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Seeing the Forest for the Trees?: The Role of Afforestation and Reforestation in Combating Climate Change

Wil Burns's picture
Visiting Professor, Environmental Policy & Culture Program, Northwestern University

Dr. Wil Burns is a Visiting Professor in the Environmental Policy & Culture Program at Northwestern University. Prior to this, he was the Founding Co-Director of the Institute for Carbon...

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  • May 28, 2021
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In recent years, there has been increasing discussion of the potential role of afforestation and reforestation in addressing climate change by effectuating the removal of large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Indeed, a number of recent studies have indicated that tree planting could contribute substantially to meeting the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement. Most prominently, modeling by Bastin et al. projects that increasing forest cover by 25 percent could result in the storage of a quarter of current atmospheric carbon pools. In the United States, this had led to both legislative and executive initiatives to drive massive tree-planting programs. Four U.S. senators recently introduced the Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act, which, inter alia, calls for support of the 1t.org initiative, an international program for reforestation of a trillion trees. In October 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing the One Trillion Trees Interagency Council to help further the federal government’s contribution to the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Trees initiative.

However, while tree planting assuredly may have a modest role to play in the battle against climate change, the vision of a “trillion trees” could prove to be chimerical, as well as counterproductive from an environmental and social justice perspective.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 1, 2021

However, while tree planting assuredly may have a modest role to play in the battle against climate change, the vision of a “trillion trees” could prove to be chimerical, as well as counterproductive from an environmental and social justice perspective.

It does seem like planting trees can be a feel good measure, but the existing forests (and oceans and other natural resources) must be preserved today as strongly as possible!

Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Jun 4, 2021

Forests, or at least the types of forests most Americans think of when they think of forests, aren't the only ecosystems that can sequester carbon.

In Colombia, a group of organizations is working together to preserve a coastal ecosystem dominated by mangroves by selling what are being called blue carbon credits, according to this Popular Science article.

The article says the blue carbon designation is being used to refer to projects that preserve "coastal wetlands, mangroves, and tidal marsh seagrasses that contain rich stores of carbon—substantially more than terrestrial forests—and exist on every continent but Antarctica."

Interestingly, the article says that between 80 and 90 percent of the carbon in those kinds of ecosystems is found in the soil.

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Jun 7, 2021

Watched a good documentary last week on the life of renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado. Salgado grew on a big cattle farm at the heart of Brazil's lush Atlantic Forest. By the time he inherited his father's farm, the land had long turned into an eroded desert. Salgado, along with his family, decides to ditch the cows and replant the forest instead. It's a big success: The rain and the jaguars return. Left me feeling pretty optimistic...but maybe it's something I should look deeper into. 

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