Trees go viral

All of a sudden everyone’s talking about trees.  Even Donald Trump wants trees.  What’s going on?

The tree frenzy started slowly. In July 2019, researchers at the Institute of Integrative Biology at ETH-Zurich found that the restoration of forests was one of the most effective strategies for resolving the climate crisis. Excluding existing trees and agricultural and urban areas, the scientists found that across the globe there is space for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of forest canopy cover. That’s enough land to plant close to a trillion trees. According to the ETH scientists, those trees could potentially sequester and store over 200 billion tonnes of carbon—which would make a significant contribution to eventually drawing down atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

Professor Tom Crowther, who led the research at the Swiss university ETH Zurich, marvelled that “This new quantitative evaluation shows restoration isn’t just one of our climate change solutions, it is overwhelmingly the top one,” He added: “I thought restoration would be in the top 10, but it is overwhelmingly more powerful than all of the other climate change solutions proposed.”

Canada’s Liberal party sensed an opportunity. Fighting for re-election in October 2019, the Liberals promised to plant two billion trees and use “the power of nature to fight climate change.” They proposed to plant the trees over a ten year period—a program expected to create 3500 seasonal jobs a year.

A trillion trees needs a website and it wasn’t long before www.1t.org was launched to create a “unifying platform for the reforestation community, mobilizing political will and resources, and providing a pathway for anyone who wants to help to join the reforestation movement.”

Then on February 4, Donald Trump signed up, proclaiming in his State of the Union address:

“the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together Government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and around the world.”

So who’s going to plant all these trees and where are we going to put them?

Making space

First of all, planting a trillion trees can’t possibly be managed in a single year. Ethiopia recently claimed that it planted 350 million tree in 2019, beating India’s 250 million mark recorded in 2016. In the US, the recently introduced Trillion Trees Act proposes to plant an additional 24 billion trees over 30 years: that’s 800 million trees a year.

Countries with greatest space for additional trees

The World Resources Institute goes one step further, arguing in a recent article that the US should aim for planting 60 billion new trees by 2040. A program of that size would require planting 3 billion trees a year for 20 years.

Which countries have the greatest land areas available for these trees?  According to the work conducted at the ETH in Zurich, more than half of the restoration potential can be found in just six countries: Russia, USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China. So both the USA and Canada are major players in this ambitious international effort. The table shows the countries with the greatest potential to plant trees, assuming a tree cover of 1000 trees per hectare.   

The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that there are five distinct ways in which 60 billion trees could be planted in the US: reforestation, restocking, silvopasture, cropland and agrofostry, and urban reforestation. The graphic below shows how these five components of the program contribute to the total.

How the US could organise planting 60 billion trees (Source: WRI)

Trees planted and successfully grown to maturity in these numbers are estimated by WRI to remove about 540 million tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere. This is equal to nearly 10 percent of America’s annual net greenhouse gas emissions, or all annual emissions from US agriculture.

Meanwhile, up North

The Liberal government has promised Canadians that it will finance and organise the planting of two billion new trees. If these trees sequester carbon at the level estimated by the World Resources Institute  (about 9 kg of CO2 per year for a mature tree), they will absorb about 18 million tonnes a year of carbon dioxide.

But let’s get real. That isn’t going to make much of a dent in the emissions expected to be generated in Alberta by the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline and the Teck Resources Frontier mine  which together are estimated to add at least another 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year to Alberta’s flourishing emissions profile—already the largest in Canada.  On a per capita basis, Alberta already leads the world in emissions—clocking in at a whopping 62.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per capita, beating out even fossil fuel-rich Kuwait, which in 2013 only managed a paltry 54 .4 million tonnes per person.

It’s time for the Canadian government to get serious about reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases. Getting to net zero emissions by 2050 is a good talking point, but it means nothing if Alberta continues to go it alone in its quest to become the oil kingdom of Canada.

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Martin Bush

Martin Bush graduated from the University of Sheffield with a PhD in chemical engineering and fuel technology. He has spent the last 30 years leading natural resources management, renewable energy, and climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He can be contacted at climatezone.central@gmail.com. He is the author of a new book: Climate change and renewable energy--How to end the climate crisis. Published by Palgrave-Macmillan in October 2019.

One thought on “Trees go viral

  • 02/28/2020 at 8:56 am
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    In addition, I would add that reforestation in Canada has proven to be a net carbon emitter. In 2015, forests were a carbon source of 221 million tonnes due primarily to mega-fires and insect infestation.
    Mega-fires are more common today because:
    1. Forests used to be a patchwork of meadows, and different forest types and ages of trees. Today, areas are filled in with like trees (monoculture) of similar ages.
    2. Glyphosate being used to kill broad-leaf trees (fire block) and encourage evergreens, which are a fire hazard
    3. Prescribed burning used to be common but now smoke considered a nuisance
    4. Compared to 1910, fires no longer allowed to burn. 98% of all fires put out. Supression became prime shaper
    5. Fire season now 40-80 days longer due to global warming
    6. Bug infestation creating more deadfall

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