Can planting trees solve climate change?

Many people see tree planting as a solution to climate change [1], because trees take up CO2 from the air during photosynthesis [23]. However, it can also help us adapt to climate change and restore biodiversity – this should not be overlooked [2]. Let’s look at each benefit in turn:

1) CARBON STORAGE: 350 million hectares globally have been pledged to become forest by 2030 [3]; it’s estimated that this would remove 14% of global emissions each year [21]. However, 45% of these pledges are for commercial plantations, usually involving ‘monocultures’ of just 1 species [2,4]. These are poor long-term carbon stores because they are vulnerable to disease, pests and drought [2,5,6,21]. Moreover, when plantations are harvested e.g. for fuel wood, much of the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere [2,4,24].

It’s estimated that regeneration of natural forests would store 40x more carbon by 2100 than plantations [2,4]. Nonetheless, to remove CO2 on the scale required to limit warming to 1.5°C, technologies, such as Carbon Capture & Storage, are needed [4,19,7].

2) ADAPTATION: natural habitats can reduce the negative effects of climate change [2]. For example, forests and wetlands in many cases reduce the impact of droughts [2,8], reduce flood risk [9], and decrease soil erosion and landslides [11]. Mangrove forests, coral reefs, oyster beds and salt marshes protect communities from flooding [2,12,13] and reduce coastal erosion [2,15,16,18].

3) BIODIVERSITY: for planted trees to be good for wildlife, a mixture of tree species should be planted [2,19] and the new woodlands should be connected to other habitats [20,22]. Looking after the intact ecosystems we already have should be prioritised [21,10].

Conclusion: Tree planting must be combined with many other efforts, including protecting existing natural habitats, drastically cutting emissions, and using technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere [14,17,19,21].


























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