In 2017, 40 football fields of forests were cut down every minute in tropical areas alone, according to Global Forest Watch, a nonprofit that attempts to quantify the impact of trees and their loss. What’s worse is that trees are a key factor in the fight against climate change. Cutting them down today might prove detrimental tomorrow. Luckily, however, several organizations are working to replant the world’s forests. And there are several small changes we can all make to help forests worldwide.
How Do Trees Help Tackle Climate Change?
Trees can take in carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen. And in a time when we need to sequester the former while maintaining the latter, this function of trees is priceless. On average, a tree can uptake 200 kilograms of carbon from the atmosphere during its lifetime.
Since trees are cheap to plant, this method of carbon capture is very cost-effective. Scientists have been hard-pressed to beat Mother Nature in creating a more efficient method for carbon capture.
So how many trees do we need to plant to make a difference? Plant-for-the-Planet, a nonprofit organization and home of the Trillion Trees Campaign, estimates that planting 1.2 trillion trees could neutralize carbon dioxide emissions. There are currently approximately 3 trillion trees on Earth.
Where Should We Plant Trees to Best Tackle Climate Change?
We can help trees to fulfill this role as carbon containers through where we plant them and our attitude towards deforestation and reforestation. Trees planted in the tropics experience very favorable growing conditions.
Because of this, they can mature faster than in places with less ideal weather for year-round plant growth. Thus, planting trees in this area of the world could allow them to sustain a higher volume of photosynthesis reactions. This would cause more carbon sequestration, faster, after planting.
However, forests in the tropics are frequently cut down for uses like agriculture or fuel.
Additionally, larger fires in the Amazon in recent years destroyed huge swaths of trees and made it more unlikely that trees planted in the region could completely grow and reach their full life potential for carbon capture.
In fact, because of these difficulties and time it takes for trees to grow regardless of proximity to likely fire locations, it is most efficient to focus on preventing deforestation in the first place, instead of always passively allowing deforestation to occur and then planting saplings afterward.
Genetically Modifying a Tree’s Genome Could Be a Move in the Right Direction
While we may be struggling to invent novel technologies that can compete with trees in carbon capture, we have been able to successfully genetically modify trees. This opens the door to view what nature has already given us as a tool that can be improved.
We certainly can modify a tree’s genome if an improvement can be identified. For example, scientists recently used a genetic modification method known as RNA interference to stop isoprene emission of poplar trees.
This emission limits the amount of fast-growing poplar trees that can be planted in a single area without proving harmful to nearby poplar trees and animals. We now have even better methods than RNA interference to edit genomes, such as CRISPR.
Since we have already modified one output of trees, we soon might be able to modify their other outputs or intakes.
How You Can Start Helping Out Today
Sure, we know that planting trees can be an excellent asset to tackling the climate change crisis, but the science and the fact that we need to plant over a trillion trees makes it sounds like it’s difficult for people like you and me to actually help out in a meaningful way.
But actually, that’s not true. Here are four things we can do today to start moving the needle.
1. Use Ecosia As Your Search Engine
Ecosia is a search engine similar to Google. From sidebars with information pulled from Wikipedia to letting you filter by images, news, videos and more, Ecosia functions just like the other giants on the market.
The difference? Ecosia uses profits to plant trees. It also focuses on the areas where trees can make the greatest difference, like the tropics. Here’s how it works: organizations who want to plant trees apply to the grants from Ecosia.
Ecosia then picks the ones with the highest impact or cost-effectiveness. It’s completely free to users and simple to switch to from another search engine. To date, Ecosia has helped plant over 85 million trees at the time of this writing.
2. Adopting a Diet With Less Meat to Prevent Clearing Forests
To make space for farming, especially raising livestock, large amounts of forests all over the world have been cleared. Eating a diet with large amounts of meat can negatively impact the environment in many ways.
By eating less meat, the space used to raise livestock can be repopulated with forests. Additionally, we can repurpose the land once used to grow feed for the animals into farms to provide for the increased need for vegetarian foods in human diets.
Food waste is also a worldwide problem; according to the New York Times, we throw out about a third of all food grown annually. In the United States and other developed nations, about 40 percent of our food waste is due to consumers.
By limiting how much food we waste, we also limit the amount of land we dedicate to farming instead of forests.
3. Hold Trump to His Commitment to Join the Trillion Trees Campaign
During this year’s forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Trump announced that the United States will join Plant-for-the-Planet’s Trillion Tree Campaign. This is one of the first moves the president has made to protect the environment.
Some worry that it is largely for show. The commitment goes directly against previous environmental decisions made by the president, such as numerous deregulations on air and water pollution and notoriously withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement.
Joining the Trillion Trees Campaign is a promise to protect currently standing forests, and to plant new ones. Impactful, deliberate action done with the single goal of accomplishing this initiative is unlikely given the president’s history.
But the people he leads can be vocal about wanting future legislation that at least aligns with the goals of Plant-for-the-Planet; we can be vocal about expecting him to follow through with this commitment instead of using it for press.
4. Donate to Non-Profits Dedicated to Planting Trees
If you’re looking for a place that uses every dollar they receive (literally) to plant trees, look no further than One Tree Planted. This nonprofit pledges to plant one tree per one dollar donated. The organization also lets you pick where to plant the trees you funded.
Then, they’ll send you updates along the way to show tree-planting progress. The former methods are all great sustainable day-to-day changes to make. Organizations like One Tree Planted can be places to turn to when tragedies like the 2020 Australian Bushfires devastate an ecosystem.
A Look Forward: Fixing Climate Change With Trees?
Scientists agree that there is no single solution to climate change. Trying to fix it using a single method while ignoring the ongoing actions that got us here would likely backfire in the future. But trees can help fight climate change.
The takeaway should be that if we cut down trees now, climate change will make us pay the price in the future. But if we plant them now, we should see some major and tangible benefits in the years to come.