Opinion: So, about that “trillion trees” study…

Planting trees may buy us some time, but they won’t address the root of the climate change problem.

Brendan Frank says a recent study by the journal Science on forest restoration and the role it could play in cutting GHGs is complicated with important findings and caveats. He says planting trees is part of the solution, but is not a cure-all. NationalForests.org photo by Dave Gardner.

By Brendan Frank

This article was published by Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission

Recently, the journal Science published a new study on forest restoration and the role it could play in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases. The findings generated a lot of eye-grabbing headlines, many of which were incomplete, hyperbolic, or downright misleading. It’s a complicated study with important findings and caveats. This blog will dig into a few nuances that were buried under a trillion trees. As we’ll see, forests are part of the solution but far from a cure-all.

What the study says

The study looks at potential from global forests for pulling GHGs from the atmosphere. In particular, it asks: to what extent could increasing global forests reduce GHG emissions? To answer this question, it estimates the maximum additional canopy cover the planet is capable of supporting. (The findings are generally robust, see here for methodological criticism.)

The authors calculate that the planet can support 4.4 billion total hectares of canopy cover—essentially a measure of the number of trees. (For reference, Canada’s total landmass is about 1 billion hectares.)

We can further disaggregate this number:

  • Existing forest canopy cover
  • Total potential new forest canopy cover
  • Total potential new forest canopy cover on land that is currently unproductive (i.e. not cropland)

That mix looks a little like this:

Source: Bastin et al., 2019

The authors’ focus (and the media’s) is unproductive land that is suitable for new canopy cover, which they put at about 900 million hectares globally. Over 50 per cent of this restoration potential resides in six countries. Canada (78.4 million hectares) ranks third after Russia and the United States.

According to the study, this additional canopy cover land could store a total of 205 gigatonnes of carbon once mature. This number is technically correct, but pulling one tonne of carbon from the atmosphere causes other sinks (namely the ocean) to release carbon. See comments from Canadell and Hausfather for elaboration.

Still, 205 gigatonnes is a big number. For context, global GHG emissions from industry and fossil fuels hit a record 36 gigatonnes in 2018.

Some caveats

The study abstracts a lot of the practical and technical challenges of achieving another 900 million hectares of canopy cover. It doesn’t offer solutions to them. Getting to 900 million would be tough, maintaining it might be tougher.

First, the study is silent on the economics. Reforesting 900 million hectares of land would be an effective climate solution, but this study isn’t clear if it would be cost­-effective.

Second, the study doesn’t differentiate privately- and publicly-owned land. If enough private landowners are reluctant, a lot of that 900 million hectares may simply be inaccessible for reforestation initiatives. (This is less of a problem in Canada.)

Third, this sequestration is not instantaneous. It would take decades for the forests to mature, with the constant risk of fire, invasive species, and land degradation along the way. Overshooting 2 degrees of warming within that timescale is quite possible.

Finally, climate change will affect the carbon storage potential of forests for the worse. There is new evidence that rising global temperatures may actually weaken the carbon-storing abilities of forests. The study is unequivocal: further climate change will reduce both tree coverage and the ability of our remaining forests to absorb and store CO2.

From the ground up

The authors give us plenty of food for thought, but how to encourage this reforestation? It’s not going to happen on its own.

There are plenty of options on the policy menu:

All of these ideas have their advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of which options we pursue, it’s essential we have strong accounting and monitoring systems, and standardized baselines (i.e. what would have happened without the offset).

Branch out

This study is a lot of things. Here’s what it’s not: an excuse to avoid reducing emissions at the source. Forests may buy us some time, but they won’t address the root of the climate change problem.

We can think of the balance of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere like a bathtub that’s both filling up and draining at the same time. It doesn’t matter how quickly the tub is draining if the water is coming in even faster.

Reforestation should absolutely be a piece of our climate strategy. But it’s exactly that: one piece, of many. Trees are still our best bet for pulling carbon directly from the atmosphere. They’re still not a substitute for a price on carbon or methane regulations or policies to enhance other carbon sinks. If we want to stop the tub from overflowing, we still need to turn off the tap.

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