Story at a glance

  • Following President Trump’s comment surrounding the “billion tree project,” many wonder if the U.S. has undertaken the project.
  • Experts say that nothing has manifested, and even if it did, more robust action is needed to combat climate change.

Tuesday night’s tumultuous presidential debate featured numerous statements surrounding incumbent President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s achievements and initiatives as elected officials. One notable claim was Trump’s mission to plant 1 billion trees. 

“You know we’re planting a billion trees, a billion-tree project,” he said on the debate stage. 

Trump has pushed this initiative before, specifically during his State of the Union address and on Arbor Day in early 2020, where both times he publicly supported the United States joining the Trillion — not billion—  Trees initiative, a reforestation program started a decade ago by the United Nations. 

Countries like India, New Zealand, and China have committed to the pledge, apparently along with the U.S.


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Yet there has been little action on this front. Jesse Reynolds, a fellow in environmental law and policy at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment within the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, says the idea of reforestation and afforestation — or the planting of trees where they hadn’t been before — entered the mainstream through unlikely origins.

Reynolds explains that the idea gained traction when it was published in a Swiss academic paper that claimed trees could remove much more carbon dioxide than previously thought. Since then, the paper has been criticized and revised past credibility, but the idea of trees removing carbon dioxide from the air remained.

“The idea of using land use changes to actually soak up carbon dioxide has always kind of linger[ed] in the background,” Reynolds said, despite the fact that it is tough to quantify the exact effect and guarantee the permanence of newly planted trees. On average, scientists estimate the planting of more trees will reduce approximately 5 to 10 percent of net emissions. 

The Trillion Tree Initiative continued to take off in the U.S. Marc Benioff, the Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce, picked up on the idea and created his own tree-planting initiative, later communicating it to Jared Kushner, who then brought the idea to President Trump.

Around the same time, Republican Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced The Trillion Trees Act as a bill in Congress to cement the initiative into law. The bill has largely stalled after being referred to the House subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry in February. 

Reynolds notes that planting more trees has become a popular option as humans have failed to cut emissions from transportation and other uses of fossil fuels. 

Westerman and President Trump both historically opposed reducing greenhouse gases to prevent climate change, but support planting more trees as a remedy for greenhouse gas buildup. Reynolds says while trees play an important role in the health of the environment, it isn’t a silver bullet for climate change. In fact, Reynolds says there is no silver bullet at all, but a diverse set of solutions. 

“What we’re starting to see is traditional opponents of climate action embracing forestry and other potential carbon dioxide removal methods as a distraction from the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

In any case, the planting of a significant amount of trees hasn’t been realized. “As far as I know, to my knowledge, the trillion trees initiative hasn’t taken much action,” Reynolds stated. “I haven’t seen anything besides rhetoric.”


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Published on Sep 30, 2020