We need to get carbon out of the atmosphere, and fast. But how? “We already have these technologies and they’re called trees.”
We need to get carbon out of the atmosphere, and fast. But how? “We already have these technologies and they’re called trees.” So said government climate adviser Chris Stark on David Attenborough’s Climate Change – The Facts program over the Easter bank holiday weekend.
That documentary came hard on the heels of a letter calling for restoration of forests and other ecosystems to be prioritised. It was signed by Greta Thunberg, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the president of the Maldives and, crucially by people with expertise and experience like rainforest biologist Prof. Simon Lewis and rewilder Rebecca Wrigley.
On one level it’s a no-brainer. Yet the letter calls natural solutions like tree planting a “neglected” approach. The Paris climate agreement assumes that around 500 billion tonnes of carbon will be taken out of the atmosphere by 2100 to give us a decade to switch to renewable energy sources. But strangely, the pact only imagines that a quarter of this job will be done by trees. Most of the rest, world leaders dream, will be done by a new industry three times bigger than the entire fossil fuel industry that will somehow spring up overnight, with machines attached to power stations. It will suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and money out of our pockets.
© Andy Goldsworthy
That kind of magical thinking is what you get if you pay too much attention to slick fossil fuel industry lobbyists who swarm international climate meetings and until recently were still arguing that climate change is no biggie.
So now that Greta T, XR and David Attenborough have got the attention of our poor, confused politicians, let’s start talking sense, free of vested interests. Trees. As in, planting a trillion of them. It’s a goal that everyone can get behind – a popular project backed by big NGOs, rural communities, scientists, faith communities, city slickers, the global South, and geography teachers everywhere. Trees provide shade, prevent soil degradation, give us fruit, tempt us to climb them, harbour life, talk to each other under the ground, inspire great art and give us oxygen! And we can all get stuck in by planting where we live, funding tree planting elsewhere and generally sharing the love of trees.
Lungs of the World, WWF
On a global scale, the biggest priority needs to be planting trees in areas of forest that have been damaged. The rainforests have been called the lungs of the world, and right now they have cancer. There are about 3 trillion trees left on Earth, but logging for the beef industry, palm oil, paper and wood are decimating tropical trees globally at the rate of 40 football fields every minute.
While governments said in Paris they would grow more trees, in practice they’re being cut down faster than before, and only 3% of the money pledged to tackle climate breakdown is destined for forests. Even more worrying, half of the promised tree-planting turns out to be plans for commercial plantations. These store less carbon for less time than natural forest. That means even the political talk about new trees is way off hitting its measly carbon removal target.
Reforesting is mostly a labour-intensive job, providing valued work in poorer countries. However, in some places, military equipment could be used to “seedbomb” large areas, dropping millions of saplings in biodegradable cones from planes, perfectly timed based on research done by drone. Since military leaders worldwide are worried about climate wars, they’re most likely up for a 21st century twist on the old dream of beating swords into ploughshares.
Indigenous planting scheme
As forests are restored, they also need protection. The most reliable way of doing that is by giving land rights to indigenous peoples, who are ten times better at it than national governments, and don’t lie to you at election time.
With the health of existing forests assured, we can also find new places for trees. Candidates include the northern latitudes where permafrost is melting, and places where forests were cleared centuries ago, such as on moors and mountains in the UK. For example, today an area of the UK the size of London is devoted to grouse shooting estates where the aristocrats go for 4 months a year to hunt. Much of these uplands were once covered in trees. So what’s more important - the survival of life on Earth, or a niche sport for the super rich? Sadly, £4m of annual taxpayer subsidies for grouse-shooting says it’s the latter.
Community tree planting, Leeds
The UK government has pledged £60m to plant 10 million trees. At a time when England has lost 120 million ash trees to a fungus that arrived in 2012, that’s a sign of really not getting it at all. Friends of the Earth UK say our forests needs to at least double in size.
With a trillion new and protected trees in both natural forests and sustained new, non-commercial forests, around 290 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent could conceivably be taken out of the atmosphere by 2050, given the massive political ambition that has so far been lacking. That’s double what the Paris agreement assumes.
None of this should distract us from the urgent task of burying the fossil fuel industry once and for all. The less carbon that goes up, the less we need to capture. If we don’t switch to renewables fast, there’s a risk that all one trillion trees could go up in smoke, releasing all their carbon back into the skies.
But unlike carbon-sucking industrial machines, trees and forests bring something more precious than gold - an abundance of life. Show them some appreciation and they might save our asses at a time when the collapse of human civilization is getting scarily close.
Get stuck in!
Find out about tree planting schemes near you:
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