Plant trees!

I think this article hits the nail on the head: Stop Building a Spaceship to Mars and Just Plant Some Damn Trees. Basically, if you want a machine that will suck carbon dioxide out of air and lock it up so it doesn’t contribute to climate change, we’ve already got one. It’s called a tree. They’re cheap and easy and they build themselves, and further, they look good. There’s no NIMBY phenomenon here!

All we have to do is plant a heck of a lot of trees, and they can sequester 200 gigatonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. All this is from a paper in Science that calculated about how much land area is available for planting trees, and suggests that we should work fast to use that area.

The restoration of trees remains among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation. We mapped the global potential tree coverage to show that 4.4 billion hectares of canopy cover could exist under the current climate. Excluding existing trees and agricultural and urban areas, we found that there is room for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of canopy cover, which could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon in areas that would naturally support woodlands and forests. This highlights global tree restoration as our most effective climate change solution to date. However, climate change will alter this potential tree coverage. We estimate that if we cannot deviate from the current trajectory, the global potential canopy cover may shrink by ~223 million hectares by 2050, with the vast majority of losses occurring in the tropics. Our results highlight the opportunity of climate change mitigation through global tree restoration but also the urgent need for action.

There’s a catch, though. A lot of this land is owned and/or inefficiently used. The authors try to take that into account.

In total, 4.4 billion ha of canopy cover can be supported on land under existing climate conditions. This value is 1.6 billion ha more than the 2.8 billion ha existing on land today. Of course, much of the land that could potentially support trees across the globe is currently used for human development and agriculture, which are necessary for supporting an ever-growing human population. On the basis of both the European Space Agency’s global land cover model and on Fritz and colleagues cropland layer, we estimate that 0.9 billion hectares are found outside cropland and urban regions and may represent regions for potential restoration. More than 50% of the tree restoration potential can be found in only six countries (in million hectares: Russia, +151; United States, +103; Canada, +78.4; Australia, +58; Brazil, +49.7; and China, +40.2), stressing the important responsibility of some of the world’s leading economies.

Great! Let’s plant trees on the over 100 million hectares available in the US! Except…here’s land use in this country.

Wow. Look at all the land used for raising cows, and for feeding cows. Do you think the cattlemen’s association will let us shut down their wasteful use of the land? There’s profit in cows! Not so much in setting aside land for trees. There’s also the little problem of convincing consumers that going vegetarian would help cool down the planet. It’s unlikely that we can do what’s good for us; Brazil right now is making a dedicated effort to burn down their forests.

Don’t let the capitalists stop you, though. Do you have a space where you can plant a tree? Do it! Cut back on the meat-eating. When you eat fewer cows, it’s like kicking Ammon Bundy in the balls, dries up the profit motive for setting aside vast tracts of treeless land to feed herds of selfish cattle who are eating your salads. Maybe you can’t go full-on vegan yet, but that’s fine — cut back to eating meat once a week, you’re making a difference.

One other thing: I’ve already seen people complaining about the title of the Mother Jones article. Why can’t we do both? We can plant trees and explore Mars, but I think it’s a dig at the billionaires who are aspiring to escape Earth’s problems and build imaginary colonies on Mars. That’s not going to work, and it’s an excuse to shirk responsibilities to this planet.

Bastin JF, Finegold Y, Garcia C, Mollicone D, Rezende M, Routh D, Zohner CM, Crowther TW (2019) The global tree restoration potential. Science 365(6448):76-79.


  1. Snarki, child of Loki says

    The map has a small area shown as “maple syrup”, which clearly needs to be made much, much larger.

    “Bring me the mingled blood of a thousand forest dwellers!” also, too.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Yes plant sugar maples where ever they will produce!

    I have planted trees, both for work and at various homes, I want to plant more. I keep an eye on the trees that grow on the field out the back from us which is no longer used for agriculture, but has appalling accesss so the planners won’t let the owners build houses on it (heart breaking); I am thinking about planting some trees out there myself, damsons and hazels.

  3. Bruce Fuentes says

    Some of the pasture land could be planted with trees. It could not be a full grown forest but there are farmers up here in NW WI that prefer to have their cows wondering wooded areas. Gives them natural protection from the elements and a more diverse food supply. I know that does not work as well on the factory farms but the smaller farmer would see sense in this.
    I cut probably 20-30 trees a year for firewood. On my property that just opens up area for smaller trees to grow larger. Also, we have the Emerald Ash Borer around so all my ash are going to be dead in 10-15 years. The first growth around here is primarily Popple(Aspen) but getting Maple and Oak as well as Fir and Spruce also. With proper management I am confident I am taking out more carbon than I am putting in, but then again I have 20+ acres of land.

  4. PaulBC says

    I’m amazed that there is enough land devoted to maple syrup for it to get its own category. Who’s using all the maple syrup? I thought most people were using the artificially flavored “pancake syrup.” There must be more land devoted to viniculture than maple syrup. Where does that show up?

    A good start would be to stop eating meat or at least stop eating so much meat.

  5. says

    I have planted several hunderd trees in order to reduce my carbon footprint. But they do not grow too well since global warming already has negative effects in the area where I live. Trees (of any species) have difficulty to take root these last few years and they grow slowly, because the temperatures are way too high and the precipitation way too low in from May to July. I still hope to get useful coppice within a decade or so, a mix of local trees and fast-growing hybrids.

    As far as cattle goes, it is possible – it has been done historicaly – for livestock to graze in a coppice, thus producing both usable lumber/firewood and dairy/beef in the same area. So it is not a binary choice either cows or forests, it can also be both. What is missing is the will to do something about climate change.

    And coppices are the most effective use of trees to sequester carbon from atmosphere, because coppice keeps the trees in juvenile state, so it concentrates its resources to fast growth.

    In addition to arable land, coppiced or pollarded trees could be effectively grown along roads. In Cz there is plenty of space for trees along the roads, only it is not used as such.

  6. says

    How quickly does the carbon get back in the environment in coppices?
    I once read an article about how so much coal was produced back in the Carboniferous. Proposed that the reason was that there were few burrowing creatures to open up leaf litter and other tree debris to allow fungus and bacteria to decompose it.
    I think you’d want the carbon to be locked up in the wood for as long as possible.

  7. says

    @robertbaden, you can use the wood harvested from coppice as building material. That would “lock it” out of the atmosphere for a long time.

    And whilst wood from coppice that gets burned for heat instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, it does not increase it either. Coppice is a renewable source of fuel. Fuel that can be readily grown, harwested and utilized with existing technology on massive scale.

  8. says

    I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of the Great Green Wall of Africa until recently. More than twenty African countries are cooperating, spending $2 billion planting trees to stop the Sahara from growing. Meanwhile the G7 countries pony up a paltry $20 million for the Amazon. Who are really the world’s leaders?

    The British Columbia government regulates reforestation to replace trees cut by logging. But the problem with that is how many trees are actually planted and how many are counted as cut. Trees that are useless to the logging industry (e.g. worm infested, rotted, etc.) are not counted as “cut”. Tree planters are paid by how many seedlings they plant, but some engage in “stashing” (hiding seedlings and claiming them as planted) and get paid for trees that weren’t put in the ground. They’re still counted as planted because checking for fraud is tedious work done by sampling of certain patches of land, not every replanted area.

  9. says

    Look, I get what you’re saying but, those vast swaths of range land are actually severely underutilized. Just a couple of points. Cows are a horribly inefficient food source. With proper range management we could cut that slice in half. Why don’t we do it? Because it would slightly increase the cost of beef. This is your free market in action and the market has been flooded with cheap beef since the 80s. Beef producers have been in an insane death race to decrease their bottom line for the last 50 years. Whoever can make it cheaper wins and if you can’t you die. This coincides with a period where the amount of uneaten food being thrown away is more than ever in the history of mankind. And still people go hungry.

    America… This is what happens when an entire country develops an eating disorder and is living in denial. How do you pull an intervention on an entire country?

  10. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I got it! Make trees profitable by saying they can be sold for fuel… which cancels their carbon sequestering.

    I am reminded of how many switched to wood burning during the oil crises thinking wood was cheaper than oil and asking why didn’t everyone switch to wood. I think I was the only one (of course :-) ) who remembered that all the woods in New England are second growth as almost all were clear cut for heat before the heating oil influx allowed them to grow again.

    also more recently, that Temperate Rain Forest in Alaska panhandle has only been briefly mentioned as sequestering huge amounts of carbon as one of the aspects clear cutting it would affect.

    Composting has also recently been shown to be very effective at sequestering carbon [ excuse me for not googling a citation]

    excuse me for being discombobulated today.

  11. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Lest we forget:
    “A tree’s a tree. How many do you need to look at?”–Ronald Reagan

    The evidence that climate change would become a threat has been incontrovertible for over 30 years. However, rather than act, half the country went deep into denial, and 30% still remain there.

    We’re going to miss the luxury of having that time. Rather than making 30 years of good and thoughtful decisions, we now don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing. Planting trees is the most palatable mitigation on the menu. However, it won’t be enough. We are going to have to carry out an all-out effort to develop an entirely new energy economy–everything from heating and lighting to transport. We are probably going to need nukes.
    And even then, it won’t be enough. All it can accomplish is to buy back some of the time we have squandered. If we’re lucky, it might be enough time to develop technological solutions that allow us to support 10 billion people and then keep the economy healthy as population gradually reduces. And if we’re not lucky…well, let’s just say, we’d better be lucky.

  12. Becca Stareyes says

    I recall reading that for the parts of the country that weren’t forested, restoring grassland is probably better for the carbon absorption. Because grass roots are buried deep, they sequester the carbon in the soil, even if the stems are less efficient than tree trunks. You might even be able to raise cattle or sheep or goats on the land with little extra impact (if they take the role of deer or bison did), and try to minimize the amount of feed we grow for animals. Let them eat grass in areas where growing grain requires too much water.

    Of course, low-emission animal husbandry would probably make beef and dairy products prices go up, and we can’t have that (she said sarcastically).

  13. booberry says

    I know most people here are not religious, but my church youth group planted dozens of trees in our community just last month. Reading this makes me feel even better about it. Wouldn’t it be great if everybody planted one tree?

  14. nomdeplume says

    Plenty of room for planting trees in Australia? Yes indeed. But the climate change already being experienced will make it harder and harder, if not impossible, to get tree seedlings to grow; and Australia’s idiot farmers and developers are STILL clearing trees at a rate faster than they could be replaced, with any suggestion they might stop being greeted with outrage.

  15. PaulBC says

    OK, I have held back long enough. Billy Bragg’s song The Home Front keeps going in my head:

    Father mows the lawn and Mother peels the potatoes
    Grandma lays the table alone
    And adjusts a photograph of the unknown soldier
    In this Holy of Holies, the Home
    And from the TV an unwatched voice
    Suggests the answer is to plant more trees
    The scrawl on the wall says what about the workers
    And the voice of the people says more salt please

    I’m guessing “plant more trees” must have been some kind of campaign in the UK in the 80s, but I really don’t know the context. I like his portrait of a seemingly blue collar labor family, or at least that’s how I hear it.

  16. DLC says

    I’ve been saying this since Eddie Albert was saying it back in the 80s. Plant trees. Plant lots of damn trees. You’ll want to study the soil in your area first to determine what kind of tree to plant (you know, using. . . Science!), but goddamn plant fucking trees already. If you insist on making it into a moneymaking opportunity, plant some fast growing poplars or lodge-pole pines. Edge around cattle pastures with aspens or junipers, whatever works best. Don’t wait for wealthy dickheads to get off their butts, because they never will.

  17. PaulBC says

    I once had the thought of buying land in the original range of American chestnuts to plant blight-resistant trees. I never acted on it, but I still like the idea of restoring these trees. You can’t restore and old ecosystem, but it’s a start, and the loss of these trees had more impact than most people realize.

  18. numerobis says

    A lot of the pasture land out West is grassland and scrubland. Trees will grow there if you don’t pasture cows or let bison roam, but grassland is just as good at sequestering carbon as trees are.