A Trillion Trees
“It was the Africa I dreamed of when I was 10 and fell in love with Tarzan,” said primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall in a recent interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson. “I left Gombe, my chimpanzee study, in 1986, having realized that chimpanzees and forests were vanishing across Africa, and realizing I needed to do something. And part of that was going around the planet, talking about those problems and learning more at the same time about what we’ve done to harm this planet. The crazy thing,” Goodall said, “is the biggest difference between us, chimps and other creatures is the explosive development of the intellect. So how come the most intellectual creature ever to walk the planet is destroying its only home?”
There’s a renewed sense of urgency to her activism at age 86. Her days are packed with meetings with world leaders, visiting conservation projects, supporting her Roots & Shoots movement and sharing her message with anyone who will listen.
“We’re going through very dark times” Goodall says: “socially, politically and especially environmentally. And lots of people are kind of losing hope, because you get this message, think globally, act locally. But if you think globally, you get really depressed. So, the message is about acting locally. And the main message is that each one of us makes some impact on the planet every single day.”
Which brings me to the number one trillion. Do you have any idea how big a trillion is? One trillion is a thousand billions, or equivalently, a million millions.
In an effort to wriggle out of the climate denial conundrum they’re finding themselves in, Republican leaders in Congress and their climate-denying president that they have sworn fealty to, have found their way (drum roll) to a “climate plan.” A central plank of the plan is the planting of one trillion trees. Sound like a step in the right direction? No. This may be an even more dangerous pro fossil fuel strategy than the outright denial that has pervaded the party for more than a decade.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced the Trillion Trees Act, legislation that would plant 1 trillion trees globally by 2050 and incentivize the use of wood products as carbon sequestration devices. “Trees are the ultimate carbon sequestration device,” Westerman said. “Every day, countless billions of plant cells are pulling carbon from the atmosphere and permanently storing it in wood. That’s why this legislation is so important. We’re taking proven science and turning it into practical solutions. Not only are we setting an ambitious goal of planting 1 trillion new trees by 2050, but we’re also reinvesting resources into managing forests and using wood products.”
Conservatives are slowly being boxed into a corner by the unbending physics of carbon dioxide heating our planet and the daily increasing news about climate-related weather, flooding and drought events that can no longer be denied.
The Trillion Trees Act is based on a July 2019 Swiss report featured by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science that concluded planting 1 trillion trees across the world could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon. That’s roughly the equivalent of two-thirds of all manmade carbon since the Industrial Revolution.
So what, you may ask, is so bad about planting a “yuge” bunch of trees over the next 30 years? The answer is that “proven science” demands that we need to cut emissions by nearly 80 percent this decade by 2030 if we want to preserve a habitable planet. Achieving partial emission reductions by 2050 won’t do it. To achieve an 80% reduction in ten years would upend the fortunes of Republican donors and require government intervention on a scale that’s anathema to a Republican Party hell-bent on privatization. Witness the Republicans who announced the trillion-tree bill saying they don’t support a carbon tax, a timeline for emissions reductions, or even a realistic vision for what their jumping onto the trillion trees act would look like.
The trillion trees proposal does have many merits, but only if implemented in concert with the immediate reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels. Jane Goodall’s observation that by acting locally each one of us can make some impact on the plant every single day comes into play here. There are a fast-growing number of organizations and agencies that have mounted tree-growing campaigns demonstrating that individuals as well as governments can plant trees. Google “tree planting organizations” for a long list of these efforts. Anyone can plant a tree.
A 2017 story in Mother Jones described Duolun County, in China’s Inner Mongolia region, as either profoundly inspiring or deeply strange. “For miles around,” Vince Beiser wrote, “the earth is dun-colored and dry, stubbled with yellow grass. But the hillsides directly across from me are emblazoned with vast swaths of trees planted in geometric shapes: a square, a circle, overlapping triangles. The flatland below is striped with bands of identical young pines, standing in rigid formation like soldiers on parade.”
Researchers estimate that desertification costs the Chinese economy billions of dollars per year. China’s solution is to build a “Green Great Wall.” The Communist Party has promoted tree planting as a righteous cause, even a civic duty, for decades, but the Green Great Wall is staggeringly ambitious: By 2050, the government intends to plant 88 million acres of forests in a belt nearly 3,000 miles long and up to 900 miles wide in places. The project has global relevance. According to the United Nations, desertification directly affects more than 250 million people across the world. The United States and the Soviet Union launched massive afforestation projects in the last century, and more than two dozen African nations are today working fitfully on a green barrier against the encroaching Sahara.
Last year thousands of Ethiopians took part in planting a record breaking number of 353,633,660 tree seedlings in a 12-hour period, far above their initial goat of 200 million trees. This record-breaking tree planting is just a small part of the nation’s Green Legacy initiative to plant a total four billion trees.
But China’s sylvan crusade is one of the most ambitious tests to date of whether humankind can geoengineer its way out of a major environmental problem.
That said, the amount of suitable land area for reforestation is diminishing as global temperatures rise. Even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (which I don’t believe will be achieved), the area available for forest restoration could be reduced by a fifth by 2050 because it would be too warm for some tropical forests.
Obviously, not every place in the world is suitable for planting trees, China’s Duolun County notwithstanding. The study, The Global Tree Restoration Potential, published in 2019 in the journal Science, established the potential for every place on Earth for new forests.
Now let’s put Representative Westerman’s trillion trees into context. There are already about 3 trillion trees on the planet, according to a 2015 study, Mapping Tree Density at a Global Scale, published in the journal Nature. Adding a trillion trees would be a one third increase in tree density. Given deforestation over the past few thousand years, this is not as big as you might think. The study finds that 15.3 billion trees are being chopped down every year and estimates that 46 percent of the world’s trees have been cleared over the past 12,000 years. The current 3 trillion trees used to be closer to 6 trillion. Westerman’s climate change “initiative” is simply picking up on well-established worldwide tree planting efforts that avoid more effective carbon reducing legislation. Meanwhile the White House, blindsided by a pact between California and four automakers to oppose President Trump’s auto emissions rollbacks, has mounted an effort to prevent any more companies from joining California. The administration’s efforts to weaken the Obama-era pollution rules could be rendered irrelevant if too many automakers join California before the Trump plan can be put into effect. That could imperil one of Mr. Trump’s most far-reaching rollbacks of climate-change policies.
The fact is, it could take more than a hundred years to add enough mature forest to get sufficient levels of carbon reduction. Meanwhile 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels are being added to the atmosphere every year, said Glen Peters, research director at Norway’s Center for International Climate Research.
In the hands of adults crafting responsible climate policy, trees absolutely have an important role to play. But congressional Republicans are not responsible adults. They’ve been terrible stewards of the land, ocean, and atmosphere for decades now, and their new climate proposals are simply a smokescreen crafted to allow pollution profiteers to continue burning down the planet.
“I challenge anyone to find a better climate solution than taking care of our forests.” Representative Westerman said in announcing his trillion-tree bill.
Any ideas? For Jane Goodall, her resolution is always the same. “I’ll try and leave as light a footprint as I can each day. I know I fly a lot. I actually said to Greta [Thunberg], “You know, I have to fly.” And she said, “Yes you do. It’s OK.” And last year our Roots & Shoots groups around the world planted 5½ million trees and saved forests and woodlands. So, that doesn’t make me totally satisfied, but at least it’s more than absorbing my bit of carbon. But what I hope people will do is to think about the consequences of the small choices they make each day. What do you buy? Where was it made? Did it harm the environment? Did it result in cruelty to animals like eating meat? Is it cheap because of child slave labor? So, if everybody makes these ethical choices, we start moving towards a better world.