Noah Cozad, MJLST Staffer
At the World Economic Forum (otherwise known as Davos), the most popular subject was something called the Trillion Tree Initiative to help fight climate change. Nearly every attendee at the forum committed to the initiative. Including President Trump, who in the past has forcefully denied climate change’s existence, calling it a “hoax” invented by the Chinese. President Trump even mentioned the initiative in the State of the Union, and a GOP representative has introduced a bill that would commit the United States to planting 3.3 billion trees every year for the next 30 years. Davos describes the initiative as a “mass-scale nature restoration,” that hopes to provide up to one-third of the emission reductions necessary for the Paris Agreement targets. Practically, the initiative seeks to provide a single platform for a variety of reforestation projects and to mobilize funds and support. This initiative was started by the UN as part of the New Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, 2021-2030. The UN says the initiative “is about, conserving, restoring, and growing trees. Indeed, the goal of 1 trillion trees by 2030 includes conservation of existing trees (i.e. avoided deforestation), the restoration and natural regeneration of previously degraded forest lands, including actual reforestation and tree-planting schemes on suitable agriculture land, . . . as well as urban tree planting.”
The idea of planting 1 trillion trees comes from a controversial 2019 article in Science. The article finds that global tree restoration is currently one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions. Accordingly, planting 1 trillion trees has the potential to store 25% of the current atmospheric carbon pool. The study focuses on reforestation, as opposed to afforestation which is planting trees where none were before. Critics have argued that this is an unreliable way to fight climate change and is not a meaningful substitute for cutting back on emissions. Further, it is a very slow solution, for example it takes 25 years for a tree planting project to offset a single commercial flight.
While it is undeniable that planting large amounts of trees will help with climate change, there are still many issues with this idea. The initiative seems like a silver bullet, relatively apolitical, and very easy for people to grasp onto and understand (unlike climate change, which as a whole is extremely complex). But herein lies many of the problems. For one the initiative completely shifted the focus of Davos away from proven solutions like carbon taxes. While carbon taxes are difficult and very political, a trillion trees is a good way for banks and pension funds, that are financially exposed to fossil fuel companies for $1.4 trillion, to act as if they’re doing something. Further, simply planting tons of trees might be bad for an individual ecosystem. In fact the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India has had to ask Leonardo DiCaprio from going forward with a tree planting project as ecologists say the current plan will dry up rivers, harm the floodplains, destroy biodiversity, and eventually make the area uninhabitable for the trees in the first place. The UN itself has said that the project is NOT a silver bullet and should instead be one smaller part of a larger plan.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that the initiative provides political cover to those making climate change worse and distracts from better solutions. Absent other climate policies, the United States would need to plant an area over twice the size of Texas to offset emissions. Trees play a critical role in climate change, but the best way to utilize them is to protect current forests and let them grow back naturally. And the best way to do that is to provide protections for the indigenous peoples living there, according to University of Minnesota Natural Resources Professor Forrest Fleischman. Professor Fleischman stated, “people are getting caught up in the wrong solution. . . . Instead of the guy from Saleforce saying, ‘I’m going to put money into planting a trillion trees,’ I’d like him to go and say, ‘I’m going to put my money into helping indigenous people in the Amazon defend their lands.’. . . That’s going to have a greater impact.”
Overall, the Trillion Tree Initiative is a good start, but should not be allowed to provide political cover for those invested in fossil fuels, and climate deniers. For example, the folks at Davos continue to support President Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has rolled back protections of indigenous people and the Amazon, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, thus allowing large swathes of the tropical forest to burn and the people who live there to be killed. The trillion tree initiative should not distract us from such actions that ultimately make climate change worse. Instead of one, simplistic solutions, we should push for multiple, better solutions such as protecting public lands, forests, and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live there and protect the environment, along with planting more trees.