Reforestation is not the solution to climate change: when good intentions go wrong

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.

China’s massive reforestation program aims to stop desertification (Gobi desert on the left). Source: China Daily

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.

7 thoughts on “Reforestation is not the solution to climate change: when good intentions go wrong

  1. Reforestation is a very interesting topic! However, I think the Science article was not presented fairly. While it is true that the article generated a lot of debate and several scientists criticised the numbers, the authors published an erratum in 2020 (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6494/eabc8905).

    Firstly, they corrected their approach to reforestation:

    “They [the authors] did not mean that tree restoration is more important than reducing greenhouse gas emissions or should replace it, nor did they mean that restoring woodlands and forests is more important than conserving the natural ecosystems that currently exist. The authors acknowledge that climate change is an extremely complex problem with no simple fix and that it will require a full combination of approaches.”

    Secondly, in their study they were referring to area available for canopy cover restoration in areas that “would naturally support woodlands and forests”. So, while it is true that planting trees in ecosystems that do not naturally support them causes a range of environmental problems, the authors did not suggested that. In fact, this can be seen in the article’s figure #2 (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/365/6448/76/F2.large.jpg?width=800&height=600&carousel=1). They took into account only the potential tree cover (image A) for their calculations, which as you can see excludes arid zones (those have a 0% score). So the example of China’s reforestation program in the Gobi desert seems inappropriate.

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  2. Thank you for writing this interesting blog post! When I see headlines of countries/regions announcing they will plant trees to battle climate change, it makes me happy to see that countries take action. However, I never really think about how the trees affect local ecosystems, so thank you for talking about the downside of reforestation.

    I like that you pointed out how more vegetation can decrease the water table. I think that is an often overlooked ‘side-effect’. In areas where water is already scarce, additional vegetation can create even more scarcity, although some trees (like date trees) more than others. For these regions, trees might not be the best vegetation to plant. However, maybe vegetation that alters the soil in such a way that it holds more water can be planted without changing the water table too much. They might be even beneficial in the long term for the water table!

    I think the climate change problem is, at this point in time, so big and far-reaching that it seems like there is no unproblematic solution to it anymore. Every solution seems to have downsides. However, I also think it is important to bring things into perspective. We would lose biodiversity by planting a monoculture of only trees, but we would lose more biodiversity if climate change were not halted.

    Overall, I think policymakers should not aim to plant X amount of trees but aim to decrease X amount of CO2 from the atmosphere by increased vegetation. This way, on a local scale, vegetation can be found that fits the current ecosystem (so no monoculture or invasive species), and that does not create water scarcity. While it might be more time-consuming and more expensive to work like this, I think it is necessary to not destroy the nature we have now to solve climate change’s future negative effects on nature.

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  3. Hii, thanks for this articlee, really interesting, especially the link to colonialism!

    I would like to add, that rather than focusing on planting new trees, politicians should focus on decreasing land use change (as Bart mentioned in his lecture) and preserving existing forests. Existing forests have accumulated carbon over a substantial amount of time and therefore have high carbon stocks that are set free when transformed into e.g. agricultural land. Moreover, existing forests are often much more complex, they have different individuals of different ages, as well as different species at different heights in the canopy. This leads to a much higher carbon sink capacity than monocultures, as well as higher biodiversity. Moreover, it has been argued, that old forests in particular, have been underestimated as carbon sinks (Carey et al., 2001; Luyssaert et al., 2008). This means that rather than planting new trees, politicians should focus on preserving old forests, instead of building new highways through them such as in the Dannroeder forest in Germany (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/04/activists-try-to-stop-autobahn-being-built-through-german-forest)

    sources:
    Carey, E. v., Sala, A., Keane, R., & Callaway, R. M. (2001). Are old forests underestimated as global carbon sinks? Global Change Biology, 7(4), 339–344. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2486.2001.00418.x

    Luyssaert, S., Schulze, E. D., Börner, A., Knohl, A., Hessenmöller, D., Law, B. E., … & Grace, J. (2008). Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature, 455(7210), 213-215.

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  4. Very interesting post, thank you!
    I am taking Hydrology this semester and a few weeks ago I learned very surprising things about reforestation, deforestation and the water use of forests. Our teacher does a lot of water consulting in Tonga, a small Pacific island, and he told us how in cases he has to advise locals to cut down some forests or to avoid planting trees in a water-scarce area. Apparently, planting or having forests in areas that depend mostly on groundwater can consume the scarce available water from the local farmers and especially in dry years, increase the chance of bad harvests and water conflict.

    He also explained how in other areas prone to floods tree-planting is encouraged. However, due to corrupt governments and the commodification of land, these efforts are often inefficient. Tree-counting is done with saplings, which obviously still don’t account for a significant store of carbon. After the bureaucratic benefits of planting trees have been received, they are often not left to grow to the size that the trees occupying the virgin forest had.

    Invisibilia, a popular podcast, did an episode on peat last year (https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/for-the-love-of-peat/). I think that as AUC students, we have all heard about Peat at some point haha, but I would still recommend giving it a listen for the interesting points they make about the tree-planting hysteria era we have entered, and the idea of a one-fit/’panacea’ solution is a dangerous one.

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  5. Thank you so much for this piece! I found it very nuanced and well argued, and I think that it is very important to bring forth the drawbacks of reforestation, while all the while keeping in mind that it can be helpful if done right. I think you do this skillfully, and I learned a lot from this piece.

    I have a comment to what CarECS has to say about problems and solutions. I agree that there are going to be side effects to most policies implemented, and that we need to mitigate for negative effects. This is true of all policy, always. However, there are some policies that clearly lack nuance or justice in the way they are implemented. You pose endangering biodiversity through planting monoculture against mitigating climate change, but I think this is a false dichotomy. Why not plant a more diverse ecosystem? This would surely require more resources and expertise, but might not entail the same risks to biodiversity. I think the nuances are important, especially when it comes to benefits and drawbacks of policy, and that is what I think snickyss elegantly lays out in this post.

    Overall, both in regards to the article, the comments by Ines and my criticisms of dichotomizing, I think this panacea solution thinking is very harmful and dangerous, and I believe Ines is right to point it out.

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  6. Hi, I think you misunderstood my comment. I took hydrology, like Ines, so I also thought about how vegetation can create more water scarcity. This is what I wrote in my comment: ‘In areas where water is already scarce, additional vegetation can create even more scarcity, although some trees (like date trees) more than others’.
    Additionally, I also argued that there shouldn’t be monoculture and argued for a more diverse ecosystem. This is what I wrote in my comment: ‘Overall, I think policymakers should not aim to plant X amount of trees but aim to decrease X amount of CO2 from the atmosphere by increased vegetation. This way, on a local scale, vegetation can be found that fits the current ecosystem (so no monoculture or invasive species), and that does not create water scarcity. While it might be more time-consuming and more expensive to work like this […]’

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  7. Very interesting and informative piece, thank you for that!
    I would like to add something to the problems that come with these reforestation projects. Many polluting companies, especially airlines, offer customers the option to offset their incurred emissions by paying some extra money to go to reforestation and forest conservation projects. First of all, doing this gives the customers a false sense that all their travel is carbon neutral and diminishes the perceived devastating impact of plane travel. This is false because of the large-scale ecosystem transformation and neo-colonial implications that you mention in the post. But adding to that is the fact that a large amount of these reforestation projects are basically scams. A recent investigation found that the amount of trees planted for carbon offsetting is often wildly exaggerated and sometimes there was no reforestation at all.
    The investigation can be found here:
    https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2021/05/04/carbon-offsetting-british-airways-easyjet-verra/

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