October 11, 2018

Trees and Climate Change: Why Reforestation is Vital

As we continue to watch how climate change is making an impact around the world – fueling stronger hurricanes and forest fires, drying up water resources, diminishing food security, and displacing large populations in search of basic needs – we are also in a dire search for answers and solutions.

Reporting on Climate Change

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change with scientists from 195 countries, offers clarity as to the state of the planet’s changing conditions and how we’ve arrived here.

Here’s the first key takeaway directly from the report:

“Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence).”

 And

“Reaching and sustaining net-zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and declining net nonCO2 radiative forcing would halt anthropogenic global warming on multi-decadal timescales (high confidence).”

That means the amount of CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, due to human activities such as fossil fuel production, has already warmed the world by 1° C (as compared with pre-industrial data), is on track to get that up to +1.5° C in a decade or two, and that number will continue to rise if we don’t take immediate global and systematic action to cut emissions and reduce those that are already in the atmosphere. If we continue with extractive and polluting business as usual, we’re currently on track to hit a whopping +3.4° C increase by 2100. 

Interestingly, the actions required to reduce global warming would also help to reduce global poverty, since a healthier environment would increase nutritious agricultural yields… and it would improve global health. Those side benefits are in addition to the priceless conservation and expansion of plant and wildlife biodiversity. Just saying.

So what’s the difference between +1.5° and +2° C of warming? Glad you asked, because our partners at WRI helped to put this in perspective.

Reforestation and Ecological Restoration

The IPCC report includes urgent recommendations for reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere via rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable and sustainable energy technologies. It also includes a section for carbon dioxide removal in order to reduce the polluting gasses that are already in the atmosphere, in which “reforestation and ecosystem restoration,” along with similar nature-based activities, are named as the only methods that are well understood to be effective. Potential technologies could help with this in the future, but it will take years, innovation, and measurement before we know what else actually works as well as trees and nature itself at cleaning up the air.

Here’s how trees play a vital role in addressing climate change:

1. Trees absorb carbon and other gasses from the atmosphere. A single mature tree can absorb 48lbs. of carbon a year, and makes enough clean oxygen for 4 people to breathe fresh air. A previous special report by IPCC stated that tree-planting could sequester around 1.1–1.6 GT of CO2 per year.

2. Trees can protect coastal communities from severe flooding and storms, by slowing the water’s strength as it surges on land, and by absorbing excess water in the soil and releasing it as water vapor into the air.

3. Trees provide shade, which helps the soil retain moisture rather than drying out, and thereby supports fertile agriculture. More shade and less sun in urban areas also helps reduce energy consumption when it’s hot, further reducing emissions and saving on cooling costs.

4. Trees are the anchors for plant and wildlife biodiversity, which creates healthy ecosystems that convert the sun’s energy through photosynthesis, absorbs and transfers carbon, makes soil, and provides a treasure trove of natural yet-to-be discovered biological solutions for cleaning up our planet (for example, enzymes that can eat plastic).

Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed. It includes a variety of activities often coupled with reforestation and conservation, which further supports healthy natural systems to thrive. This includes the removal of invasive species and the re-introduction of a diversity of native species, erosion control measures, mulching or adding nutrients, expanding passages for water systems to flow, etc.

Reforestation is the #1 climate change solution in a landmark 2017 peer-reviewed study that was led by scientists from over 15 institutions, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which expanded and refined the scope of land-based climate solutions previously assessed by the IPCC. Conservation, or the “avoidance of forest conversion” was 2nd.


In a joint statement, the chiefs of the UN-REDD programme declared that "forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change – thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Forests capture carbon dioxide at a rate equivalent to about one-third the amount released annually by burning fossil fuels. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests, therefore, could provide up to 30 percent of the climate solution."

While there is still debate when it comes to global forest data, and we must transition towards sustainable energy production, one thing’s for sure: the world needs more trees and healthy forests if we are to address climate change and create a habitable world for future generations.

We plant trees on 4 continents around the world. Want to choose where yours are planted?

by Diana Chaplin

Canopy Director & Eco-Storyteller


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