Do Climate Solutions Grow On Trees?

Photo; Teddy Kelley/Unsplash

Photo; Teddy Kelley/Unsplash

Can forests truly save us from the worst effects of the climate crisis? A recent study published in the journal, Science, shows that planting a trillion trees could help combat global heating and be one of the more accessible ways to store carbon and reduce GHG emissions. This massive scheme is projected to remove up to two thirds of the carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere over the next 100 years. 

But, as promising as this sounds, a quicker solution lies in changing what we choose to put on our plates, three times a day. 

How so? First, we recognize that slowing down global heating requires hundreds of strategies across all aspects of how we live, travel, generate electricity and eat. No one action by itself will solve the crisis. The climate experts at the Swiss university ETH Zurich, who studied the tree solution, state that even one trillion trees will not get us off the hook if we don’t drastically reduce GHGs globally by rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels to a low carbon economy. 

According to most projections, even if all the Paris Accord commitments were met, we still won’t achieve the 2 degrees C reduction target.  Even the most ambitious reduction programs depend on taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing carbon to slow down global heating. 

The ETH Zurich report shows that planting trees can be a medium- to long-term solution given that trees take decades to grow and it would take 50 – 100 years to get the full benefit of the tree planting plan. But there are some issues. Trees can end up being harvested thereby undercutting their function as a carbon sink, and the land area involved is the size of the US and China combined. In addition, governments, land owners and businesses would have to agree on how to implement a plan expected to cost $300 billion.  Consensus on this scale takes time to build and we don’t have much time. 

The report says tree planting on this massive scale could occur around the world but it will deliver the “best bang for the buck” in the tropics, in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.  But these countries are currently heading in the opposite direction — destroying rain forests to grow soy for animal feed, cattle grazing and palm oil production.  Most of these products are exported to support the industrialized agriculture that puts meat on our plates and, in the case of palm oil, is used in food and consumer products like ice cream, chocolate, soap and shampoo.  

Photo: Eaters Collective/Unsplash

Photo: Eaters Collective/Unsplash

So, while forests can play a critical role in solving the climate crisis, a quicker, easier solution is staring back at us from our dinner plates.  Given the huge carbon footprint of animal agriculture, the second largest GHG footprint globally after fossil-fuelled power generation, changing what we eat will have a more immediate impact than tree planting.  The demand for plant based foods is exploding, as shown by the popularity of offerings from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.  The Good Food Institute reports the large meat companies like JBS, Tyson and Perdue have also started to introduce plant based options, and JP Morgan predicts the market for plant based meat will expand to $100 billion by 2035. 

It turns out that the contribution to the climate crisis from animal agriculture is relatively easy to solve in comparison to massive amounts of tree planting. We just need to choose more of the increasingly available, tasty, alternative food options to meat and dairy. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plant a tree or two.

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