Planting trees strategically and consistently may filter more than 200 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
It has been widely believed for decades that tree-planting initiatives have the potential to rescue the planet from environmental devastation. While that belief was largely a measure of faith rather than hard science throughout much of the 20th century, new evidence strongly indicates that planting the appropriate trees in the right soil composition around the world could ultimately reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 25%.
According to a study published by Science Magazine, there is sufficient global landmass to create additional forest cover by a factor of one-third while keeping inhabited lands and existing agriculture intact. According to the report:
“The restoration of trees remains among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation. Excluding existing trees and agricultural and urban areas, we found that there is room for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of canopy cover, which could store 205 gigatons of carbon in areas that would naturally support woodlands and forests.”
While these findings clearly indicate strong potential for significant environmental carbon dioxide mitigation, they do not lessen the significance of ensuring the protection of living forests and reducing global reliance on fossil fuels. Even if major international reforestation initiatives were to occur, the resulting forests wouldn’t reach maturity for several decades, and full carbon reduction likely wouldn’t begin for more than 100 years – during which tens of billions of tons of CO2 would be released yearly from burning fossil fuels. The only way to ensure reforestation efforts yield dividends would be to cease building industrial resources that require fossil fuels and begin closing current power plants. Unfortunately, these measures are not being widely taken. A report published by Nature found that:
“International efforts to limit the increase in global mean temperature to well below 2 °C, and to ‘pursue efforts’ to avoid a 1.5 °C increase, entail a transition to energy systems with net-zero emissions by mid-century. Yet recent decades have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of historically long-lived, fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure – particularly associated with the rapid economic development and industrialization of emerging markets such as China and India – and a shift towards natural-gas-fired power plants in the USA.”
Reduction in CO2 emissions from industries where non-fossil-fuel power sources have yet to be innovated – aviation, for example – might be at least partly achieved from systematic reforestation initiatives. Urgency, however, is key. As climate continues to change, increased global temperatures and drought could inhibit optimal forest growth. It may be possible that tree loss in tropical climates may outstrip reforestation initiatives in northern latitudes.
Nature’s Carbon Eaters
Photosynthesis is the process by which CO2 is captured from the atmosphere and water is absorbed from the ground for the purpose of conversion into glucose, the excess of which is stored as starch and cellulose. Oxygen is released, and plant residues contribute to soil composition enhancement, optimizing carbon sequestration. Yet this natural filtration system is in jeopardy.
It has been projected that by 2050, roughly 23 million acres of forest land will be lost due to increased urban population growth. Destroying forests to accommodate exploding human populations releases stored carbon from the soil, contributing to rising CO2 levels. A 2010 report published in Nature Geoscience stated:
“[Forest] loss is positively correlated with urban population growth and exports of agricultural products… Rural population growth is not associated with forest loss, indicating the importance of urban-based and international demands for agricultural products as drivers of deforestation. The strong trend in movement of people to cities in the tropics is, counter-intuitively, likely to be associated with greater pressures for clearing tropical forests.”
In addition to displacing CO2-capturing tree cover, accelerated urban population growth leads to heightened energy consumption, elevated automobile exhaust, diminished water availability and quality, and increased waste. These factors, combined with reduced CO2 sequestration, result in the exponential diminution of environmental health.
Again, the importance of fossil fuel reduction in conjunction with reforestation efforts cannot be overstated, in large part due to the factors delineated above, but also because trees release gasses of their own, and they don’t play well with CO2 emissions generated by burning fossil fuels. There is the potential that gasses released by forest cover can trigger adverse reactions when intermingling with man-made pollutants. Additionally, well-meaning but poorly considered reforestation efforts may do more harm than good.
Planting Trees the Right Way
The global embrace of afforestation – installing forests where they had not been previously – created its own set of environmental catastrophes. In 2016, the Canadian town of Fort McMurray experienced a massive wildfire that burned over a million acres and destroyed the homes of nearly 100,000 town residents. The forest had been part of a governmental initiative to grow timber-producing forests. Swamps were cleared, spruce trees were planted, and native vegetation was overwhelmed, including the naturally occurring peat that acted as a fire inhibitor. Although the large tree cover acted as a carbon sink for decades, once it ignited with nothing to stop the spread, it became a CO2 emitter.
Numerous cases of afforestation have resulted in unforeseen ecological challenges, from non-native tree species drinking up so much water that water availability is reduced, to encouraging increased rainfall in arid regions, to causing uncontrollable fires.
Reforestation should emphasize the restoration of biodiverse ecosystems to achieve positive outcomes. This means planting an assortment of flora appropriate to the region to replace native species lost to the encroachment of agriculture.
Nearly half – 46% – of global forests have been destroyed. Every minute, football field-sized rainforest covers are cleared – nearly 19 million acres yearly – permanently damaging local ecosystems, eroding soil and contributing to climate change. When it comes to protecting and restoring our forests, there is no time to waste.
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