Can Planting Trees Save the World?

Photo by Bella Wilkes / In Our Nature

Photo by Bella Wilkes / In Our Nature

During this summer, news coverage of massive forest fires tearing through the Amazon rainforest struck the world with horror. Experts attribute the cause of this catastrophe to the practice of the land clearing technique ‘slash and burn’ done by the farming industry to clear land for crops and livestock grazing. The destruction of the world’s largest and most diverse forest not only releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the foliage burns, but also threatens the well-being of wildlife and people in the surrounding area. Now, more than ever, the world is realizing the indispensability of trees and forests: the lungs of nature. In recent months, many countries have been spurred to action due to the mounting evidence that human-caused climate change is imminent and have taken the initiative to heal the biosphere by widespread tree-planting movements. 

Scientific research has shown there are extensive environmental benefits to increasing global forest cover. The basic biological processes of trees allow them to act as a vacuum to the atmosphere: They sequester carbon dioxide from the air, store it and release oxygen in the process of photosynthesis. Through this process, one acre of new-growth forest can absorb between 2.2 and 9.5 metric tons of CO2 annually. Along with regulating the climate, an increase of forest coverage helps to capture excess water that could cause flooding and landslides, hold soil in place to reduce desertification and erosion and increase biodiversity by creating new habitats for other plants and animals. 

One country to take the global tree-planting movement in stride this year was Ethiopia. The African country has experienced one of the steepest deforestation rates in history: from 30 percent forest coverage in the 19th century to only 4 percent in 2000. As a country that heavily depends on agriculture, this was extremely detrimental to the farmers because the lack of trees caused the croplands to decline in overall yield and soil fertility. On June 29 this year, Prime Minister Getahun Mekuria launched a national campaign to plant 350 million trees in 12 hours, a goal that was surpassed by more than half a million. This amazing feat is part of a pledge Ethiopia took with other African nations to plant 100 hectares of trees by 2030 to improve their farmlands and combat climate change. For a continent that is developing in a critical moment in human history, this climate-conscious progress is a vital step in the right direction to establish an eco-friendly civilization. 

Another country that has led the way in the reforestation movement is the Philippines, a country in which much of the deforestation has been caused by illegal logging practices. Filipino lawmakers have been working on a bill that would require all students to plant 10 trees before graduating at each academic level: elementary school, high school and university. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in May 2019 and is still awaiting an expected pass from the Senate. The program would focus on planting indigenous species throughout the country, from cities to cultural heritage sites to protected mangroves. 

Even China, currently the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is doing its part to restore its deforested land. The country has had a massive desertification issue in which the Gobi Desert has been expanding due to a combination of deforestation, poor water management and overgrazing by livestock. This has caused a majority of farmland to be destroyed, forcing farmers to abandon their land and move to cities. To slow this process, the nation has begun planting a ‘Great Green Wall’ of trees along the borders of the desert, with Chinese scientists theorizing that the root systems of the native trees will hold the soil in place, preventing further desertification and reducing the occurrence of sand storms. Despite claims from China’s officials that the forested wall is working, it has been reported that many of the trees planted are not tended to, and a great number end up dying. Therefore, it is unclear at the time whether or not this technique will help preserve China’s farmlands. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only instance in which the benefit of planting trees has been unclear to experts. Many experts criticize that planting trees will not help to combat climate change. Some say the effort is futile, because secondary forests, which are newly planted forests that are recovering from human interference, do not sequester as much carbon dioxide as old-growth forests do, as old-growth trees are undisturbed by humans and are usually over 100 years old. This is because it takes 10 to 30 years for most trees to mature, and the carbon that needs to be taken out of the atmosphere to reduce the greenhouse effect will not be taken out at an effective rate before that. Others argue that with changing climates, it is likely that ecosystems will alter, and the trees planted there will possibly not be able to survive

Photo by Bella Wilkes / In Our Nature

Photo by Bella Wilkes / In Our Nature

But there is hope. The science of reforestation to combat climate change is still relatively new, and there is room for more research that could show ways that reforestation is an effective solution. A recent study published by UC Davis offers another solution in the form of native grasses. These scientists are concluding that planting native grasses is an especially good way of sequestering carbon, maybe even more effective than tree-planting, due to the fact that grasses absorb a good deal of carbon and store it underground in their root systems, as opposed to storing it above ground in trunks and branches, like trees do. Therefore, with the higher likelihood of drought and fire as the century continues, less of the stored carbon will be released into the atmosphere in the event of one of these disasters.

So, planting trees by the millions, as these countries are doing, is better than doing nothing and waiting for a foolproof and completely universal way to combat climate change, because there may never be one. They are the trailblazers of modern climate management and prove the idea that in order to save our planet, we must realize our own wrongdoings on the environment and find ways to reverse our mistakes before it is too late. Or, in the words of the Lorax, the speaker for the trees: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”


If you would like to get involved with the global tree-planting movement but don’t have the means to plant a tree of your own, consider donating to or purchasing from these companies and organizations that vow to plant trees with your contribution. All sites listed below have products made in eco-friendly processes.