Can Planting Billions Of Trees Halt Climate Change?

The world is burning. In California alone, some 3 million
acres have burned since 2017. Since the beginning of 2019, there have
been more than 121,000 fires in Brazil, and more than half of those
have been in the Amazon rainforest. These fires cost the planet trees,
which help fight climate change. The 2018 wildfire season in California
is estimated to have released about 68 million tons of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s roughly fifteen percent of
all emissions in California. In short, one of the world’s best
defenses against climate change is being destroyed at an alarming rate. A recent study from the Swiss
Federal Institute for Technology, ETH Zurich, says reforestation of forested lands
at a global scale could help capture atmospheric carbon and
mitigate climate change. According to the study, 0.9 billion hectares of land worldwide are
available to be reforested and one hectare is the equivalent of 2.47 acres. In short, 0.9 billion hectares is an area the
size of the United States. It’s enough space to plant more than
one trillion trees, and the resulting carbon capture, according to the study,
would be more than 200 gigatons. That’s about 32 percent of human
carbon emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In fact, after the study was
first published, articles appeared with headlines like ‘Tree planting has
mindblowing potential to tackle climate change’. Simply put, trees
capture carbon dioxide. “My first reaction was, wow,
wouldn’t that be wonderful? And actually, in a way, goes back
to some earlier studies that show that, you know, there are probably less than
half the trees growing in the world right now than we’re growing, say,
after the Ice Age retreated.” Bill Moomaw is professor emeritus
of international environmental policy at Tufts University. He spent 20 years of his
career looking at technological solutions to climate change. A forest of 50-year-old
oak trees, for example, would absorb or sequester about 30000
pounds of CO2 per acre. You’ve probably heard of
the greenhouse effect. It’s what happens when heat radiating
from earth gets trapped in the atmosphere. “This isn’t something that we’re
going to be seeing in the distant future. Climate
change is happening. Humans are responsible for climate change
and CO2 emissions that are causing climate change to happen, along
with emissions of methane from agriculture and oil
and gas activities. To some extent, emissions of nitrous
oxide gases that come from agricultural practices primarily. Certain gases exacerbate the problem,
such as methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons and of
course, carbon dioxide. Moomaw maintains that while planting trees
is one part of the solution, that alone won’t stop climate change. “We should simultaneously reduce our emissions
as much as possible, as rapidly as possible. That means that the energy sector
and the industrial sector into agriculture and everything
you can imagine.” NASA has several initiatives to
track climate change or carbon sequestration, the process of absorbing and
storing carbon over a long period of time. For example,
the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation mission is a laser based on
the International Space Station, one that measures canopy height and forest
structure around the world. And there’s also ICEsat, which measures
the elevation of ice surfaces. And there’s Landsat, which monitors
where deforestation or regrowth is happening. While the evidence for climate
change seems clear, there’s no consensus for how to deal with it. Some have argued for carbon taxes, which
would tax fossil fuels as a means of reducing emissions. Others have suggested a complete
overhaul in agricultural and livestock practices. But planting trees is something
almost everyone can agree is beneficial to the planet. But would it really
help fight climate change? That part is far more controversial. While the ETH Zurich study
says there are 0.9 billion hectares of land available for
planting, there is little chance all of it will ever
be used for that purpose. Much of the available land is
on private property, so private landowners would have to be convinced to do the
planting and a great deal of that land is used for farming and grazing
or beef cattle and dairy cows. Reforestation also requires
careful planning. For example, too many trees in
northern forests and warming could be exacerbated. That’s because too many trees
block winter snows in winter snows reflect sunlight. At the same time, trees absorb
the heat without redirecting it. And that can create
a local warming effect. “Let’s make sure we plant
them in the right way. Let’s make some decisions about which
species we’re going to plant. Let’s not plant. Let’s let’s focus
on on native species rather than bringing in other species.” The Amazon rainforest is enormous. It covers more than 2 million square
miles, including a large chunk of northwestern Brazil and extends to
Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, French
Guiana and Suriname. Since January, more than 121,000 fires
have ravaged Brazil, with more than half of those burning in
the country’s Amazon rainforest. Many of them were set as a
result of slash and burn agriculture. Farmers burned the land to create
space for crops and grazing. And it could get worse,
especially under current President Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive land
use policies. The country lost 53.8 million hectares of tree cover
from 2001 to 2018. That’s a 10 percent
decrease since 2000. And deforestation is harmful
in another way. When a tree is cut down, it
releases captured CO2 back into the atmosphere. NASA estimates between 15 and
20 percent of carbon emissions each year come from deforestation. Much of the deforested lands in Brazil
was planted over with soybeans or used for cattle grazing. About 80 percent of Amazon’s deforestation
is due to cattle ranching. In fact, Brazil is now among the
world’s biggest soy and beef exporters. Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro, who was a
climate change skeptic, is not inclined to stop
deforestation anytime soon. Since he took office, his
administration has cut Brazil’s Environmental Protection Agency budget
by 24 percent. He’s fired the director of the
National Institute for Space Research, the agency that tracks rainforest activity, and
he’s eliminated a number of fines for environmental damage. Still, earlier this year, Bolton
R-OH told the U.N. the Brazilian rainforest remains
pristine and virtually untouched. But really, Brazil lost more than
five thousand two hundred square miles of rainforest in 2018. That’s an area roughly
the size of Connecticut. Aside from saving the planet, there
are sound fiscal reasons for planting trees around the world. In 2015,
Citigroup estimated the cost of not taking action to fight climate change
would be 44 trillion dollars by 2016. Citigroup went on to say
that incremental costs of action are limited, offer reasonable returns on investment
and should not have too detrimental an effect
on global growth. Adding renewable energy
and improving efficiency. The study found, may actually
boost the global economy. There’s also another issue to consider
and that single use paper products, paper napkins, tissues,
diapers, toilet paper. I mean, we’re flushing we’re
flushing forests down the toilet. Literally reinforce sustainability has even
brought a number of new business opportunities as well and range
from one that manages sustainable timber plantation to a company that works
with smaller farmers to one that sells beverages made
from rainforest products. BioCarbon engineering was started by
a former NASA employee, Lauren Fletcher. The company uses drone technology
to reforest on a large scale by firing seeds into
the ground to people. Planting trees can plants up
to three thousand a day. But a team operating 10 drones
can plant up to 400,000. The company estimated revenues for 2020
of nearly 100 million dollars. Another called Guayaquil Sustainable Rainforest
Products, has created a market in the US around drink, made
from here yerba mate a species from the Holly family. The drink is
popular in Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay and southern Brazil and has been
adapted to American tastes. More than 600 social media stars
recently raised over 16 million dollars to plant trees all over the world. The effort was spearheaded by YouTube
star Jimmy Donaldson, who’s also known as Mr. Beast. Donaldson post videos of stunts performed
by himself and his friends. Donaldson was challenged by a fan
to plant 20 million trees. It was part of the
hashtag Team Trees Project. The program raised over five million dollars
in two days and all donations went directly to the Arbor Day
Foundation, a non-profit organization that plants trees. Even Elon Musk committed to
donating a million trees to the project. The planting is slated to begin
in January and should be finished in three years. In July, Ethiopia planted
more than 350 3 million trees in just 12 hours. The idea was to meet with the
country calls its hashtag Green Legacy goal, a program instituted by
prime minister be met. Ethiopia’s efforts surpassed India’s 2017
initiative, which planted 66 million trees in a single day. There’s also the bond challenge, which
intends to plant 864 million acres of trees by 2030. And the Nature Conservancy has its own
plant, a billion trees effort under way. The program was launched in 2008
and it was originally intended to bring back Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. It’s since expanded to the U.S., Mexico and China. And so what’s needed is a
comprehensive monitoring program where we can look at the changes in land cover. We can estimate the associated changes
in carbon that’s being removed from the atmosphere and then scale this globally
or over long periods of time. Let’s make sure that that
carbon removal is permanent. Reforestation efforts are also a major
part of the Paris climate agreement, which President Trump just
formally moved to end U.S. participation. The withdrawal will be complete at
the end of 2020 in the Paris Climate Agreement. A handful of key countries, including
Brazil, Indonesia, Peru and the United States committed to intensifying
efforts to protect forests because while it doesn’t take long to
destroy forests, replacing them can take decades. The most important thing is
to slow down or stop deforestation and conserve our existing forests. The second is then to identify
the areas that have been recently deforested and go about
restoring those ecosystems. And then the third is to
very carefully consider the forestation options that are in the context of
how those might affect land tenure, biodiversity and food security.