The PR of Trees: getting to the root of climate change

By Tim Le Couilliard

Trees have a revered status – everyone loves trees. In the UK they are everywhere, just beginning to blossom and bringing colour back to our gardens, commutes, and countryside. If there’s one thing they don’t need, it’s PR; they can’t do anything wrong.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report last week, providing a damning assessment of how it’s “now or never” to stave off irreversible climate change. The report also included the assessment that growing forests and preserving soils will be important, but tree-planting alone simply cannot do enough to compensate for continued fossil fuel emissions. And there we have it, a fact that even the best tree-PR specialists cannot oppose. Whilst trees are brilliant, they only go so far in helping to resolve climate change, especially if we continue on the current trajectory of fossil fuel use. I wonder, have we perhaps overstated the power of trees as a solution, and not given enough attention to the root causes instead?

There are an estimated three trillion trees currently on Earth. A recent Oxfam study found that to achieve global net zero by 2050 using “land-based” carbon removal methods “would require at least 1.6bn hectares of new forests, equivalent to five times the size of India, or more than all the farmland on the planet”. Optimistic scientific analysis has predicted that there are 1.7bn hectares of treeless land on earth (11% of the total landmass), on which 1.2tr saplings could grow. If those trees grew, almost a third of emissions from human activities could be removed from the atmosphere. Some big numbers, quite the potential, but still only part of the solution…!

But that’s not what you’d think if you opened the papers, or reviewed the actions taken by governments and corporates, many of them devoting significant amounts of time and money towards planting trees.

Trees are relatively simple to grow. As soon as they have leaves, they begin to photosynthesise and in doing so, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus helping combat climate change. There aren’t any particular skills required to grow trees, just a suitable climate, suitable soil and suitable space. Compared to other climate change solutions, trees are relatively inexpensive (with some of the most cost-effective projects growing trees for between 10-20 US cents per tree). Please spare a thought for wetlands, peatlands, tundra – all readily available and present on earth already. Why isn’t more done to protect and develop these carbon sinks?

Everyone can help grow trees, even individuals in their gardens. Corporates are increasingly focusing attention on carbon offsetting, where they seed money into projects offsetting pollution caused in their business activities. Governments too are supporting tree planting schemes, with the UK Government “England Trees Action Plan” committing to grow 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2024. International organisations, such as the World Economic Forum, are also on the tree bandwagon with programmes such as the ”One Trillion Trees Initiative”.

These are all stellar campaigns. But is this all that they are, campaigns?

The oil giant Shell, for instance, would need to plant 28.6m hectares of trees – an area roughly the size of Italy – to offset 35% of its emissions by 2050, according to an Oxfam report. Ethiopia would need to use 50–60% of its landmass to meet current offset goals, whilst Switzerland needs more than 830,000 hectares, and the EU could need up to 90m hectares. These are numbers growing beyond the realities.

Trees barely get any backlash. Whoever first described trees as “the lungs of our cities” came up with a marketing phrase any consultant would be proud of. Even the Daily Mail, a newspaper not known for its climate activism, recently launched a campaign encouraging all its readers to plant a tree. There’s no such thing as an “anti-tree lobby”, no one is fighting against trees. And quite rightly – before anyone accuses me of doing so – I am just seeking to plant doubt amongst those who see trees as the golden ticket to solving climate change.

More should be done to protect the forests that we already have in the world. Forests account for 31% of the global landmass but since 1990, it is estimated that some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses, although the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades. Should we not be protecting what we already have? Through land clearing, wildfires and the burning of wood, forests can also be a major source of carbon emissions, undoing all their good work.

More must also be made of the fact that they cannot be the sole solution to climate change, which is why the IPCC report was keen to tie the need to reduce fossil fuel dependency with the need to develop further carbon sinks. Reducing carbon emissions in the first place makes most sense.