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Reforesting with the wrong trees could be worsening the climate crisis

Tree planting has been heralded as a saving grace in the face of a warming planet, but projects that use the wrong plant species are contributing further to the climate crisis and worsening biodiversity loss.  

By now, we are all aware of just how vital trees are to our planet’s ecology. They clean and cool the air we breathe, stand as homes for wild animals, and absorb natural and man-made greenhouse gases.

With the climate crisis coming to a head in recent years, they’ve become most famous for the latter.

Trees’ ability to store carbon dioxide has made them an especially valuable commodity for companies looking to offset their emissions through reforestation and conservation initiatives.

Despite the popularity of these efforts, tree-planting projects aren’t a silver bullet for solving climate change. To truly be effective, they’ll have to be combined with reducing (and eventually halting) our use of fossil fuels.

Still, reforesting is ‘actually really complicated,’ according to experts. Observing the progress of existing projects, it’s obvious that tree-planting organisations have gotten it wrong on many occasions.

Understanding ecology is vital

While having more trees in a single area may appear to be better than having none at all, the species being planted in specific areas matters.

For that reason, piloting a reforestation scheme requires comprehensive land and ecological knowledge before getting started.

Organisers should be able to correctly answer questions about soil types, have comprehensive knowledge about all local species, and consider what kind of trees will bring value to them.

Here, consulting with Indigenous Peoples and incorporating the community’s breadth of knowledge about specific areas of land is a great idea.

Choosing the correct, widely available species and monitoring them carefully is also important. This is because planting a species that is non-native to an area can seriously weaken the ecology of the surrounding environment, especially when it is invasive.

When invasive species are mistakenly introduced or when monocultures are planted instead of a wide range of species, the area can become an ecological dead zone.

Without an array of plant life, there is nowhere for wild animals to shelter and feed, while invasive species see other naturally occurring foliage become incapable of fighting for resources, such as water, root space, and sunlight.

Any one of these oversights can cause the most well-intentioned reforestation project to fail, leaving areas biologically worse off than where they started.

A tricky business

While reforesting to create larger carbon sinks globally is a great goal, it can also be used as a tactic to allow governments and corporations to continue business as usual.

At Cop28 for example, leaders discussed the feasibility of a carbon credit economy, which allows companies and countries to ‘offset’ their emissions by paying for the management and restoration of forests around the world.

Assuming that these forests are well-managed, this type of economy can only be considered truly successful if those involved are genuinely working towards operating at net zero.

All of them will be rendered pointless if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise year on year.

With past tree-planting mistakes to learn from, let’s hope that the approval process for projects of the future is more comprehensive and informed.

The world needs more trees, indeed, but not at the expense of all other life around them.