Trees are amazing! What’s more, they are an amazing tool for solving many of our most pressing environmental problems.
Trees soak up carbon dioxide when they grow, reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and slowing climate change. Restoring degraded forests creates habitat for many species, including endangered ones. By filtering stormwater runoff and pollutants, forests reduce flood risk and protect the health of our waterways. Trees prevent wind and water erosion, influence local weather patterns, keep us healthy and happy, and produce many products that are essential to our daily lives.
Despite the benefits of forest ecosystems, deforestation and its contribution to climate change and species loss remains a significant problem in many parts of the world.
In addition to fighting forest destruction, planting trees and restoring forest ecosystems are some of the most important and cost-effective solutions to these twin crises. A staggering 12 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions come from deforestation but, if we halted this destruction and planted trees, we could instead pull a massive amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and reduce our climate impact.
Fortunately, there have been huge strides made in reforestation in many places.
In Africa, a deforestation hotspot, projects like Kenya’s Green Belt Initiative are making headway against the destruction by planting forests for firewood, ecosystem restoration, and climate resilience. South Korea has managed to reforest two-thirds of its land area since the end of the Korean War, and many other places such as Brazil, the United States, China, and Russia have been planting trees as well. The worldwide reforestation movement is gaining steam at a time where it has never been more necessary for the health of our planet and its people!
Beware of corporate greenwashing and tree-planting PR!
Companies often try to build good PR by claiming to plant trees, but their efforts are often in bad faith. Some companies simply plant trees and leave them to die for lack of care, while others plant trees destined for logging, or plant exotic species that cause environmental damage, use too much water, or take over native ecosystems. Sometimes corporations will only pay for part of the cost of planting the tree and then claim the whole tree as the result of their goodwill. Don’t believe everything you see in advertisements—do your own research to see whether they are telling the whole story.
The kind of trees planted makes a huge difference in the climate and biodiversity impacts of reforestation.
Trees are planted for many reasons: to restore degraded ecosystems, for wind or flood protection, for timber production, for agroforestry (the production of agricultural products from trees), and for other purposes. Native forests store a lot of carbon, both in the biomass of the trees themselves and in the soil. They also support high levels of biodiversity. Agroforestry can sometimes have dual economic and environmental benefits, but the carbon storage potential is often lower than native forests and the habitat much less ideal for native wildlife. Timber plantations store carbon as well and can reduce logging pressure on native forests. However, lower wood prices created by timber plantations could shift deforestation to tropical primary forests where logging is cheap. Of course, there is always the risk that plantation forests or agroforestry operations could destroy and replace natural forests due to their higher potential for profit.
Poorly-designed tree planting efforts can have few positive impacts, and can even backfire: take Chile’s long-running tree planting subsidy policy. By indiscriminately subsidizing tree planting (and not policing native forest clearance), the country unintentionally encouraged logging companies to cut down its biodiverse native forests and replace them with timber plantations. In contrast, well-designed, ecologically sensitive tree planting efforts avoid tend to avoid negative environmental impacts while delivering much greater benefits.
If you are considering donating to a tree-planting charity, do some research first to ensure that your money is put to good use.
What can you do?
1. Plant trees in your yard or property. In addition to storing carbon and welcoming birds and other species, trees can provide shade, places to hang a hammock, and ample climbing opportunities for people of all ages. Your local wildlife (and your kids!) will thank you for the place to play. If your neighborhood has a homeowners association, check with them about landscaping restrictions before planting.
2. Encourage your neighbors to plant trees. The more trees in your neighborhood, the better for everyone!
3. Volunteer with local organizations that plant trees and restore degraded ecosystems. Land trusts conserve land and often need volunteers to help restore and maintain healthy forests on their land. Look for organizations in your area that plant trees and advocate for urban forests and parks.
4. Push your town or city to participate in the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program. This program works with municipalities to improve their urban forests.
5. Donate to tree-planting efforts around the world. Find projects that restore native forests rather than plant trees destined for logging, and make sure that the promises made by the organization you donate to will be kept.
Created by Evan Wright on July 12, 2020