“For every T-shirt purchase, we’ll plant a tree”. The same goes for every bottle of wine and every credit card swipe. Countries and companies are all planting trees to meet global pledges and boost sustainability records.
The climate crisis is getting worse, but businesses, consumers, nonprofits, and governments worldwide are planting billions of trees. This helps create jobs, captures carbon, and enhances ecosystems.
However, many of these poorly executed projects can actually harm the environment. Wrong tree choices and locations can reduce biodiversity, increasing extinctions and weakening ecosystems.
Biodiversity loss, like climate change, is a pressing global issue. Extinction rates are soaring, with millions of species at risk. Ecosystem collapse threatens our food and water sources.
To combat this, companies and countries are planting non-native trees to fight climate change. Even the Irish Lottery provider Lottoland started planting trees as an ecofriendly move. While they store carbon, they do little for local biodiversity.
Experts advise planting the right tree in the right place for the right reasons. However, defining “right” varies among stakeholders. Some prioritize carbon storage and timber; others focus on fruit trees for small farmers or native species regeneration.
The best efforts consider various needs but face challenges due to conflicting interests, making it a complex endeavor.
‘Harm in the Name of Doing Good’
The Earth lacks sufficient land to combat climate change solely with trees, but when combined with significant reductions in fossil fuels, trees become a vital natural solution. They capture carbon dioxide through their leaves and store it in their branches and trunks, though they also emit carbon when they burn or decompose. This capacity to gather CO2 is why forests are often called carbon sinks.
In Central Africa, the French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies intends to plant trees across 40,000 hectares in the Republic of Congo. Located on the Batéké Plateau, a diverse landscape of grasslands, wooded savannas, and pockets of dense forests, this project could sequester over 10 million tons of carbon dioxide in 20 years, according to the company.
Nicolas Terraz, then Total’s senior vice president for Africa, exploration, and production, stated in a 2021 company announcement, “Total is committed to developing natural carbon sinks in Africa as part of our efforts to reduce emissions and achieve net zero by 2050.”
To attain net-zero status, businesses must remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as they emit. Many, like TotalEnergies, are turning to trees for assistance. On the Batéké Plateau, a type of Australian acacia tree slated for selective logging will cover a vast area.
The project, a component of the Congolese government’s initiative to expand forested areas and enhance carbon storage, is expected to generate employment opportunities and ultimately enhance biodiversity as indigenous species are allowed to flourish over decades.
However, scientists caution that this approach may exemplify one of the most detrimental forms of afforestation: planting trees where they wouldn’t naturally grow. Such projects can harm biodiversity, jeopardize water supplies, and even raise temperatures because, in some instances, trees absorb heat that grasslands—or, in other regions, snow—would have reflected.
Bethanie Walder, executive director of the Society for Ecological Restoration, a global nonprofit, remarked, “We don’t want to cause harm in the name of doing good.”
The Batéké Plateau is one of the least-explored ecosystems in Africa, according to environmental scientist Paula Nieto Quintano, who has specialized in the region. Dr. Nieto stated, “Its significance for local livelihoods, ecology, and ecosystem functions are poorly understood.”
Those studying forest restoration emphasize that trees alone cannot solve all problems. “I fear that many corporations and governments view this as an easy way out,” said Robin Chazdon, a professor of tropical forest restoration at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. “They may not feel as compelled to make rigorous emissions reductions as they can claim, ‘We’re offsetting that by planting trees.’”
‘There Have Been Bad Actors’
While all trees store carbon, their benefits vary based on the species and planting location. For example, Eucalyptus trees grow quickly and straight, making them valuable for lumber. Native to Australia and nearby islands, they provide sustenance to koalas due to their unique poison tolerance. However, when grown in Africa and South America for timber, fuel, and carbon storage, they offer fewer advantages to wildlife and may contribute to water depletion and increased wildfires.
Forest restoration and carbon sequestration are intricate tasks, and commercial species serve essential roles. Timber is a renewable resource with a lower carbon footprint than concrete or steel, and it’s needed for various purposes, including paper and cooking fuel. Planting fast-growing species for harvest can sometimes aid in preserving native forests. Additionally, strategically incorporating native species in tree farms can support biodiversity by creating wildlife corridors.
Michael Becker, head of communications at 1t.org, emphasizes the necessity of involving the private sector in the restoration movement. This group, established by the World Economic Forum, aims to conserve and expand one trillion trees through private investment, even though historical bad practices need to be rectified.
A challenge lies in the fact that supporting biodiversity doesn’t offer the same financial returns as carbon storage or timber markets. Although many governments have set reforestation standards, they often allow considerable flexibility. For instance, Wales incentivizes tree planting but requires only 25 percent of native species for government subsidies.
In regions like Kenya, Brazil, and Peru, eucalyptus and teak are increasingly grown on land that once teemed with diverse ecosystems. This trend is driven by investor preference for these well-known species, which command higher prices.
Enrique Toledo, the general manager of Reforesta Perú, explains that international demand for these species remains unmet, making them appealing to investors.
‘The Same Species All Over the World’
When businesses pledge to plant trees for each product sold, they typically partner with nonprofit organizations collaborating with communities globally. These efforts might involve reforestation post-wildfires or providing fruit and nut trees to farmers. However, such projects can sometimes harm biodiversity.
According to a recent report, the planet hosts nearly 60,000 tree species, with roughly one-third facing extinction threats, mainly due to agriculture, grazing, and exploitation. Yet, only a small portion of these species gets widely planted globally, as indicated by tree planting groups and scientists.
Meredith Martin, an assistant professor of forestry at North Carolina State University, noted that nonprofit tree-planting initiatives in tropical regions often prioritize people’s livelihoods over biodiversity and carbon storage. This approach could eventually lead to a decline in forest biodiversity.
Nonprofit tree planting organizations often claim they plant non-native tree species due to local community preferences. However, Susan Chomba, responsible for forest restoration and conservation in Africa at the World Resources Institute, suggests a different perspective. When farmers have the opportunity to consider their land’s goals, they often remember that more trees meant more streams, indicating a desire for restored water sources.
Dr. Chomba explains that engaging with local knowledge makes it possible to identify suitable indigenous tree species for ecosystem water restoration. The main challenge lies in the limited availability of indigenous seeds at local seed banks, typically dominated by popular commercial species. Some groups address this issue by compensating individuals for collecting seeds from nearby forests.
Experts propose an alternative solution, allowing forests to regenerate naturally. This approach can be cost-effective and efficient in areas with minimal degradation or proximity to existing forests. Simply protecting certain areas from grazing can enable the return of trees, benefiting both carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
Dr. Chazdon sums it up by emphasizing the wisdom of nature: “Nature knows much more than we do.”