Climate Change - is tree planting the solution?
By Fran Southgate
Living Landscape Advisor
Since the climate crisis came to the fore in the media last year, there has been a huge push to find simple, easy to deliver initiatives which can help us to rapidly store carbon. One of the easiest things to do, which could have widespread benefits in a relatively short period of time, is to plant trees. Trees are great, they lock up carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, as well as improving soils and soil carbon storage too. Not only that but they provide flood risk management benefits, pollination benefits, biodiversity benefits – and most people love trees. On the surface it’s a win-win situation.
If we scratch a little deeper however, we discover that tree planting is not a panacea. There are some circumstances where tree planting is not appropriate at all, and others where trees are planted for rapid harvest plantations which only sequester a fraction of the carbon that our ancient and old growth forest would store. Tree planting is great – but natural tree regeneration is often much better for carbon storage, and yet this is rarely something which attracts either support or funding. At the moment we are still cutting down our ancient forests, and then expecting newly planting trees to make up for the loss of these carbon megaliths. This film by ‘The Economist’ gives us some idea of exactly how much tree restoration can or can’t contribute to climate chance mitigation – it’s a more nuanced story than many of us currently appreciate.
Tree planting, in the right circumstances, and preferably using natural tree regeneration, can of course be a large part of the solution to help buffer the impacts of man-made climate change. However it is not the silver bullet. Tree planting is not an excuse for Governments, corporations and individuals to carry on with ‘business as usual’. We need large scale, industry, business and community led solutions, behavioural changes, and cultural changes to ensure that we meet the necessary carbon targets to avert the worst effects of climate change over the next few decades. We also need to stop cutting down our existing forests at unprecedented rates.
There are other natural and human solutions – not least, reducing our carbon emissions, but also protecting and restoring other natural areas, including our sea beds and marine habitats, soils and sustainably farmed grasslands, wetlands, ponds and peat bogs. We will need new, and innovative approaches to managing our landscapes, and we will need them fast. Let’s use tree planting as one of the important tools in our tool box to tackle climate change, but let’s not pin our hopes on it as the entire solution.