The Real Cost Of Ambitious And Aggressive Tree-Planting Initiatives

Published on: 28 October 2022
by Eric Burdon
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Before airlines and voluntary carbon offsetting programmes kicked off, there were several bold and aggressive tree planting initiatives around the world. One that I’d like to pay special attention to was one on 8 March, 2012. On that day, massive groups of people swarmed the Philippine island of Luzon and sunk over a million mangrove seedlings into the mud. That project took only an hour.

The governor at the time said it was a resounding success and furthered his goal of greening the Camarines Sur province. It was such a big deal that even an official adjudicator from Guinness World Records declared this event the new record holder. Shortly after that declaration, headlines followed showing off this massive effort and how this was such a big deal.

But today, looking at that same coastline where history was made, you would see a whole different story now. To begin, a study in 2020 found that less than 2 percent of those trees had survived. And considering these were planted in 2012, they should be close to maturity at this point.

To the researchers who conducted the study, this outcome was totally predictable back then as it is today.

Everyone Loves Trees, But Where’s The Follow-Up?

There have been many other tree planting initiatives over the years that have been met with a similar fate. Aggressive tree planting has become policy for governments for over a decade now. Since 2011, the world’s governments have agreed to the Bonn Challenge, an initiative that’s designed to restore 860 million acres of forest worldwide by 2030.

That’s larger than India, and overall that goal is realistic and plausible to achieve in that time frame.

The only problem with all of these tree planting initiatives is the lack of follow-up on the progress of these efforts. In the case of Luzon, the Philippines government hasn’t said anything and Guinness World Records still acknowledges that event as the most widespread planting of mangroves within an hour.

In a sense, it’s like the government is greenwashing their tree planting efforts as they would conveniently focus on how many trees are actually planted and aren’t checking to see if any of them are surviving. It’s similar to airlines and their carbon offsetting, where you don’t really know if the tree is being planted or if it’s in a place where it can thrive. We are given the basic information, that “your flight is being offset”, yet the maths of how this actually works is somewhat more vague.

Businesses Can Achieve Net-Zero Through Carbon Credits

Another shady tactic that businesses can pursue is to claim they’re achieving net-zero through the use of carbon credits. In a sense, the business is leveraging phantom forests as a means of hitting their targets. After all, carbon credits are certified by reputable bodies and contribute to governments meeting their national emissions targets.

These programmes do have their own problems as well, as they allow businesses to continue business as usual and to contribute to climate change. A prime example of these programmes being a hindrance is the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a major certifier of carbon-offset forests in the Western part of the United States that has come under scrutiny for potentially greenwashing its own efforts in this regard.

And, if you’ve noticed the rampant widespread wildfires occurring around that area, you can already see the dangers of this board operating in the way that it is. When organisations become embroiled in these scandals, many people understandably question the credibility of carbon credits and the viability of these forests.

Through Aggressive Tree-Planting, We Set Aside Planning

One other wrinkle to these tree-planting initiatives is the fact there is very little planning being done overall. Governments and organisations are more quick to organise people to plant trees rather than determining whether the site is viable for planting in the first place.

That much is obvious with the examples stated above, however, the extent of people’s negligence is profound. Many of these programmes don’t ask for local buy-in and locals can be completely oblivious to these projects even taking place. As a result, you see what happened in two Nigerian projects, where villagers cut down all the planted non-fruit trees for firewood while protecting all the other trees that did produce fruit.

We’re Treating Tree Planting As A Band-Aid

Because of poor planning and the desire to appear environmentally-friendly, companies and governments are throwing away millions or billions of dollars into projects that aren’t yielding effective results. It’s understandable that we would want to be planting trees, however, like renewable energy, the situation requires somewhat of a more nuanced approach.

We can start to see progress in this area if governments and companies are willing to plan ahead for more robust tree-planting initiatives. This would require, at the bare minimum, the following:

  • A set location for planting. These programmes not only should tell people where these trees are being planted but why that specific location is appropriate, in terms of how it has been assessed as conducive for successful growth.

  • A pledge for long-term monitoring and care of planted trees. Companies and governments should be hiring/acquiring volunteers to ensure this is part of the initial plan.

  • A pledge to issue public reports on the progress of these forests. To encourage an ongoing spirit of transparent management that will assist in the success of future projects.

Beyond a more robust tree-planting initiative, another consideration is to allow nature to do its own thing. A prime example of this is Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. There has been a haphazard effort to restore the forest, but a lot of the increase came from natural regeneration rather than planting.

Giving forests the space they need to grow will allow nature to pick and choose which species predominate. With that in mind, taking a more hands-off approach - while ensuring that resources are first and foremost allocated to adequate consideration and planning of planting projects in the first place - would be beneficial. 

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