In defense of trees for climate action

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Bipartisan momentum behind planting trees to fight climate change has grown in recent months, from action on the ground to legislation in Congress. With Arbor Day this week, it would be the perfect time to celebrate the work that is being done, yet pushback from researchers, journalists and climate activists is casting doubt on trees’ climate potential in absence of other climate change mitigation measures.

Recent articles in Grist and The New York Times lament all the ways that tree planting and reforestation can go wrong. A 2021 Vox article brands tree planting as essentially virtue signaling from companies and billionaires before admitting that when reforestation projects are done well, they’re incredibly effective.

The fact remains that harnessing the power of nature to fight climate change is one of the greatest tools we have at our disposal. If implemented properly, natural climate solutions could account for more than one-third of the emissions reductions we need by 2030. This number comes from the well-respected National Academy of Sciences, to which scientists and scholars are elected by their peers for outstanding work. Dismissing these solutions as insufficient to address climate change is another step on the dangerous path of climate inaction.

Of course, we all know that planting trees will not single-handedly solve climate change. There is not a single activist or expert claiming that we can plant our way out of the climate challenge we face. Natural climate solutions, however, can be put into action today, unlike other solutions that require more research and development to be fully viable. Not only that, but nature-based solutions are the most cost-effective at as low as $10 per ton of carbon stored.

There’s no doubt that tree planting or other well-meaning conservation practices have the potential to go wrong or have unintended consequences. That, however, is not a reason to dismiss an entire slate of policy solutions that a growing, cross-partisan coalition supports. We can strive to pursue natural climate solutions more effectively while acknowledging failures or challenges of the past.

The aforementioned Gristarticle suggests that we’re focusing too much on planting trees when there’s an easier solution at our fingertips: We could simply stop using fossil fuels. This is the kind of thinking that has kept us in a frustrating pattern of inaction, and it’s often those who say they’re most passionate about addressing climate change who are to blame. As a climate activist myself, I understand the desire for urgency and large-scale solutions, but that cannot be an excuse for dismissing effective, incremental action.

Contrary to what many climate activists seem to believe, there is no silver bullet to climate change, no perfect solution with zero trade-offs. Clean energy technologies come with critical mineral supply chain challenges. Producing nuclear energy means reckoning with nuclear waste storage. Reforestation requires careful planning and forethought, as well as continued stewardship, to ensure long-term success. These tradeoffs by no means should deter us from pursuing these solutions, but they’re critical to take into account so we can have an honest and realistic conversation about the path forward.

Arbor Day was originally created as a day of action, and it’s estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska during the first celebration in 1874. We need to reignite the ethos that those pioneers had and ensure that we’re pragmatically and intelligently employing every climate solution at our disposal, including planting trees.

Christopher Barnard is the national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisBarnardDL

Tags Christopher Barnard climate action Climate change natural climate solutions tress

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