Why Trees are Not the Answer to Climate Change

Every few days, another article pops up somewhere extolling the virtues of “reforestation” as the solution to the climate crisis. One article, published on Ecowatch on July 5, 2019, proclaims that “Planting Billions of Trees is the ‘Best Climate Change Solution Available Today,’ Study Finds.”

While the tree huggers are often careful to admit that reforestation, alone, cannot solve the climate crisis, the authors of these articles quickly gloss over that caveat and proceed to explain how reforestation can rescue us from our own stupidity. (Well, who do you think cut down all those trees in the first place?)

Their solutions simply don’t hold water….or enough carbon dioxide to make any difference in the long run.

The article in question, which was reprinted from Science, is a report on a study that claims to have identified 0.9 billion hectares of available land (planet-wide) where a reforestation program could plant enough trees to reduce the carbon dioxide overload by 25 percent, bringing the concentration of carbon dioxide down to where it was “almost” a century ago.

That would be great news if it were true…but it isn’t, because it would only be true if we get a handle on the current overproduction of CO2….and we all know that we have missed the zero growth mark over and over again, year after year.

Even the study’s author,  Professor Tom Crowther of ETH-Zurich, admits that:

“Even if tree planting began today, it would take 50 to 100 years for the new trees to soak up those 200 gigatonnes of carbon,” he told The Guardian. And, as National Geographic pointed out, the researchers found that potential tree-planting land could shrink by one-fifth by 2050 even if global temperature rise is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as some tropical areas could grow too hot to support forests.

The first problem with reforestation is that we definitely do not have 50 to 100 years to wait around for a solution. By then, the coastal cities of the world will all be under water, if sea levels continue to rise as predicted, our economy will be in a shambles, and half the world will be starving to death.

The second problem is that 0.9 billion hectares is an area approximately the size of the United States. (We’re assuming they meant the 48 contiguous states.)

One hectare is 107,639 square feet, or around 2.5 acres. This works out to 2,250,000,000 acres. Yes, that’s 2.25 trillion acres. One acre of arable land costs approximately $2,600 in the United States. Therefore, theoretically, it would cost $5.85 trillion JUST TO PURCHASE THE LAND.

Agreed. Land costs are higher in the United States. Or are they? Here are some current land prices: England: $12,200, France : $4,180, Mexico:  $4687, Canada:  $2,700, Australia: $9167. These are average prices for arable land, and it turns out that land prices in the United States are actually at the low end of the spectrum.

As you can see, ARABLE land isn’t cheap…and the interesting thing about arable land is that someone always already owns it. Governments actually do not own great swathes of land and when they do, they are usually in National Parks and other restricted areas.

In other words, before you can plant your trees, you have to have to buy some dirt to plant them in, and that’s going to take around $5 trillion. That’s a drop in the bucket when measured against the future of the planet. The question is: where is the money going to come from? Who’s going to pony up to the checkout counter with a $5 trillion money order?

Well, it’s not really that bad, is it?  We don’t have to do this all at once.

If we do it over five years, it will cost $1 trillion a year. If we do it over ten years, it will run $500 billion per year. If we do it over twenty years…we might as well not bother. The statistical analysis was based on a crash program of reforestation.

Another fact: In 2018, it was reported that we actually have more trees now planet-wide than we did 35 years ago, according to Pacific Standard, which lifted the information from the scientific journal, Nature.

So, how do we reconcile the continued increase in carbon dioxide concentration levels against the fact that we have more trees on the earth today, than we did 35 years ago?

Well, Nature has an answer for that too and you’re not going to like it:

We find maximum tree ages are significantly correlated with slow juvenile growth rates. We conclude, the interdependence between higher stem productivity, faster tree turnover, and shorter carbon residence time, reduces the capacity of forest ecosystems to store carbon under a climate warming-induced stimulation of tree growth at policy-relevant timescales.

This study, which actually has some hard science behind it, appears to indicate that under the current warming average temperatures, newly planted trees will not be able to sequester nearly as much carbon dioxide as older trees that matured under more favorable (e.g. cooler) meteorological conditions.

There are quite  a few other very dicey questions that need to be asked and answered, but the almost inescapable conclusion is that we can’t get there (adequate carbon dioxide sequestration) from here (adverse growing conditions for new growth forests) and it appears that every time we cut down another old tree, we’re slitting our own throats in the process.

It turns out that old growth trees have significantly more carbon sequestration potential than the new growth trees that proponents of reforestation are proposing to replace the old trees with.

This makes reforestation appear more and more like a palliative measure than a real cure, if it ever was one.

Those other problems, however, merit some honorable mention.

  1. It is not clear what the tree-per-acre concentration level the reforestation proposals are based upon. The ones I have seen project results based on an average of 100 trees per acres. The forest management sources I have consulted have told me that, in terms of durability, resistance to pests, and reduced likelihood of fires, a concentration of 20 trees per acre is ideal.  At 20 trees per acre, there probably isn’t enough arable land on the planet to suck all that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
  2. Installation costs: You don’t just plant a tree and walk away. Young saplings growing wild are quite literally protected by their parent trees. They are sheltered from excess sun in the summer that can burn a sapling to a crisp in a single day, and from snow cover that can kill off a young tree in the winter. The parent trees also protect their offspring from the spring run-off by fixing the earth in place against erosion and absorbing water from the ground, and from storm winds. This isn’t a fanciful projection. There’s hard evidence that trees do care for their offspring. Look around for it.

Therefore, reforestation projects just got more complicated. We – and the trees – are better off if we plant new growth trees in and around older growth forests so that the older trees can adopt and protect the saplings. Unfortunately, the clear-cutting harvesting systems now employed by logging operations make that virtually impossible because they are cutting down the old growth trees that could have provided a more hospitable environment for new growth saplings. And if there are such environments out there, guess what, the trees in those old growth forests are already propagating themselves. That’s what trees do.

The only other alternative is to set up nursery centers to raise saplings to the point where they can survive without support from older trees, but this results from increased costs from the transplantation process.

  1. Water costs. The climate crisis has many facets. One of them is the dual prospect of rising sea levels and fresh water shortages. When there isn’t enough snow cover on the mountain tops, there isn’t enough water in the environment to support tree growth…and trees are heavy drinkers. The average tree is actually 50 percent water. That water has to come from somewhere, and someone is going to have to pay for it.

Conclusions

Should we abandon reforestation?  Of course not. We have to embrace a large scale reforestation program. We have to raise the money to support reforestation because that money will not be forthcoming from the world’s governments because they have already seen these reports and they have already written off reforestation.

Will reforestation save us? Absolutely not. We’re not going to get off that easy.

No, reforestation is not the answer…but, then, there is no one answer. Reforestation is a step that you can take in your own backyard, a do-it-yourself project. Just plant some seeds and see what happens.

What we should do is start buying timber lots from the people who own them…and then protect them from tree poachers (yes, there are tree poachers.)  Now, there’s something that makes sense. Start a fund. Buy some full grown trees that are already in the ground because one older tree is worth two or three young ones, if not more.

There once was this guy named John Chapman who used to travel around, planting trees and teaching the early settlers in the new territories of the United States how to plant and care for the trees he loved. He was a real person, not a myth or legend as some suppose him to have been. He changed the ecological structure of the eastern United States almost single handedly within a single lifetime, all by himself.

You know him by another name: Johnny Appleseed. I think he had the right idea.

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