Is Reforestation the Silver Bullet for Climate Change?
Reforestation has been getting a lot of attention lately, with some touting it as the #1 climate change solution, and others worrying that it's taking the spotlight away from other sustainability priorities. So we're here to set the record straight: we don't believe that planting trees is a cure-all for the planet's problem of pollution and climate change. There, we said it!
Trees deserve their moment in the sun, because planting ecologically appropriate seedlings in areas that have been deforested is an effective way to reclaim what has been lost and to restore cleaner air, water, and biodiversity. But while this is obviously our focus as a reforestation organization, we fully recognize that it must be considered in context of the bigger challenge at hand.
Many scientists worry that in the wave of enthusiasm for getting trees in the ground, other, equally as important — but trickier to implement — actions are neglected. And they're right, because if we don’t reduce deforestation, phase out fossil fuels, and get our emissions under control, it may not matter how many trees are planted.
Scientists also worry that climate change effects like drought, disease, and wildfires will reduce the amount of carbon that forests are able to absorb over time. Conversely, changing climatic conditions may allow some trees to grow in previously unsuitable areas (particularly at high altitudes). While we can never truly predict the future, we can follow the data and learn what works and what doesn’t. What's clear is that while tree planting is greatly beneficial, it isn’t the only thing we should do. And promoting it as a silver bullet risks missing the forest for the trees. Instead we can think holistically. We must do all of it - better, faster, smarter.
So What Should We Do?
To keep our temperature increases below 1.5-2°C, we have to get to the roots of the problem — and unfortunately, they run deep. Taking bold action to protect existing forests and reduce GHG emissions is essential and should receive the same attention as restoration.
What else? Well, here's a start:
Let's do this AND plant trees along the way.
Plant the Right Trees, The Right Way
When we do focus on reforestation, it's important not to simply plant trees anywhere just to say you did. Many factors need to be considered in order to ensure genuine environmental and social impact. That means making assessments of the land and current land use, knowing which local tree species are most suitable, having processes to scale seedling production at nurseries, developing a solid plan, and ensuring local staff or volunteers are on board, and that's all before a single tree is planted!
Including local communities is essential because it not only helps with project success and tree survival rates, it also reduces the risk of future deforestation. And besides, making sure we're having a positive social impact is just the right thing to do.
Some other things we consider:
By planting trees thoughtfully we ensure that quality is prioritized over quantity and that reforestation is conducted with optimal benefit for nature, people, and wildlife. And we look to experts in related fields to apply the same level of detail to other angles of addressing climate issues. It is by working together across different sectors that we'll start to see the biggest possible impact.
We plant trees on 4 continents around the world. Want to choose where yours are planted?
by Diana Chaplin and Meaghan Weeden
Canopy Director and Forest Whisperer