Tree planting is critical for sustainable future but can’t fix climate change on its own

Tree planting is critical for sustainable future but can’t fix climate change on its own

  • January 22, 2016
  • Posted by: wayne
  • Category: Forestry

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Around 40 kilometers south-west of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, native and exotic trees stand side by side on 8 hectares of the Suba Forest. Surrounded by tall junipers and idyllic mountains, this group of seed orchards is just one of many that serve as incubators for the country’s impressive landscape restoration efforts.

With a tiny carbon footprint by international comparison, this agriculture-dependent East African nation is leading the way in the fight against climate change by implementing a massive tree-planting campaign that is helping to reverse decades of deforestation, drought and land degradation. Ethiopia has pledged to restore 15 million hectares of forests and landscapes by 2030 and has turned local communities into land custodians in the process. Last year, the country highlighted its progress by planting a record 350 million trees in a single day.

Tree planting has become a ubiquitous feature of the environmental zeitgeist in a bid to slow the climate crisis by capturing carbon dioxide and restoring landscapes.

Research has shown that deforestation and land degradation account for $6.3 trillion in lost ecosystem services each year, yet every $1 invested in restoration generates $7–$30 in economic benefits. The opportunity costs offer an added incentive for governments, companies and citizens to meet the goals of the Sustainable Development Agenda, the Bonn Challenge, the New York Declaration on Forests and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative. Yet tree planting is only one component of these broad-based efforts and cannot solve the climate crisis alone.


Can tree planting save our planet?

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) have identified five global challenges of our time: forest degradation, rapid biodiversity loss, accelerating climate catastrophe, broken food systems, as well as increasing inequalities and inequities. Tree planting plays a key role in addressing these points while supporting around 1.6 billion people who depend on forested areas for their livelihoods. Planting programs also underpin the objectives planned for the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030.

“A carefully considered tree-planting strategy that includes local communities is essential to protecting the world’s soil, biodiversity and carbon sinks,” says CIFOR Director General Robert Nasi. “Afforestation and reforestation initiatives not only help to mitigate the effects of climate change, but also support the transition to a regenerative economy that casts nature as a partner rather than an obstacle.”

The task is more complex than simply planting seeds wherever there is soil: Success depends on the right tree for the right place and the right purpose.

Planting is just the start of the restorative process and should be seen as a long-term investment in the management and growth of a tree over many years. Planters must select a seed that suits the site and supports trees’ multiple functions as a source of food, livelihood, habitat for wildlife and protection for air, water and soil quality. Instead, forests are often viewed as a single commodity that needs to be cleared for palm oil plantations, converted for other cash crops or felled for timber harvesting, neglecting their potential as nature-based solutions.

Chile’s decades-long afforestation policy provides an insight into the pitfalls of poorly designed tree-planting initiatives. Decree Law 701 – which was in effect from 1974 to 2012 and was one of the world’s longest-running subsidy programs of its kind – led to the replacement of native forests with profitable tree plantations, causing a loss of biodiversity and natural carbon sinks.

The Chilean experience offers a lesson to initiatives such as the Trillion Tree Declaration and the Bonn Challenge, which has received pledges from 74 governments to restore more than 210 million hectares of land. About 80 percent of these commitments involve monoculture plantations or a limited mix of trees that produce fruit or rubber rather than restoring native forest, according to a Stanford University study published in June 2020.


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