A new study by Swiss scientists published in the journal Science last week said that planting up to a trillion trees would halt the worst effects of climate change, Reuters and AFP report, as locals in a remote corner of Ireland rebel against commercial conifer plantations.
The area required would take up the size roughly of the United States, but the world does have enough room for this, the study claims.
The one trillion extra trees could absorb nearly 830 billion tons of carbon dioxide over a few decades, equivalent to all the carbon pollution produced by humans in the last 25 years.
“Every other climate change solution requires that we all change our behaviour, or we need some top-down decision from a politician who may or may not believe in climate change, or it’s a scientific discovery we don’t yet have. This one is not only our most powerful solution — it’s one that every single one of us can get involved with,” researcher Tom Crowther, told Reuters.
The report pointed out that countries where there is enough room to plant this number of trees include Russia, Canada, the United States, Australia, China, and Brazil. Brazil has seen some of the highest levels of deforestation in the world in recent decades as mining and agricultural interests eat into the Amazon rainforest, while Nigeria, which was once covered in forest, now has just 6% of its territory left as forest.
But while planting a huge number of trees is a cheap and relatively straight forward option, it would not work in isolation and the world also requires emissions cuts to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
As well as vastly reducing the amount of fossil fuels we burn, other behavioural changes would also see relatively quick results such as reducing the quantity of animal products in our diets, which would cut out the huge amounts of methane produced from livestock farming.
Planting large numbers of trees would also help stop the loss of biodiversity and help prevent natural disasters such as floods and droughts.
Just Planting More Trees Will Not Be Enough
But other scientists who were not involved in the study were more sceptical about the magic effects of planting so many trees.
“Restoration of trees may be ‘among the most effective strategies,’ but it is very far indeed from ‘the best climate change solution available,’ and a long way behind reducing fossil fuel emissions to net zero. Yes, heroic reforestation can help, but it is time to stop suggesting there is a ‘nature-based solution’ to ongoing fossil fuel use. There isn’t. Sorry,” said Myles Allen, a geosystem science professor at Oxford, the AFP news agency reported.
Ireland’s Massive Afforestation Scheme Meets Resistance
Despite its relatively small population, Ireland is one of Europe’s worst climate offenders. It has a lot of livestock for beef and dairy farming and still burns a lot of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, for electricity production.
In 1900 Ireland had just 1% forest cover, but now has 11% and has just committed to planting 8,000 more hectares every year to reach 18% coverage. The thinking is that enough trees will offset carbon dioxide emissions as Dublin tries to avert fines for missing targets on CO2 emissions and renewable energy.
But the problem is the type of trees being planted. A type of fast-growing pine tree, called the Sitka spruce, has been planted almost as a monoculture in dense plantations.
The Sitka spruce is originally from North America but thrives in Ireland’s damp temperate climate. It grows extremely quickly and also acts as an important commercial entity, as it is supplied wood for pulp, plywood pallets, and building materials.
In Leitrim county in the northwest of Ireland, a huge number of Sitka spruces have been planted and locals have had enough.
“We’re not anti-trees, we’re anti-this. It’s industrial monoculture – a green barrier all around us. It’s horrible,” Willie Stewart, from Drumnadober, told the Guardian.
A local farmer, Jim McCaffrey, said that the spruce forests are a death sentence for the area.
“The forest closed in bit by bit. The trees eclipse sunlight, exude mist and block wifi and phone networks, inducing isolation,” he said.
Commercial planting of the conifer plantations began in the 1960s and there now more than 34.5 million of them in Leitrim alone.
Locals Fight Back
But activists in the sparsely populated county – it has just 32,000 residents – are mounting a campaign called Save Leitrim, to roll the plantations of Sitka spruce back.
Activists question the climate credentials of these non-native trees. They argue that native species such as the Oak, and the peat bogs that were here before the plantations suck up more CO2.
Campaigners have stalled the growth of the Sitka plantations by filing multiple planning objections thereby clogging up the system.
There are signs that the dominance of the Sitka in Ireland may be on the wane. The Irish government’s target of planting 8,000 new hectares per year does not specify what trees they are.
Last week, Collite, a state-owned forestry company, announced that nine forests of commercial timber, almost entirely of Sitka spruces, would be converted to a different type of forest with native species, which would mainly be focused on recreation and biodiversity.