GOP bill will seek to commit US to planting 3.3 billion trees annually
Republicans are putting the finishing touches on a bill that would cement President Trump’s commitment to a global initiative to plant 1 trillion trees, though experts caution that planting trees is not the most effective way to combat climate change.
Legislation being drafted by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) that will be unveiled this week would commit the U.S. to planting some 3.3 billion trees each year over the next 30 years, an increase of about 800 million trees per year.
“The pragmatic, proactive thing to do is to plant forests and manage them so that you’re actually pulling carbon out of the atmosphere,” Westerman said.
The bill is just one component of a coming package of legislation from House Republicans that offers their solution to the climate crisis following Democrat’s rollout of their own sweeping plan that would aim to have the U.S. reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
But Republican’s efforts to deal with carbon so far lie primarily in sequestering it in trees, which can take in carbon and store it, offsetting some atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions.
That approach has not been a winner with climate scientists, however, who say that while trees undoubtedly improve the environment, the globe won’t be able to plant its way out of a climate crisis.
“Trees do take carbon out of the atmosphere and if you want to permanently store carbon in trees, you have to permanently commit to keeping the trees forever,” said University of Chicago geophysical sciences professor David Archer.
“The fossil fuel carbon is so much bigger than all the carbon in the trees,” he added. “You can’t do carbon neutral by planting trees…it’s sort of a Band Aid.”
Trump committed the U.S. to the 1 trillion tree initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, saying the U.S. “will continue to show strong leadership in restoring, growing and better managing our trees and our forests.”
Westerman, who has a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University, said his bill would commit the U.S. to contributing about 10 percent of the trillion tree figure, keeping pace with America’s current share of the estimated global tree growth.
His bill charts a path to planting an eventual 100 billion trees, an effort that would include private partnerships and a curriculum for fifth graders in which they plant a tree. That tree growth would ideally be spread across both urban and rural areas, even near farmland.
“Corporations and individuals, whoever wants to participate, can come in and help with these tree planting programs,” he said.
The U.S. had 228 billion trees in 2014, according to data released the following year.
A study from the U.S. Forest Service released in 2018 also found that the U.S. was losing 36 million trees per year from urban and rural areas between 2009 and 2014.
Westerman said his goal of planting 3.3 billion trees each year is not as lofty as it may seem, as the U.S. already plants about 2.5 billion trees each year.
He added that the U.S. would also give technical assistance and foreign aid to help spur tree growth overseas, where some countries have more land available for planting.
Some scientists have expressed skepticism of the idea, telling The Hill that while trees certainly don’t hurt the planet, other methods like reducing carbon emissions, halting current deforestation, investing in renewable energy and putting a price on carbon emissions might be more effective.
Peter B. de Menocal, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Climate and Life, told The Hill that planting trees is a “fine idea” but “not nearly sufficient” to be a leading solution.
“The most important thing we can do is put a price on carbon and to understand that our carbon emissions represent a cost to society. In 2017, that cost was about $320 billion dollars or half the U.S. military budget.”
Paul Falkowski, head of the Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology Laboratory at Rutgers University, raised concerns about how long the planting and tree-growing process could take.
“It could take up probably at maximum about 20 percent of the excess carbon dioxide, and it’ll take a pretty long time for that to occur,” said Falkowski, who leads the university’s Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology Laboratory.
Westerman stressed the need to continually chop trees and plant new growth.
“There is this thing called the biological growth curve. If you think of a baby, they grow fast,” he said.
“Trees are the same way, plants are the same way, that at a young age, they grow fast, and the faster they’re growing, the more carbon they’re pulling out of the atmosphere. So you actually get a boost with young trees.”
Westerman said he wasn’t opposed to other solutions such as renewable energy, but that he believes planting trees is “low-hanging fruit” that will help get carbon out of the atmosphere.
“We’ll work on transitioning into more renewables and we can do it without gut-punching the economy,” he said.
His bill also comes on the heels of a Democratic climate plan that would push utilities to work toward 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050 and require reduced emissions from both cars and airliners.
Westerman called that bill a “great talking point” but emphasized the need to remove carbon that’s already in the atmosphere.
“If we totally quit using fossil fuels right now and there was some magical ways we could quit putting man-made carbon in the atmosphere, what do with the carbon that’s already up there?” he asked.