Saturday, December 4

“Don’t even think about planting millions of trees”: why the COP26 project against deforestation could be a failure

Boris Johnson was sticking out his chest. Determined and forceful, he said that of humanity I would go from being nature’s conqueror to its guardian. Great words that were backed up by a seemingly remarkable project: that of end deforestation in the world by 2030.

Good intentions, however, could remain at that, because now various experts and previous studies seem to make it clear that planting millions of trees is not as good an idea as it might seem when it comes to fighting climate change.

Planting millions of trees (often) doesn’t work

In November 2019 a group of volunteers planted 11 million trees in Turkey. The green initiative, called ‘Breath for the Future’ (“Breath for the Future”) was supported by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, who said that thanks to that effort his country was “working to foster a new and lush green Turkey.”

Three months later, 90% of the suckers They had died. They were planted at the wrong time and it didn’t rain enough to make them survive. The campaign was an absolute failure.

It is precisely something that Forrest Fleishman, an expert in massive tree planting, who was asked for advice from different agencies, was also warning about. He recommended the same to everyone: don’t even think about it.

In a thread on Twitter, this expert told how he had published a study in Nature (PDF) with a group of researchers in which detailed the results of various reforestation projects long-term events that took place in India.

How they explained and Vox, in that study the authors revealed that “there was no evidence” that this reforestation offered substantial advantages for the climate. That post was actually a continuation of another previous study which also analyzed the common mistakes of reforestation programs.

Mass reforestation is in fact becoming a great myth. Science magazine published a joint comment in which various experts they refuted the conclusions of studies that seemed to promise that massive reforestation was an appropriate strategy to fight climate change.

This was stated by Jean-Francois Bastin and other researchers in A study published in 2019, but according to those other experts, the amount of carbon dioxide that could be captured with those reforestation plans had been exaggerated, and it was five times less than Bastin and his colleagues claimed.

Fleischman explained this by indicating that among the promises of some studies it was revealed that planting more trees increased the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, something that It is not true. “Although oxygen circulates through the trees, trees and forests are not really a net source of oxygen (because their decomposition uses the same amount of oxygen that they create) and, anyway, the planet is not at risk of being without oxygen “.

The examples of the failures of these reforestation plans are numerous. 3.4 billion dollars were invested in Mexico in a reforestation campaign called ‘Sembrando Vida’ in 2018, but that effort caused just the opposite: ended up driving deforestation.

A later study showed that 73,000 hectares of forest had been lost, something unusual for an effort that promised just the opposite results. The government was paying farmers to reforest, but to do so they ended up deforesting first for firewood, for example, or cutting back land previously used by livestock.

Something similar happened in Pakistan, where a large reforestation initiative that started in 2014, called the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’, just eroding the culture and life of a nomadic group called Gujjars. There have been more similar cases in China or Brazil, where according to a recent study their vast grasslands have been degraded by these efforts.

More than planting, you have to make them grow

This expert further pointed to four big problems that go against the idea that reforestation allows offsetting carbon emissions:

  1. Land use change is already a major source of carbon emissions. The best way to think of forests as absorbing new carbon is to think of it as offsetting the carbon emissions lost from the destruction of forests in the past.
  2. Not enough space on the planet so that natural ecosystems absorb more than a small part of fossil fuel emissions.
  3. Trees planted today will absorb carbon in the future. Your broadcasts today they start to warm the planet today.
  4. Tree planting projects they usually failSo if trees are planted instead of reducing emissions, then nothing is actually being done.

In fact, Fleischman indicated that if the objective was to absorb emissions, a small group of large trees it could absorb more emissions than a large group of small trees. There are other factors to consider, such as their long-term sustainability and whether the people living near these new forests will benefit from them or will have to make decisions in case of problems with them.

Fleischman concluded by saying that although “planting trees is wonderful”, these kinds of initiatives are not appropriate. “The key interventions are often not even biophysical,” he commented, adding that “what we’re doing now seems like a waste of time and money at best, and in the worst a green wash of face “.

Experts indicate that these reforestation plans must take into account that the suckers are very vulnerable, and in these projects 25% of them end up dying. In addition, as Fleischman said, this absorption of CO2 takes time to occur: until 20 or 30 years pass they do not do it in a significant way.

Climate Scientists as Lalisa Duguma indicate that the key is not to plant trees, but to make them grow. Karen Holl, professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, oversaw the World Economic Forum (WEF) program called the ‘Trillion Trees Program’, and he was also surprised by the poor vision of the project.

In fact It showed itself “shocked” because many of the proposals only asked for two years or less of monitoring. “It is not the necessary time that it will take us to obtain the advantages of this biodiversity that we want.”