In this blog post, we’ll answer a question that frequently comes up:
“Will reforestation solve the climate crisis?”
In other words, can reforestation be our #1 Climate Crisis superhero?
We’re asked that all the time when we introduce ourselves to individuals, groups, and businesses in Whatcom County. As are many other tree-planting nonprofits on the continent that are similar to Whatcom Million Trees Project.
Our answer might not be what you expect.
To understand why, read on to find out how reforestation awareness and goals have evolved in the past few years.
The Obscurity of Reforestation
Large reforestation projects have been occurring for decades.
In the U.S., reforestation on state and local public lands (not national parks/forests or logging properties) has been typically funded by environmentally-focused private foundations and nonprofits combined with government grants.
Here in Whatcom County, nonprofits such as Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Whatcom Land Trust, and Whatcom Conservation District are all long-established, prominent tree-planters supported by such funding sources.
Reforestation projects typically target ecologically sensitive areas that have been degraded by invasive plants, floods, forest fires, logging, agriculture, mining, or other human activities.
The traditional goals of reforestation are to:
- restore critical wildlife habitat;
- strengthen biodiversity;
- create cleaner air;
- support cleaner water; and
- reduce soil erosion.
All very important and necessary work.
But here’s the thing: often the reforestation projects occurred without much general public awareness.
Sure, directly affected locals, avid hikers, and members of participating ngo’s and agencies tended to pay attention to such projects.
But not a whole lot of other people.
Then something shifted a few years ago.
How Reforestation Became HOT (Okay, bad pun!)
A growing awareness and understanding of the climate crisis shook reforestation out of relative obscurity.
Suddenly, reforestation had a brand new, urgent goal:
To recapture the far too much carbon dioxide humanity releases into the atmosphere, which is literally cooking the Earth.
Trees to the rescue!
How? Photosynthesis in tree leaves captures carbon dioxide from the air — and releases oxygen — naturally as the tree grows and matures.
It’s the best natural carbon capture technology in the world.
The captured carbon dioxide gets bound in sugar, which the tree then uses to grow wood.
Wood is an incredible carbon sink because it is almost entirely carbon, lasts for decades as a tree, and then takes many more years to break down after a tree dies. The carbon sink is not just the trunks and branches we see above ground. It’s also the immense interconnected root and soil systems of healthy forests.
Trees do release some carbon, such as when their leaves decompose, or their roots burn sugar to capture nutrients and water. But all in all, they capture significantly more carbon over time than they release.
And that’s why more trees means more carbon captured.
And why politicians and other decision-makers suddenly became more interested in reforestation.
Problem solved, they publicly said — while privately wringing their hands over tougher-to-implement other responses to the climate crisis.
We’ll clean up our atmospheric mess by planting millions, billions, and even trillions of trees via various local, national, and international initiatives.
A natural solution that feels good and that we all can take part in.
The Sad, Painful Truth About Planting Trees
Unfortunately, the climate crisis cannot be solved solely by this feel-good, let’s roll up our sleeves and grab our shovels manner.
Here are four science-based bottom-lines about reforestation:
1. Not enough trees can be planted in the world to offset society’s carbon emissions.
2. If we maximize reforestation on all available tree-appropriate lands on Earth — and wait for the delayed carbon re-capture benefit that will mostly kick in when those new trees are mature — we’d sequester enough carbon to offset about ten years of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions at current rates.1
3. At best, that’s perhaps 25-30% of world emissions at the emission rate reduction targets announced for 2050… IF all the reforestation maximization is planted now so the trees can become more mature (thus capturing more carbon) by then. And IF virtually all existing trees are hereby protected. (Protecting existing trees is acre for acre generally more effective for carbon recapture than planting new trees.)
4. Last but not least, all of the above is not factoring in likely climate change effects like drought, disease, and wildfires which will reduce the amount of carbon that forests are able to absorb over time.
1 Total tree-appropriate lands worldwide that could be added equals approximately the size of the United States. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76
Yikes. But take a deep breath or two and then let go of any discouragement or grif you may feel, because…
Reforestation Can Be Part of the Solution
So back to our original question and answer:
Will reforestation solve the climate crisis?
However, planting — and protecting — -illions of trees is ONE of six worldwide responses that urgently must occur to address the climate crisis:
Reforestation and forest protection
Improved nature awareness/education
Protection/cleanup of waters
Addressing climate injustice
**Reduced consumption is the Elephant in the Room that nobody wants to talk about but is as essential as the others.
Reforestation is therefore only one hero among several, not the #1 Climate Crisis Superhero that can save the world.
Here at Whatcom Million Trees Project, we know our tree-planting and protection work is only one portion of a complete solution to the climate crisis.
That fact doesn’t discourage us. It inspires us to be innovative to make the most of our limited but important role.
We will surf the rising wave of funding for the climate — the growing -illions bandwagon — for tree-planting projects and tree-protection efforts right here in Whatcom County.
A million trees planted or protected in Whatcom County, no matter how long it takes. And not just any tree. The right trees in the right places.
To rebuild critical habitat and strengthen biodiversity. To clean water and air. To improve our all-important soils.
To enhance the well-being, health, and resilience of all life — large and small — in Whatcom County, including future generations of descendents.
And, yes, to do our part in the climate crisis. Even if it is only one small part.
I (and many others) believe that’s a worthy mission. And it’s one in which virtually any person, business, or group in our community can participate in with us.
Come join us in this effort!
Own or manage a business and want to support your staff and customers by doing good locally? Please look over our many business partnership ideas!
Comments? Questions? Ideas? Please contact us or leave a comment below in this blog post.
Want to not miss a thing — and get access to cool tree-planting resources? Please subscribe to our occasional newsletter.