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].

References

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/04/planting-billions-trees-best-tackle-climate-crisis-scientists-canopy-emissions

[2] https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/201911.0275/v1

[3] https://www.bonnchallenge.org/content/challenge

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01026-8?source=techstories.org

[5] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2212041617300086

[6] https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2018.1240

[7] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/02/SR15_Chapter2_Low_Res.pdf

[8] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1526-100X.2010.00756.x?casa_token=G9edGdJ4UREAAAAA%3A8750-y8nx4HBC93HLlCMhsJnz9XjLgZl-1hoHl3dbeacXpA1U6pxkiCnjcVEM21nnc619NQSlWkdVYgf

[9] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2486.2007.01446.x?casa_token=uRI7NSlWyHMAAAAA%3AOiMe-KyuhAZbU8PDGLLONtl7mtqsXieM3UT0XpxZ-_9tw-qPFnOst9Cjb3t_7IyPxxk7OStUmkWBDyj0

[10] https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/blogpost/what-would-it-really-take-plant-trillion-trees

[11] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0925857412001024

[12] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-09269-z

[13] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-04568-z

[14]  https://www.apnews.com/8ac33686b64a4fbc991997a72683b1c5

[15] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature12859

[16] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0022396

[17] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2019/07/10/reforestation-climate-change-plant-trees/#.XX6XsChKhhG

[18] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44925-6

[19] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature05947

[20] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1466-8238.2007.00287.x?casa_token=TKIxSsvG9zgAAAAA%3A3ULYnl7XpjDyXwLoYe8wpmLAFXR8nc47u2_hMl9GOOhJYAlPMf5MybXbs3NdZ7JcDM3vef4tlaeOLwek

[21] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330691577_Grounding_nature-based_climate_solutions_in_sound_biodiversity_science

[22] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01457.x

[23] http://forestlearning.edu.au/images/resources/How%20carbon%20is%20stored%20in%20trees%20and%20wood%20products.pdf

[24] http://www.fao.org/forestry/25872-0c162e555bb41fe8fe9cf076acda4216d.pdf

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