An incredible technology for reducing carbon dioxide: planting trees

The planet has warmed by 1°C since the industrial revolution, and we are suffering the consequences. Staying within 1.5°C will require action at an unprecedented pace and scale. A big part of the solution is removing significant quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is where planting trees comes in.

© Suzano

A mosaic of plantations and forest restoration on formerly degraded land in Brazil's Atlantic Forest

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

That old Chinese proverb is more relevant today than ever. Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Drawing on the latest climate science, the report leaves little doubt that we need to do everything we possibly can to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, the countries of the world committed to keeping global warming to “well below” 2°C, with an “aspiration” of 1.5°C. The new report shows just what a difference half a degree could make.

The planet has warmed by 1°C since the industrial revolution, and already we are suffering the consequences. Two degrees of warming will mean increased drought, floods, extreme heat and forest fires, affecting hundreds of millions of people – as well as horrific impacts on nature, including the loss of almost all coral reefs. And if temperatures go higher still, the impacts will be even more catastrophic. 

The report outlines a number of scenarios showing how it’s technically feasible to stay within 1.5°C – but it will require action at an unprecedented pace and scale. First and foremost, we need steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, including by eliminating emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

But this alone will not be enough: we also need to remove significant quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And this is where planting trees comes in.

While various technological and geoengineering approaches have been proposed, among the most effective and lowest-cost ways to sequester carbon is restoring forest landscapes and creating new forests. Doing this in the right way can also help people and nature adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, while bringing benefits for communities, wildlife and the economy.

For the last 10 years, WWF has been engaging with companies and governments involved in plantation forestry through the New Generation Plantations (NGP) platform. Together, we’ve developed a concept that works, demonstrating how tree plantations can be established and managed in ways that benefit nature and the climate while contributing to inclusive, sustainable development.

Research indicates that plantations can provide a variety of ecosystem services beyond simply supplying timber. We believe that expanding plantations in the right way and in the right places can make a major contribution to reducing carbon dioxide levels.

In Brazil’s Atlantic forest region, for example, some of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies have turned nearly 2 million hectares of degraded cattle pasture into productive mosaic landscapes. Fast-growing eucalyptus plantations are blended with an equivalent area of native rainforest, naturally regenerating or actively replanted. NGP participant Fibria has calculated that the land it manages now stores the equivalent of more than 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – equal to the annual emissions of 40 million average Brazilians. Other companies can tell similar stories.

Large-scale afforestation has also taken place in China, where the forested area increased from 115 million hectares in 1978 to 208 million hectares in 2013 and is still growing. Another NGP participant, the China Green Carbon Foundation, has developed a successful model that channels donations from individuals, businesses and institutions wanting to offset their carbon emissions into tree-planting projects.

But it is not just while trees are growing that they can contribute to climate change mitigation. As new technologies develop, almost everything we do now with fossil fuels can be done with fibre from trees, while timber can also substitute for energy-intensive construction materials like concrete and steel. 

By providing a reliable, renewable and climate-positive source of fibre, plantations can contribute to reducing emissions and supporting the transition to a sustainable bio-based economy. Sustainably intensifying production from plantations also reduces the pressure to increase logging in natural forests, particularly in carbon- and wildlife-rich intact forest landscapes.

Many of these issues are presented in the NGP 2018 Review, released last week. We’ll be exploring them further at the upcoming NGP 2018 Encounter, held alongside the 4th International Congress on Planted Forests (ICPF) in Beijing, China. Scientists, companies, governments and wider society will be coming together to investigate the contribution of planted forests to green development, including in the context of climate change.

Most importantly, though, we’ll be pushing to put solutions into practice urgently and at scale. Because we can’t wait 20 years to plant more trees: the time is now.

Luis Neves Silva

Luis graduated in 1995 from UTL-ISA (Lisbon) as a Forest Engineer – Natural Resources Management. Luis worked in private and public forestry sectors until he joined WWF in 2004, first as coordinator of the Portuguese office and then as lead of the New Generation Plantations (NGP) platform. Luis’ work experience includes regions like Mediterranean, South America, Southern Africa and South-East Asia, where he applies interpersonal skills and cross-cultural experiences into forestry work with private, public, and NGO sectors. Luis has been involved in NGP since its inception in 2007 and coordinates the platform at the global level.

What are your thoughts?