Planting Trees Won’t Fix Global Warming

Environmental campaigns are seeing an unprecedented rise recently. They often hold promises to plant trees or remove plastic bottles from the ocean. For example, an ambitious Youtube campaign initiated by Jimmy Donaldson aims to plant one tree per dollar raised. In the end, this campaign raised more than 20 million dollars with the support of hundreds of Youtube creators, which meant that the same number of tree seedlings would be planted by the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation.

In the context of surging climate actions, there is no coincidence that the World Economic Forum recently launches plan to plant one trillion trees.

During the forum, the renown naturalist Jane Goodall commented that “the trillion tree project is exciting because everybody can get involved and whether it’s communities, … businesses, politicians, political leaders, [and] children.” Even Donald Trump, a global warming skeptic, decided to join the forum’s endeavour to fight climate change.  

The forum’s initiative is backed by a study came out in 2019, asserting that global tree restoration is “one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions to date.” It gained a substantial amount of public attention after its publication, and was featured in a news article by The Guardian titled “Tree planting ‘has mind-blowing potential’ to tackle climate crisis.” 

It is almost instinctive that planting trees can help reduce carbon concentration and restore the environment, especially when this method is hailed by most people as the best solution to solving climate change. How can a person do to combat climate change? The answer can’t be more evident: donate to forest restoration organizations. Or better, gather your family and friends to plant trees together.

The only problem is that planting trees is not enough to fix global warming, neither is it the best solution to climate change. After the publication of the study aforementioned, it faced critical criticism and objections within the scientific community. In a subsequent scholarly commentary written by five scientists, one of whom works in the same institution as the researchers behind the original study, the conclusions of the original study were deemed “simply incorrect scientifically and dangerously misleading.”

There are several mistakes that render this study inaccurate, the most obvious one being the overestimation of carbon sequestration. The study considers natural savannas and grasslands as “degraded” forests and in need of reforestation. It also assumes the there is no soil organic carbon (SOC) in treeless areas. Considering all the false assumptions that are made in the study, the amount of the overestimation of carbon sequestration by global reforestation is staggering.

Sassan Saatchi, a senior scientist at NASA, noted that the concept of global reforestation still need scientific justification for its feasibility, although it has “some partial impact on our ability to reduce climate change.” He commented: “the devil is in the details.”

I don’t applaud the one trillion trees plan, not because it may not reduce the pace of climate change — it probably will restore biodiversity and help fight global warming, as promised by the forum. I don’t applaud the one trillion trees plan because of the economic and political implications and misconceptions that it brings.

When Donald Trump showed his support to the plan during his State of the Union address, it is surprising to see how he did not mention the word “climate change” at all. What is more surprising, however, is Trump’s sudden change of attitude towards the environment. It is hard to imagine how a president that made the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement for economic development suddenly started to care about the environment. 

The notion that the Trump administration is willing to make sacrifice for the protection of the environment is a mirage. By refusing to cut carbon emission, which is the better solution to combat climate change, Trump opted for a quick fix that requires minimal monetary sacrifice and seemed to get away with it. 

It is also unclear if planting one trillion trees can actually make environmental situation better, when it has a difficult time offsetting the current rate of forest loss. To make matters worse, the spread wildfires worldwide have made some forests impossible to recover, especially in places like Australia.

Focusing on planting trees as the best solution to tackling climate change is dangerously short-sighted. It provides an oversimplified answer to a complex issue. Most importantly, it obscures the better solution to global warming — reduce carbon emission.

Therefore, we must change our approach to the problem from planting trees to eliminating carbon pollution. This would not be easy, as the global carbon dioxide emission was still increasing by 2.7% and 0.7% in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

To make an attempt at reducing carbon emission, governments have an indisputable responsibility to make sure that industries transform the use of fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy. During this process, how to make these clean energy sources more accessible and cheaper would be a vital question.

A recent article in New York Times claims that “regulating carbon pollution down to net zero emissions by 2050 will end the global climate crisis for good.” It is imperative that we act now and act wisely by focusing on solving the root of climate change, that is, the emission of greenhouse gases. It would be both ridiculous and misfortunate, if we think that planting a trillion trees can somehow fix global warming.

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