On Planting Trees to Solve the Climate Emergency

Rising CO2 levels could possibly be stopped by planting lots of trees. In recent months the media have rejoiced in a proposal (The Bonn Challenge) to plant trees on 350 million ha of degraded forest land around the globe by 2030 and thereby stop or greatly slow the global increase in CO2. The Bonn Challenge was first proposed in 2011 at a meeting in Germany and to date 43 countries have made pledges to plant trees to cover about half of the proposed needs, perhaps a total of 1 billion trees. Lewis et al. (2019) recently reported on progress to date in meeting this challenge. The question that a flurry of letters to Nature and other journals have raised is whether this goal is ecologically feasible.

There has always been a cohort of scientists seeking a technological fix to the climate emergency by capturing greenhouse gases or changing the atmosphere. To date all these technological fixes fail the economic test. Can biologists ride to the rescue for the CO2 problem and save the world? Clearly many people as well as politicians are technological optimists who hope that we can continue our lifestyle with little change in the coming decades. No one likes nay-sayers but it is important to hear what problems might arise to achieve a forestry solution to the climate emergency.

Lewis et al. (2019) mapped the land areas potentially available for restoration by planting trees. To achieve the Bonn Challenge most plantings would need to be in tropical and subtropical areas where tree growth is rapid. Bond et al. (2019) concentrated their analysis on Africa where about 1 million km2 have been proposed for restoration with trees. But they point out that much of this proposed area is grassland and savannah which support high value biodiversity. Tanzania we might presume would not be happy if the Serengeti was converted to a closed forest ecosystem. If we proceed with the Bonn Challenge and grasslands and savannahs become closed forests, several unintended consequences would occur. Trees utilize more water to grow and given a fixed rainfall in an area, less water would go into rivers, streams and lakes. Trees also absorb more solar radiation so that the climate in the restored areas would warm, while a main objective of the Bonn Challenge is to reverse global warming.

The list of ecological problems is long. Plantations of monocultures typically capture less CO2 than natural forests on the same land area. Forest fires release large amounts of CO2 from both natural forests and plantations, and rising temperatures are increasing forest losses to fire. Carbon capture estimates depend critically on turnaround times which depend on tree growth rates and the uses to which wood is put after a tree is harvested. Smith et al. (2015) concluded in an earlier analysis that afforestation could not achieve the goal of limiting global warming below 2ºC.

All these problems should not stop the reforestation of closed forest areas that were degraded in historical time, as Bond et al. (2019) have pointed out. But unfortunately, this news that we cannot reverse climatic warming by planting large numbers of trees continues the negativity that bedevils the science of ecology – you cannot achieve this goal given the ecological constraints of the Earth. Politicians and the public at large do not want to hear these messages and prefer the belief that technology will come up with a simple inexpensive solution. To shout that “this will not work” is not a way to become popular.

We appear not to have progressed from what David Schindler said 22 years ago:

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem.”
                  (Schindler 1997, pg.4).

Bond, W.J., et al. (2019). The Trouble with Trees: Afforestation Plans for Africa. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (in press). doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.08.003.

Lewis, S.L., et al. (2019). Regenerate natural forests to store carbon. Nature 568, 25-28 (4 April 2019). doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01026-8.

Schindler D.W. (1997). Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5, 1-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1526-100X.1997.09701.x.

Smith, P. et al. (2016). Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions. Nature Climate Change 6, 42-50 (January 2016). doi: 10.1038/nclimate2870.

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