Many advocates are campaigning for large-scale tree planting. The goal is to absorb CO2 (one of the leading greenhouse gases) in order to mitigate the impact on climate change. However, scientists from the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona believe that these large-scale campaigns are not a sufficient substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This quick and less expensive fix, these climate scientists claim, is sadly a daydream.
David Breshears, a respected environmental and climate change researcher, says “we can’t plant our way out of the climate crisis.” His co-author, Jonathan Overpeck, is the dean of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. They are both experts in topics such as tree mortality, paleoclimate, and climate interactions. They believe that these large-scale campaigns would do more harm than good, considering they might fail in the long term.
According to their research, it would be wasting money to plant lots of trees and not maintain those areas. The focus should be on taking care of the forests already matured. Since mature forests act as carbon sinks — meaning they’re able to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere — it makes more sense to keep our existing forests healthy and prosperous. Simultaneously, we must decrease greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions rapidly.
Managing existing forests and planting new trees are topics highly debated when it comes to the climate change issue. At the annual Conference of Parties (COP) climate change conference this past November, these topics were highly discussed with people on both sides. And they will surely be discussed again at the upcoming COP in Glasgow, UK.
Overpeck and Breshears wrote that “policymakers need to enable new science, policy and finance mechanisms optimized for the disturbance and vegetation change that is unstoppable, and also to ensure that the trees and forests we wish to plant or preserve for the carbon they sequester survive in the face of climate change and other human threats.”
They sadly believe that “failure to meet this challenge will mean that large terrestrial stores of carbon will be lost to the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and the impacts on vegetation that threaten many more of the ecosystem services on which humans depend.”
Forest management must be adapted in order to save these forests and keep them healthy. Managers and policymakers must accept that these changes are vital to the future of our planet. In order to make a true difference, extensive changes to management must be made.
Climate change is linked to record-setting wildfires, sea-level rise, sunny-day flooding, tree die-offs, land loss, longer and hotter heat waves, worsening air quality, and extreme droughts. As the global climate continues to warm, these natural disasters and trends will continue to worsen.
Deforestation is actually worsening all around the world. Tropical forests, for example, are one of the largest sinks being destroyed. Changing management practices to be proactive (rather than preventive) can help cause these forests to thrive and, in theory, decrease the frequency and effects of disasters. These types of forest conservation projects are more likely to effect positive change on carbon sequestration than large-scale plantings.
“Tree-planting has great appeal to some climate activists because it is easy and not that expensive,” Breshears claimed.
“But it’s like bailing water with a big hole in the bucket: While adding more trees can help slow ongoing warming, we’re simultaneously losing trees because of that ongoing warming.”
Maria Timberlake is a sophomore at Mississippi State University. She is studying Natural Resource and Environmental Conservation with a concentration in Law and Administration. She hopes to pursue natural resource management or environmental law in the future.