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Let’s Not Focus on Planting Trees

We Can’t Plant Our Way Out of Climate Change

Turkey planted 11 million trees in late 2019, but up to 90 percent of them were dead from lack of water three months later.They were planted at the wrong time of year. Planting trees is a flashy headline but growing forests is hard work requiring science and an understanding of ecosystems. It’s true, trees can be carbon sinks and remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but they must grow to achieve such a lofty goal. As the saying goes, dead trees suck no carbon. Let’s forget about planting trees and focus our efforts on growing healthy forests, where planting is merely a necessary step in a long-term effort for change.

U.S. politicians became very excited several years ago about planting a trillion trees. The project had an pleasant ring to it and was easy to talk about. After all, a trillion is an impressively large number, and planting trees seems a lot easier than cutting fossil fuel emissions. The idea we can plant our way out of climate change, avoiding any unpleasant changes in our energy-sucking lifestyles, holds an appeal to business CEOs and politicians alike.

The reality is, planting trees is good, and carbon sequestration in our forests is an important process. The truth is, the one trillion tree goal is not a real plan. Instead, it is a political talking point to avoid making actual policy decisions about climate change. Congressional representatives and policymakers in Washington DC are not known for their science and math skills, so perhaps we should take a look at the numbers.

Trees, Forests, and Available Land

Forests comprise 33 percent of the total U.S. land area, or about 750 million acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service. These forests sequester about 15 percent of the 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted in the USA each year.

Offsetting all U.S. carbon emissions requires enough trees to increase current forest carbon capture by a factor of six. This solution presents a very straightforward calculation showing we need a total of 4.5 billion acres of forest to completely take care of the fossil fuel emissions problem. Now we come to our first clash with reality. The total amount of land available in the USA is 2.3 billion acres. We need about twice as much land as we have.

The estimated number of trees in the USA is 300 billion (trees greater than one inch in diameter). These trees suck up about a sixth of the annual U.S. carbon emissions, so complete sequestration of these emissions by our forests would require about two trillion trees, meaning the plan for one trillion new trees presents a fifty-percent solution to the carbon emissions problem. Still, a trillion new trees represent an admirable goal, even if it stretches the boundaries of realism.

But wait, you say, the trillion trees is a global goal. This fact may or may not solve the space problem since vast areas of land around the planet are unsuitable for forests — think Northern Africa, Middle East, Western USA, Antarctica, and more. But even if space is available, implementation considerations constrain us.

Planting is Hard Work

The trillion-tree solution seems limited by the actual space available, making it more of a political symbol than a real plan. But the devil is in the details, and planting a trillion trees requires someone to dig holes and put saplings in the ground.

At the end of 2019, the National Forest Foundation was pleased to announce they had planted five million trees during the year, representing almost a 100 percent increase over 2018. This tree planting program was an impressive effort. But planting at a rate of five million trees per year requires 200,000 years of work to reach the one-trillion-tree goal.

Other more optimistic groups have asserted that Americans plant 1.6 billion trees each year. Planting at this more optimistic rate decreases the amount of time needed, and the last of the trillion trees will be planted in the year 2645.

Even with more worldwide help, the task is daunting. Planting a trillion trees by 2050 would require placing 94.5 million new saplings in the ground every day for the next 29 years. Trees are important, and planting new trees in appropriate ecosystems does help offset rising CO2 levels. But the effects are small, and planting trees is not a realistic plan for mitigating climate change.

Remember, planting trees in the wrong location or wrong season will not affect climate change since they will not grow. If you are a tree person, keep focused on growing the trees, not just planting them. Enjoy the new trees, but don’t mistake them for a painless solution to climate change.

Related Articles

Forests as a pathway for terrestrial carbon sequestration (by WM House; ArcheanWeb)

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The surprising downsides to planting trillions of trees (by Benji Jones; Vox)

Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks (EPA)

US Forest Facts and Historical trends (US Forest Service)

Our Impact in 2019: 5 million trees, 18,000 acres, and so much more (National Forest Foundation)

The world’s 3 trillion trees, mapped (By Chris Mooney; Washington Post)

U.S. Forest Facts on Forestland (By Steve Nix; ThoughtCo.)

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.