According to a 2019 paper published in Science, the world still has space for 0.9 billion hectares worth of trees. These trees, once matured, could store up to 752 billion tons of CO2. “Global tree restoration is our most effective climate change solution to date”, the authors claimed. Many scientists later criticized the number, but it’s not just this paper that heralds reforestation as the solution to climate change. The idea can be found in a proliferation of academic publications, in environmental policy by governments around the world, in the many, many tree planting charities that currently exist – basically, everywhere. However, reforestation is not the ideal solution to climate change many make it out to be.
Reforestation has become incredibly popular among western people. It seems as if all of a sudden, the west has awoken to the restorative power of nature – something the rest of the world has arguably been aware of for a long time. Organizations like Trees For All, One Tree Planted, Justdiggit, or Treesisters, all European or North American organizations, hail reforestation as the salvation for our planet and are aggressively planting trees in the hopes of minimizing our damage.
This idea is not new, however. Reforestation has long been an obsession of western environmental governance. For over two centuries, the idea has reigned environmental policy throughout the world, and has been hailed as a solution for soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and most recently climate change.
The practice of tree planting as a form of environmental governance can be traced back to 19th century France, according to a 2018 paper by Diana Davis and Paul Robbins. Targets of around 30% tree cover, the minimum assumed for European civilization, were built into French environmental policy and exported globally.
“Tree planting is a practice never innocent of its imperial history”
Davis and Robbins argue that tree planting is a practice “never innocent of its imperial history”. In other words, reforestation as an environmental policy tool – or as they call it, arboreal biopolitics – is a practice closely interlinked with colonialism. Besides the obvious incredibly harmful consequences of colonialism, like genocide, widespread oppression and erasure of culture, colonialism has also created a general disregard and contempt for indigenous knowledge. This has often hurt nature as colonists attempted to install environmental practices from home but failed to take into account that these practices are not apt for each and every ecosystem. The systematic exclusion of indigenous knowledge is also dangerous in the mitigation of climate change, as this is a vital part of effective mitigation.
Remnants of colonialism remain in more environmental policy than we might think. Think for instance of nature conservation. Kenyan ecologist Mordecai Ogada argues that conservation of African nature is actually a new form of colonialism, because the rules from the colonial era still apply: “keep black people away from nature, so that white people can enjoy it.” According to Ogada, nature conservation is run by whites, often in ways that don’t necessarily benefit the local people. Protected areas, for example, often set up by outsiders, can displace the people that live there, limit movement for shepherds and their herds (which in turn can lead to overgrazing) and force wild animals into villages, creating conflict with the people living there.
“Many of the problems in the drylands stem from trying to change them, through high-intensive capital investments and technology, into something they are not, like gardens of Eden“
The preference for forested areas, traceable back to Europe, has had very real and tangible consequences. For instance, since colonial times, misconceptions about drylands and disregard for Indigenous knowledge have negatively impacted endemic populations and local biodiversity through the planting of trees where they do not naturally occur. According to dryland expert Ced Hesse, “many of the problems in the drylands stem from trying to change them, through high-intensive capital investments and technology, into something they are not, like gardens of Eden”. This happened in Kenya’s Baringo County, where the mathenge was introduced in the 1980s. The woody shrub was promoted by both the Kenyan government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to restore degraded drylands. But after the El Nino rains of 1997, the mathenge spread fast, outcompeting local species and lowering the water table. Overall, the introduction of the mathenge caused more issues than it solved.
In India, decades of failed forestry policy, originally introduced under British reign, have left its mark on the country. Although the aim of these policies was to ameliorate the effects of climate change and improve the livelihoods of its people, historically such policies have actually led to quite the opposite, namely the disinheriting of forest-rooted populations, but also the invasion of exotic species and the advancement of governmental power at the expensive of local people. Despite these less than desirable results, both re- and afforestation (planting trees where they did not occur beforehand) continue to dictate Indian environmental governance. In 2011, the government launched their most ambitious project yet, with the objective of covering close to a third of the country with trees.
There are many more possible negative consequences of massive reforestation. Because these trees are often planted in monocultures, they can be harmful to local biodiversity. Furthermore, if trees are planted in dry areas, they can actually cause water scarcity rather than solving it. Trees planted in the polar regions can potentially even have a net warming effect.
Then, there is also the issue of misplaced attention. Through a focus on reforestation of the Earth as an effective solution to climate change, we risk deflecting attention from what is arguably the real issue: a system that values consumption and capital higher than nature. It allows us to continue our unsustainable consumption and lifestyles while exploitation and overharvesting continue to wreak havoc upon the planet. It also allows large businesses to continue their often environmentally unfriendly practices with an eased conscience. Planting trees can help, but they will never be a substitute to reducing fossil fuel emissions.
However, if done well, reforestation efforts can be a powerful tool to mitigating climate change. More nuanced estimates of the carbon sink potential of trees are closer to 3 – 18 billion of tonnes of CO2 per year, or 11 – 15 billion for all nature-based climate solutions.
And there are more advantages to planting trees. For instance, in dry tropical regions, planting trees can cause a shift in weather patterns, leading to more rainfall and therefore more plant growth and carbon sequestration. Trees can also reduce air pollution, reduce heating, and provide reserves for wildlife. Overall, if done right, reforestation can help solve many issues the planet is currently facing – but, again, only if it’s done right.