Donald Trump surprised environmentalists when he announced the US would join the World Economic Forum’s one trillion tree planting initiative, writes Peter Wohlleben. However such schemes can turn into disasters if they aren’t implemented the right way, he warns.
As someone who spends his days either immersed in woodland or telling stories about the wonders of the forests, I should be delighted that politicians, of all political hues are pledging to plant trees to save the planet.
This week, the man they call the “climate denier in chief”, Donald J. Trump, got in on the act, telling a Davos audience that the United States would join the World Economic Forum’s one trillion tree planting initiative.
The European Union is now weighing up its own tree planting strategies, and is committed to increasing the size and quality of Europe’s forests.
Forests, though, are much more than our allies in the climate emergency.
Promising more trees therefore has undoubted appeal to politicians courting electorates. But popularity at the ballot box can turn to disaster if such schemes aren’t executed the right way. Failed tree planting projects in Ireland and the Czech Republic alienated locals, and the wrong tree in the wrong place can intensify forest fires and actually release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
What’s more, while politicians pledge to plant more trees, our existing forests are being cut down at ever faster rates thanks to the EU encouraging its members to subsidise burning wood for energy.
So, how can this current momentum for planting trees be turned into something of greater, lasting benefit for us all?
The answer is to think less about afforestation and focus more on restoring the Great European Forest that used to cover much of our continent. Such restoration would have a much greater chance of succeeding, and creating healthy forests – with trees which support each other as they grow, sharing nutrients with those that are sick or struggling, and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group.
Compare this with a recent, disturbing report which showed that 45% of global tree planting pledges were for single-species plantations, the consequences of which can be grim for biodiversity and the climate.
The benefits of these young tree plantations are based on a myth, and one which was instilled in me as a forestry student: that young trees are more vigorous and grow quicker than old ones. In truth, the older the tree, the more quickly it grows, and the more carbon it holds. In a study that looked at 700,000 trees on every continent in the world, it was found that trees with trunks 3 feet in diameter generated three times as much biomass as trees that were only half as wide.
So, in the case of trees, being old doesn’t mean being weak, bowed, and fragile. Quite the opposite, it means being full of energy and highly productive. And it means elder trees are markedly better buffers against climate change than young whippersnappers.
The lesson, therefore, for Frans Timmermans as he prepares to implement the European Green Deal is to focus on forest restoration rather than reforestation.
This means not being fixated with the number of trees we plant, but on ensuring that our forests are healthy. In other words, tree planting schemes must be an adjunct to restoring and protecting natural forests.
The way to do this is by not harvesting our forests and converting them into plantations, but restoring them and promoting natural forest expansion through creating protected areas, improving enforcement of laws already in place and declaring zero deforestation commitments.
There has never been a more opportune time to do so than now.
If those implementing the European Green Deal seize the moment by launching a major European Restoration Initiative, then there is real hope that our descendants will continue to walk through trees in wonder, appreciating the fulness of life with tens of thousands of species interwoven and interdependent, and that our forests can be properly harnessed in the fight against the climate crisis.
Peter Wohlleben will be speaking the EU International Conference on Forests for Biodiversity and Climate on Tuesday 4 February.