Planting trees right to save the Earth

What if just planting trees alone can solve climate change?

A paper in 2019 garnered a lot of attention when its authors estimated that the Earth had enough space to plant an extra one trillion trees, which could capture two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities to date.[1]

To many political and corporate leaders, planting a trillion trees to remove a significant chunk of our emissions is an enticing idea—if it means the world can afford to take it slower with the low-carbon transition. And enticing it is indeed, as global elites jumped on the One Trillion Tree initiative bandwagon during the 2020 World Economic Forum.[2]

The paper has since caught flak from Fellow scientists and other critics, being criticised that tree planting is no magic bullet to climate change[3]. It also creates a dangerous distraction from the more critical climate solutions like setting up carbon pricing and installing renewable energy.

Planting a trillion trees is not actually all that simple either. A good portion of reforestation "commitments” involve planting large swathes of monocultures, which are cheaper to run but are low in biodiversity.[4]Poorly-thought out policies can also create perverse incentives, encouraging landowners to cut down existing native forests and replant with profitable new plantations.[5]

In other cases, it can cause conflicts with local communities. In India, government-led reforestation efforts has to led indigenous tribes being evicted—oftentimes failing to secure consent or even provide appropriate compensation to affected communities.[6]

But tree planting can be done well and done correctly. Kubuqi, a desert in Inner Mongolia, is regarded as a successful model by the UNCCD[7]for desert greening. Instead of excluding the local community, locales were paid to plant trees and ensure they grow healthily. To profit from the greening efforts, farmers were also incentivised to grow and sell the drought-tolerant liquorice for traditional Chinese medicine.

Satellite remote sensing image of Kubuqi Desert

And while not as grand in comparison, the Hong Kong government is also revitalising the plantations in country parks by thinning ageing exotic trees and planting native tree species with the aid of NGOs[8]—which Friends of the Earth (HK) is one of the partnering organisations.

Trees play an important role by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, but they are not the cure-all solution. We are putting more carbon into the air than the trees can absorb. We have to decarbonise our energy and address our consumption habits if we really want to tackle climate change.

If you would like to know more about the tree planting efforts in Hong Kong, please visit our Tree Planting Challenge webpage.

Interested Topic:
City Forestry, Forestry City

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