Updated on 2021-11-30 by Adam Hardy
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2020, the world’s billionaires threw their weight behind the WWF’s Trillion Trees initiative.
In particular President Trump joined in the game, in one of his first statements that didn’t try to deny or play down climate change.
Even before Trump endorsed the idea though, lots of people had seized on this seemingly simple “silver bullet” for climate change. It sounds fantastic – and there’s no denying it’s a necessary job. But the actual Trillion Trees program is mostly about conserving existing trees, not just planting new ones. As the “solution” to climate change, it appeals to people’s hearts, not their heads – the arithmetic of planting a trillion trees to pull down all our CO2 emissions from the atmosphere is all wrong, in terms of time, money, land and even the details like long term stewardship. Just using big numbers is not going to make it happen.
Only big, old trees really suck up loads of CO2 as any lumberjack worth their salt will tell you – it’s old growth that counts. So chopping down old trees is the last thing we want to be doing even if they will be replaced with new plantations.
A new tree only captures about 25kgs of CO2 in its first decade.
As a rough calculation, say we have 10 billion people in the world. For a Trillion Trees, everyone would have to plant 100 trees each. Aside from the fact that there’s no room for my family of four in London to plant 10 trees each in our tiny back garden, we would have to wait 50 years or so before the CO2 absorption really kicked in. That’s not going to help with any 2050 targets.
It’s also not going to help counter-balance the ongoing CO2 emissions. In those 50 years we’ll all be emitting 5 tonnes a year each.
In the UK, farmers are being offered incentives to plant, but the uptake is not encouraging.
It just doesn’t make sense financially and is turning into a lame duck policy. Many tree nurseries were led to believe there would be a surge of demand for saplings and are now having to destroy their stock.
This BBC article highlights the lack of real planning behind the issue and the lack of understanding in the media of all the different factors involved.
It needs to be “the right tree in the right place”: the worst example is what many assume is being proposed – foreign conifer tree species on sensitive landscapes like peat bog. A big mistake – but this is what commercial forestry does, simply because non-native conifers are cheap, and peat bogs are easy to plant up.
Essentially the government at least in the UK and US hasn’t sat down and thought this one through yet.
We need a decent policy in place to nail down “the right tree in the right place” – and not just the UK, but every country – even the Scandanavians, and of course every country with tropical forests and deforestation rates that make your eyes water.
With a good policy in place (maximising old growth), then we need to work out what to do with the trees once their CO2 absorption has peaked – and that’s not obvious. You can cut them down, but you can’t leave them to rot, burn them in wood-fired power stations or leave a huge stack of tree trunks knocking around like the biggest fire hazard since the Towering Inferno – the CO2 has to be made safe for all time. The ideal place would be down a coal mine, where the CO2 originally came from.
Lastly a link to the Carbon Brief overview of what how close the UK is getting to having “the right tree in the right place” and what it might need to do to get there.
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