or even trillions of trees! Many businesses have gotten on board with the trend, launching campaigns to “plant a tree for every product sold.”
But as tree planting becomes more popular, there’s growing skepticism about whether or not it’s actually effective. With climate change accelerating, how much should we rely on tree planting to save us? Is planting trees the best way to fight climate change or are we focusing on the wrong solution?
This blog addresses all of these questions and a lot more!
Which is better: planting new trees or protecting existing forests?
One of the main concerns about tree planting is that it distracts us from addressing the underlying problem: the carbon emissions that are causing climate change. This is a valid concern, and tree planting should never be treated as a fix-all solution or substitute for reducing emissions. Instead, governments, businesses, and individuals should take a holistic approach to addressing climate change.
At Sustainable Travel International we believe this begins first and foremost with reducing carbon emissions. There are a number of ways that we can accomplish this. The first, and most significant, is by decreasing our consumption of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, and coal. We can do this by adopting low carbon practices and supporting the expansion of clean energy infrastructure.
Another way that we can reduce emissions is by preventing the destruction of existing forests. While planting trees, or forest restoration, can and should be part of the solution as well, our stance is that safeguarding existing forests should be the #1 priority. Here’s why:
Forests are storing a lot of carbon right now.
Trees are natural carbon sinks. As they grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air. This carbon gets stored in their leaves, branches, trunks, and roots. The amount of carbon that is stored in a tree directly corresponds to its size. On average, carbon makes up half of a tree’s dry weight. So the larger the tree, the more carbon it’s holding.
Sadly, the world’s forests are actively being destroyed at an alarming rate. When trees die, they don’t just lose their ability to absorb more carbon – they also release much of the carbon they were storing back into the atmosphere. In 2020, more than 10 million acres of undisturbed tropical forest was lost. This forest loss emitted the same amount of carbon as 570 million cars do in an entire year!
Planting a new forest won’t immediately restore what was lost. It could take decades, or even centuries, for the young trees to sequester the amount of carbon that the old ones were storing. And that’s if they survive.
Research shows that preventing the loss of one hectare of existing, mature forest typically avoids about 100 tons of carbon emissions. On the other hand, one hectare of restored forest sequesters around 3 metric tons of carbon each year. That means it would take at least 30 years for the new forest to capture the same amount of carbon that was stored in the old forest.
With the window to avoid climate catastrophe closing, we simply don’t have that much time.
Forests house immense, irreplaceable biodiversity.
Our world’s forests aren’t just full of carbon. They’re also complex ecosystems that are abounding with biodiversity.
From jaguars to orangutans to giant pandas, forests are home to approximately 80% of the world’s land-based plant and animal species. So when a forest is destroyed, it can also wipe out the incredible wildlife that live there.
While old trees are strong and resilient, young trees are weaker and more vulnerable to stressors such as fires and drought. In healthy forests, older trees nurture younger trees by sharing water and nutrients via underground fungus networks. But on their own, young trees often don’t survive.
Some forests are home to endangered species that are found nowhere else in the world. When a species goes extinct, there’s no bringing it back – no matter how many new forests we grow.
Protecting forests also benefits people.
Around the world, a staggering 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods.
Forests provide food, fuel, housing materials, medicine, and other important resources. When forests are destroyed, these resources are lost too.
Small, young trees aren’t able to provide all of the resources that communities depend on. For instance, it can take years before a tree begins producing fruits or nuts.
Are you seeing a common theme?
In case you haven’t noticed, natural forests are remarkable and irreplaceable ecosystems. That’s why it’s best to keep them standing and prevent them from being destroyed in the first place.
But this doesn’t mean that we should completely disregard forest restoration as a climate solution. Tree planting can be another powerful weapon in the fight against climate change, but only when it’s done right.
How to choose a tree planting organization
Not all tree planting projects are created equal. This is because reforestation is a lot more complicated than finding an open plot of land and planting a ton of trees. Planting trees must be done with care, otherwise it can create more problems that it addresses.
Before choosing a tree planting program, keep these five things in mind:
1. Does the project focus on the health of the whole ecosystem?
While combating climate change may be the foremost goal of a tree planting project, this shouldn’t come at the expense of the local ecosystem. Projects should focus on more than carbon sequestration to ensure they don’t cause harm to biodiversity, water supplies, and other parts of the ecosystem.
In general, it’s best to restore areas where a forest previously existed. Avoid projects that convert other types of ecosystems, such as grasslands or wetlands, to forest. While you might think you’re doing good for the planet, when trees are planted where they don’t belong it can have the opposite effect, exacerbating climate change and wreaking havoc on local ecosystems.
The types of trees that are being planted matters too. Projects should prioritize native species that are well-adapted to the local climate and ecosystem. Planting the wrong type of tree can actually cause more harm than good. For instance, non-native species may struggle to grow, become invasive, or deplete local water supplies.
It’s also beneficial to plant a mix of different species rather than just one type of tree. Diverse forests provide a richer wildlife habitat. Single-species plantations, on the other hand, do little for biodiversity conservation and are far more susceptible to drought, pests, and disease.
2. What will happen to the trees after they are planted?
Reforestation is not as simple as planting a thousand seedlings and leaving. On the contrary, it is an ongoing process that requires conscious management. Young trees must be cared for after they are planted to ensure their survival. Without proper after-care, the seedlings’ survival rate may be very low.
Instead of focusing on the number of trees planted, projects should focus on the number of trees grown. In other words, how many seedlings actually survived and grew into trees?
Once the trees are mature, the project is making good progress. But it’s not at the finish line quite yet. What will happen to the trees 10 or 20 years down the line? Will they be cut down? Or will they still be standing?
Make sure the goal of the project is to establish a permanent forest ecosystem, not to grow a temporary plantation that will be cut down. Once the forest is grown, it should be responsibly managed to ensure it delivers benefits for people, wildlife, and the environment. In certain cases, this may include timber harvesting, so long as it’s carried out in a sustainable manner that ensures the continued health of the ecosystem.
3. Is the project addressing the root cause of deforestation?
Even if a project has good intentions, there could be external factors that put the restored forest at risk.
Many tree planting projects are located in regions where deforestation is actively taking place. The main reasons that forests are destroyed include:
- growing crops and grazing livestock
- urban development, such as roads, houses, and other infrastructure
- extracting resources such as timber, minerals, and coal
If the main drivers of deforestation aren’t addressed, the forest will likely be destroyed once the project is over. Alternatively, the project could cause the loss of another forest.
Take for instance a project that is planting trees on degraded farmland. Though this may sound like a great idea, it could push farmers to clear more forests if they still need space to grow their crops.
To ensure lasting change, projects must transform the behaviors, policies, and mindsets that are driving forest loss. This could include teaching farmers to use more productive growing practices that require less land. It could also include securing the land rights of indigenous peoples who act as caretakers of the land.
4. Are local communities involved in the project?
For a tree planting project to succeed, it must have the support and participation of local people. Unfortunately many conservation projects don’t align with community interests and needs. The worst offenders may even displace communities from their lands. This can lead to conflict and disastrous consequences.
Look for initiatives that actively engage local people at all stages of the project life-cycle, from planning to implementation to monitoring. Also consider what social and economic benefits the project is creating. Local communities will be far more likely to look after a forest if they can see how it is improving their lives as a result.
5. Is the project third-party verified?
Vetting tree planting projects on your own can be next to impossible. Thankfully, there are rigorous standards that take care of this for you. These standards verify that projects are carefully planned and managed to address risks and ensure project success. This includes making sure that projects…
- are scientifically-proven to create permanent emissions reductions that won’t be reversed
- do no harm to local ecosystems by identifying and preventing any negative environmental impacts
- have the support and participation of local communities
- are monitored and verified on an ongoing basis
Before you support a project, check to see if it adheres to one of these third-party standards!
How carbon offsets protect and restore forests
One way that you can support forestry projects is by purchasing carbon offsets. When you buy carbon offsets, you fund projects that remove CO2 from the air or prevent future emissions from happening. Because trees sequester CO2, many carbon offset projects focus on protecting or restoring our world’s forests.
As we explained above, we believe that reducing carbon emissions should be the top priority. That’s why the majority of our carbon offset projects protect existing forests from deforestation or produce clean energy. But since we know that regenerating destroyed or degraded forests is important too, many of our conservation projects also include a restoration component.
Read on to learn about three of our carbon offset projects that are promoting healthy forest ecosystems. How they go about this varies from one project to the next as their approaches are informed by the local situation. However, one thing that all of our projects share in common is that they meet the above criteria and have been verified by one of the international standards.
Maisa REDD+ | Brazil
This project is safeguarding a large swath of rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon. This area is threatened by deforestation due to an ongoing cycle of illegal logging and agricultural expansion in the surrounding region.
The project aims to curb these harmful activities by engaging communities in alternative economic activities, such as acai berry harvesting. Because these new income-generating activities rely on healthy forests, it incentivizes communities to conserve them. The project is also avoiding forest loss by promoting more sustainable farming practices that reduce the need for slash-and-burn methods and utilizing satellite surveillance to spot possible deforestation.
Green Trees | USA
The Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley was once covered by 22 million acres of dense hardwood forests. Today, less than 20% of the original forest remains.
The Green Trees project is reforesting one million acres of farmland in the valley by incentivizing farmers to plant and protect native tree species. The project also supports sustainable tree harvesting, which creates additional income for local communities. In addition to storing carbon, the revitalized forest will provide a habitat for migratory birds and prevent pollution from entering the Mississippi River.
Yaeda Valley REDD | Tanzania
This project is helping the Hadza people, an indigenous community in Tanzania, protect their forested land from encroachers. As a hunter-gatherer society, the Hadza rely on the earth’s bounty for their survival. Unfortunately, much of the Hadza’s ancestral land has been cleared and converted into cropland by farmers.
This project prevents further deforestation of the Hadza’s land by strengthening their land rights, enforcing the village land use plan, and training farmers on improved agricultural techniques that reduce the need to migrate to new land.
These are just three examples of the types of forestry projects that our carbon offset program supports. If you want to read about our other carbon offset projects, you can do so here.
And if you’re interested in buying carbon offsets, you can get started by calculating your carbon footprint here! Or, if you’d like to learn more about offsetting carbon for a business, drop us a line here.