Tue, Jun 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Can planting billions of trees save the planet?

Organizations from around the world are reforesting at an unprecedented rate

By Patrick Barkham  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

When Clare Dubois’ car skidded on an icy road in Stroud, Gloucestershire, a tree prevented her vehicle tumbling into a ravine. It was a sign, she said. Humanity is nearing a precipice. Trees can stop us going over the edge.

This calling was so strong that Dubois, a business life coach, founded TreeSisters with a friend, Bernadette Ryder, to take on a daunting mission: To reforest the tropics within a decade.

In 2014, their new charity funded its first 12,000 trees by encouraging Western women to make small monthly donations to reforestation projects in the tropics.

Today, TreeSisters is planting 2.2 million trees (average cost: US$0.42 per tree) each year across Madagascar, India, Kenya, Nepal, Brazil and Cameroon.

“We have to make it as natural to give back to nature as it is to take nature for granted,” Dubois said, musing on the need to “shift from a consumer species to a restorer species.”

She is not alone. The global elite is embracing tree-hugging rhetoric. It is as if the world has suddenly woken up to the restorative powers of plants.

Forests can stop runaway global heating, encourage rainfall, guarantee clean water, reduce air pollution, and provide livelihoods for local people and reserves for rare wildlife.

Politicians are waking up to the potential of “natural climate solutions” — reforestation and other ecological restoration — to capture carbon and tackle the climate crisis.

Such solutions could provide 37 percent of the greenhouse gas mitigation required to provide a good chance of stabilizing global heating below the critical 2°C threshold.

In March, the UN announced a Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and has set a target to restore 350 million hectares — an area bigger than India — by 2030.

India itself has pledged to plant 13 million hectares of forest by next year, Latin America is aiming at 20 million hectares and African countries 100 million hectares by 2030.

China’s aspiration is to plant an area of forest as large as Ireland every year.

Trees are increasingly hailed as a solution for climate-stressed cities too, preventing overheating and reducing air pollution. In England, more than 130,000 trees are to be planted in towns and cities over the next two years.

However, it is not as simple as just grabbing seeds and saplings and sticking them in the ground. Non-native plantations can cause problems for biodiversity, local livelihoods — or both. Grand pledges are not always met.

Dubois is only “vaguely heartened” by the new mood.

She said that a 2014 UN declaration pledged to halve deforestation by next year.

Instead, record deforestation ensued and last year an area of primary forest the size of Belgium was lost, the third-highest annual depletion since records began in 2001.

Technology — such as tree-planting by drone — is often hailed as a game-changer, but it can be hit-and-miss.

“Everybody thinks that smarter technology is going to save us,” Dubois said. “A significant amount of the materials required to be mined for that smarter technology are under the last remaining old-growth forests.”

TreeSisters refuses to use drones, “because we’re all about the relationship between people and trees,” Dubois said. “It’s the disconnect between people and trees that drives deforestation. We need people connected with forests.”

TreeSisters’ philosophy is different: Local, community-based reforestation with native trees in the tropics.

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