Published: Sun, July 07, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Could Planting Tons of Trees Solve Climate Change?

Could Planting Tons of Trees Solve Climate Change?

"Restoration of trees may be "among the most effective strategies", but it is very far indeed from 'the best climate change solution available, ' and a long way behind reducing fossil fuel emissions to net zero", said Professor Myles Allen from the University of Oxford.

Six countries with the most space for new trees are Russian Federation, the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China. They looked specifically at protected areas and places with limited human activity to avoid including city parks, farms, and other land uses that might look like forest but aren't in actuality. And the best way to really see just how much tree cover's out there is using satellite data, which is exactly what the study turned to.

In all, this area is equal to about the size of the United States. That would help reduce the carbon in the atmosphere by about a quarter, as well as help protect biodiversity, improve water quality and prevent erosion.

"We all knew restoring forests could play a part in tackling climate change, but we had no scientific understanding of what impact this could make", ETH Zurich environmental systems scientist Tom Crowther, who led the new research, said in a press release.

Crowther went on to say that planting trees is not enough, however. A plan like this requires us also to keep cutting emissions (there's only so much carbon these trees can capture from the atmosphere, so we don't want to be adding more), and also requires that we reverse current, devastating trends of deforestation.

Pine trees are pictured on the International Day of Forests in the Landes forest near Le Pyla, France March 21, 2019.

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The authors state that the global map of reforestation offered by their work is important for creating more effective global-scale restoration targets, as well as for directing local-scale restoration projects. Even with existing cities and farmland, there's enough space for new trees to cover nine million square kilometres, they reported in Thursday's journal Science. The study's lead author, Jean-Francois Bastin, estimated there's space for at least 1 trillion more trees, and potentially 1.5 trillion, AP reports, on top of the estimated 3 trillion trees now on the planet.

The study is the first to quantify how many trees the Earth can support, where they could exist and how much carbon they could store. The potential to grow trees alongside crops such as coffee, cocoa and berries - called agro-forestry - was not been included in the calculation of tree restoration potential and neither were hedgerows: "Our estimate of 0.9bn hectares [of canopy cover] is reasonably conservative", Crowther says.

The researchers identify six countries where the bulk of the forest restoration could occur: Russian Federation (151m hectares), USA (103m), Canada (78m), Australia (58m), Brazil (50m) and China (40m).

"It will take decades for new forests to mature and achieve this potential", Crowther said.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an global agreement to control and limit climate change. However, this would be outweighed by losses in dense tropical forests, which typically have 90-100% tree cover. Our results highlight the opportunity of climate change mitigation through global tree restoration but also the urgent need for action. The newly filled out forests would be a huge boon to absorbing new emissions and the carbon pollution we've committed to the atmosphere. "Restoring trees at [low] density is not mutually exclusive with grazing". They used this to produce a predictive model to map prospective tree cover across the world under present conditions.

To make this bold prediction, the researchers identified what tree cover looks like in almost 80,000 half-hectare plots in existing forests.

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