Vast swaths of land and money are going towards planting trees to slow global warming. But does this raise as many problems as it solves?
10 questions all funders should ask before supporting tree-planting campaigns
Editor’s note: From Porn Hub to Jeff Bezos, businesses and organizations around the world are seeking to offset their damaging carbon emissions by planting trees. As climate change escalates, trees are in vogue, because the act of planting a tree is something even a child can appreciate. Of all climate solutions, tree-planting is most widely understood, according to a 2020 Pew survey. Today, there are no fewer than three campaigns globally focused on planting 1 trillion trees.
But solving a problem as vast as climate change is never as straightforward as planting lots of trees. As Karen Holl, a professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, writes for us this week, reforestation efforts require careful planning and long-term maintenance and investment in order to succeed:
Everyone wants to plant our way out of climate change. Tree-planting efforts have reached fad proportions, with large-scale organized campaigns, carbon offset credits, corporate responsibility pledges, and individual donors all contributing to a largely unregulated global undertaking.
Doing more harm than good
In a paper, I recently co-authored with Pedro Brancalion, at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, we express our concern that the widespread fervor for tree-planting may often be doing more harm than good.
Funders must be realistic about what tree-planting can accomplish and think very carefully about where all of that money is going. Otherwise, we will be wasting money on projects that fail.
We can attest to the importance of protecting existing forests first and then restoring tree cover where it has been lost.
Of course, the best solution for deforestation is not to cut down trees in the first place. Both of us have been studying forest restoration for almost three decades, and we can attest to the importance of protecting existing forests first and then restoring tree cover where it has been lost.
However, when it is time to reforest, it is important for future funders, and business leaders to think before they plan.
Understand what you hope to achieve before you plant
In a paper we recently published, we urge organizations and individuals to ask themselves the following questions before supporting a reforestation campaign. The key is to understand what you hope to achieve by growing trees and how likely the project you are supporting is to succeed in achieving those goals.
- First, what do you hope to achieve by growing trees?
- Do the proposed tree growing strategies match those goals?
- How have the initial drivers of deforestation and forest degradation been assessed and resolved?
- How are local stakeholders involved in the project and what benefits will they receive?
- How will potential negative consequences of the project be minimized?
- How will the project be maintained and supported after the first few years?
- How will the outcomes of the project be monitored and guide adaptive management?
- What are the outcomes of prior tree growing efforts overseen by this organization?
- How will the funding be allocated across organizational scales?
Some of the questions are designed to ensure that funders appropriately weigh the risks and benefits of projects. Planting trees in the wrong places can reduce limited water supply and destroy other types of biodiverse ecosystems, like grasslands and savannas. And initiating projects without appropriate engagement and buy-in from local communities may lead to social conflict, lost income, and displacement of people, which can actually increase deforestation.
Planting trees in the wrong places can reduce limited water supply and destroy other types of biodiverse ecosystems
It’s important to have a clear vision early on. Even when projects go right, there are usually trade-offs among goals like carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and benefits to local stakeholders.
A key misconception is to focus on the number of trees planted, and not the number that actually survive. For example, decades of tree planting in Northern India had little effect on forest density and rural livelihood.
Monitor and adaptively manage
Instead, projects should set targets for how many trees will be alive in five, 10, or 20 years, and then manage by the data. Monitoring is essential to identifying and correcting issues as tree-planting efforts continue to grow in scale. It is essential to take care of and protect the trees over time to achieve the goals we want.
Another key factor of success is the organization undertaking the tree-planting. The number of organizations leading these projects has grown rapidly, and not all have the same level of experience or qualifications.
Projects should set targets for how many trees will be alive in five, 10, or 20 years, and then manage by the data.
I am a member of a number of advisory boards for investment groups and environmental organizations. I ask that all address these questions before any project is funded or implemented. Organizations need to clearly state their goals, have a long-term plan, and to tell me how their project engages and benefits local stakeholders.
Otherwise, tree-planting becomes an exercise in futility, or worse, part of the global warming problem.
You can read my full paper with Pedro Brancalion in the journal One Earth here.