Missing the Forest for the Trillion Trees?

February 20, 2020


A new scientific report finds human behaviors are driving the extinction of non-human species at a rate so severe that the subsequent disappearance of life will soon be a threat to human health and prosperity. Habitat destruction on land, over-fishing in the seas and overconsumption across much of the globe, among other things, now threaten to extinguish up to a million species in the near future.

The hundreds of scientists who produced the landmark United Nations assessment say myriad solutions are needed to address and, hopefully reverse, this trend. Underpinning much of the loss is the growing global impact of climate change. One of the major tactics at humanity’s disposal is effectively managing and restoring the world’s forests — preservation and conservation efforts that could, quite literally, change the world.

To see what can be preserved — or lost  —  look at a Google Earth image of the Rio Coco river, which forms much of the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. Toward the east, the river cuts through the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, also known as La Mosquitia — one of the largest contiguous forest systems north of the Amazon. Dubbed the “Amazon of Central America,” it is home to several indigenous groups, is a hotspot of biodiversity and contains a trove of archeological wonders —  like a massive undiscovered pre-Columbian city. The difference between intact forests on the Nicaraguan side and degraded hills on the Honduran side is quite apparent.

Data from Global Forest Watch shows that the planet lost an area of primary rainforest the size of Belgium last year, the fourth-highest year since record-keeping began. This puts humanity further out of reach of limiting average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a temperature increase above which most experts agree that the survival of civilization as we know it will be jeopardized.

new book published by Springer Nature presents a pathway to meet the internationally recognized goal of limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. As part of the study, scientists studied scenarios that avoided deforestation and the role that restoration of intact ecosystems would need to play.

“What we have done is the first global study quantifying the restoration of degraded forests to intact ecosystems,” says Kate Dooley, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who co-authored the chapter on land-use emissions. “One of the big things about the research is seeing if we could achieve [an upper limit of] 1.5 degree warming through technologies that exist today. This book shows that through these natural climate solutions we would be able to reach them.”

New York Times:

NASHVILLE — After what seemed like 100 years of impeachments hearings, anything uttered on Capitol Hill now sounds to my ear like the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Nevertheless, a few words from President Trump’s State of the Union address managed to break through the wah-wahs last week: “To protect the environment, days ago, I announced the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and around the world,” he said.

Could it really be true?

You will forgive me for thinking there’s no way it could be true. The whole point of the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Treesinitiative is to reduce carbon in the environment and slow the rate of climate change by growing and preserving a trillion trees, worldwide, by 2050. But instead of addressing climate change, the Trump administration has rolled back or weakened 95 environmental protections already on the books.

The burning of fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change, but much of this administration’s hostility to environmental protections is a result of its commitment to promoting the fossil fuel industry: allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public landsapproving construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, encouraging more offshore drilling in the Atlantic. The Trump administration has even gutted the popular Endangered Species Act, which was passed with strong bipartisan support at a time in history when the word “bipartisan” was not an oxymoron. Is it any surprise that the Environmental Protection Agency is now widely known among conservationists as the Environmental Destruction Agency?

I’m trying to figure out how this business with trees might be different. Did the president experience a Scrooge-like conversion at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, with the brilliant Jane Goodall, who supports the One Trillion Trees initiative, playing the role of Marley? If so, it would be a conversion narrative more potent than any since St. Paul was struck down by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. Paul went from persecuting Christians to becoming the faith’s most famous evangelist, responsible for the spread of Christianity around the ancient Western world. Donald Trump’s conversion to environmental sanity could be the start of saving the world itself.

Unfortunately, the math is more complicated than that line in the State of the Union address implies. Planting a seedling is better than doing nothing, it’s true, but it takes decades for a seedling to replace a tree, and that’s if the seedling survives at all: In China’s Great Green Wall reforestation program, up to 85 percent of the plantings fail over time, according to Yale Environment 360. For large-scale reforestation to succeed, the right trees have to be planted in the right places — a variety of species, not a monoculture, all native to the ecosystem at hand — and they have to be cared for until the roots are well-enough established to survive the temperature extremes, storms, floods and droughts that are the hallmark of climate change. It can be done, but it can’t be done without effort.

Reforestation is a crucial goal, but even more crucial is the other goal of the One Trillion Trees initiative: preserving the trees we already have. So far we’re doing a terrible job of it. Here in the United States, we’re losing 36 million trees a year in metropolitan areas alone. In Canada, the ancient boreal forest is being mowed down for the sake of toilet tissue. In South America, the rainforest is being burned down for the sake of cheeseburgers.

The Verge:

But the science behind the campaign, a study that claims 1 trillion trees can significantly reduce greenhouse gases, is disputed. “People are getting caught up in the wrong solution,” says Forrest Fleischman, who teaches natural resources policy at the University of Minnesota and has spent years studying the effects of tree planting in India. “Instead of that guy from Salesforce saying, ‘I’m going to put money into planting a trillion trees,’ I’d like him to go and say, ‘I’m going to put my money into helping indigenous people in the Amazon defend their lands,’” Fleischman says. “That’s going to have a bigger impact.”

“You don’t need to plant a tree to regenerate a forest,” Fleischman tells The Verge. Forests can heal on their own if they’re allowed to, he says, and these forests end up being more resilient and more helpful in the climate fight than newly planted plots of trees. He argues that the best way to ensure there are enough trees standing to trap the carbon dioxide heating up the planet is to secure the political rights of people who depend on forests — primarily indigenous peoples whose lands are frequently encroached upon by industry and governments.

There is research backing him up. The world’s leading authority on climate science, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has recognized that when local communities’ land rights are jeopardized, it poses risks to both people and the planet. 

“We have cared for our lands and forests — and the biodiversity they contain — for generations. With the right support we can continue to do so for generations to come,” reads a statement from indigenous and community organizations from 42 countries spanning 76 percent of the world’s tropical forest in response to a report from the IPCC.

study published this week in the journal PNAS found that the most effective way to protect the Amazon rainforest might be to leave it in the hands of its indigenous residents. The Amazon now releases more carbon dioxide than it stores, in large part due to forest loss from mining, logging, agriculture, and fires. The study also looked at regions that were best able to stop that from happening, and found that indigenous territories had the best success rates. Between 2003 and 2016, lands under indigenous control had the smallest losses of carbon because the forest stayed intact and regrew in places that had been disturbed.

3 Responses to “Missing the Forest for the Trillion Trees?”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Actually quite interesting. Meanwhile, as the report writers clash with crossed piss streams, I shall plant the odd tree.

    • Bryson Brown Says:

      Planting trees is certainly a good thing to do, on the whole. But it’s not really about the streams of piss– journalism is pretty rough, driven by who’s talking to who and who has access to influential people and influential outlets. The source we really need to listen to is the science– in this case, it seems the science tells us that defending forests is more effective that trying to grow new ones. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do both (and a lot more besides)… but please, let’s look at the data and the best models and seize every opportunity to do things that are effective and efficient. If we can’t do that, we’re in deep trouble.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Quite like the saying, ‘ one good deed, no matter how trivial, is worth more than the grandest good intention.’ Applying to science and journalism etc, they vary according to situations, data and bluntly OPINIONS. So sweat it not and do the best one can. With my name, be assured that the DESIRE for efficiency is DNA engraved. Effectiveness a constant aim.
        Where are you based?

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