Could planting 1 trillion trees be the answer to global warming? Study says yes

  • In order to roll back the effects of climate change, the nations of the world would have to plant hundreds of millions of acres of carbon-absorbing trees, making things look a lot more like the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, above.

      In order to roll back the effects of climate change, the nations of the world would have to plant hundreds of millions of acres of carbon-absorbing trees, making things look a lot more like the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, above. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
By Tara Yarlaggada
HowStuffWorks
Updated 9/18/2019 10:03 AM

In recent years, climate change has loomed like a dark specter over the globe, contributing to everything from gentrification in Miami to refugees fleeing drought and crop shortages in Guatemala.

But the urgency around the issue reached new heights in 2018 when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that rapid, "far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" would be needed in order to drop carbon dioxide levels by 2030 and prevent catastrophic global warming.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Scientists have indeed proposed drastic measures -- just not in the way that you might think. In the same report, the U.N. suggests adding 2.5 billion acres of forest to the world could limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.

In other words: Responding to climate change will require planting new trees. A lot of them.

And now, the U.N. might have the data to back up its proposal.

In a study released in July in the journal Science, a group of researchers associated with the Crowther Lab in Switzerland found that global tree restoration to the tune of 223 million acres of canopy cover -- an area that's approximately the size of the United States -- is "our most effective climate change solution to date."

These trees would store 205 billion tons of carbon, or roughly two-thirds of the carbon that has been emitted "as a result of human activity since the Industrial Revolution," according to a news release.

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Although some news reports have said this much forest restoration is the equivalent of roughly 1 trillion trees, this statistic is actually linked to an estimate from a 2015 study.

Jean-François Bastin, the Crowther Lab's study lead author, breaks down the 2019 analysis by email. "The idea was to estimate what tree cover could be expected when you removed the 'human factor,' i.e. what specific types of forest would naturally occur in the absence of other development, and where," he says. Bastin and his team used machine learning to build "a model to link tree cover with climate/soil/topography, based on 78,000 observations of tree cover in protected areas."

The researchers then projected the data further to estimate the "total potential tree cover of the planet," Bastin explains. Afterward, the team excluded land currently being used for urban settlements, croplands and existing forests, which yielded the total amount of land available for restoration.

The study includes a map showing how much tree coverage different parts of the globe can support; the top three areas include Russia, Canada and the U.S.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Worldwide restoration

In many ways, the study's timing couldn't be more perfect, as it aligns with current global efforts around ecological restoration. One example is the Trillion Trees Vision, which seeks to restore 1 trillion trees by 2050. Another is the Bonn Challenge -- a partnership between the government of Germany and the U.N.'s International Union for Conservation of Nature that aims to restore 371 million acres of deforested land by 2020.

You might think that sounds pretty easy. Let's all roll up our sleeves and save the planet by planting one tree at a time -- right?

Some experts say the situation is a little more complicated, especially if most nations don't chip in to help.

"Implementation of forest restoration on the scale discussed in this paper is not as straightforward as it might seem," says Jim Hallett, chairman of the Society for Ecological Restoration.

"By 2018, there were commitments of over 420 million acres by 58 nations, which exceeds the Bonn Challenge goal. Current estimates indicate around 29 percent of the committed lands are now under restoration, but most of this work has been done by a few countries."

Although Hallett agrees forest restoration is important to addressing climate change, restoration alone likely will not be enough. It takes time, after all, to implement such big restoration projects and also for these trees to store carbon.

Will it work?

Other scientists question not only the practicality of the study's claims but also the study's very methodology.

"Many of the allegedly available restoration areas are clearly unsuitable for more trees than they currently support. If you look closely at the map, a large proportion of these areas are in regions where soils are permanently frozen," says Eike Luedeling, a climate change researcher and professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Bonn. "The methodology implicitly implies that carbon stock is proportional to canopy cover, i.e. ecosystems without trees contain no carbon. This is clearly false and strongly inflates the global estimate (of restoration)."

Jan Börner, Luedeling's colleague, is similarly skeptical. Börner says some areas being proposed for restoration already are being used for other purposes. Börner considers the study to be an "interesting academic exercise ... but as a (climate change) mitigation strategy proposal, it sends a misleading signal to the international climate policy debate."

Don't fret just yet. Both Bastin and Hallett emphasize the U.N. has declared 2021 to 2030 the "Decade on Ecosystem Restoration," which could spur nations to act quickly -- and some countries are already tackling the initiative head on.

"What we need is universal action: international agencies, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), governments, all citizens -- anyone can be involved," says Bastian. "Local communities and small organizations may be especially effective. While they do not have the same reach as national agencies, they have the benefit of knowing what works best in their own backyards."

• This story originally ran on howstuffworks.com. It is republished here as part of the Daily Herald's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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