Why Planting Trees Alone Won’t Offset the World’s Carbon Emissions

Why Planting Trees Alone Won’t Offset the World’s Carbon Emissions

Plant a tree, save our planet. We’ve all heard this before and for sure, the eco-warriors in us championed tree planting activities or at the very least, donated to organisations engaged in tree planting. With the climate change issue looming over us, have you ever wondered what would happen if the 7.9 billion people inhabiting the earth planted a tree or two? Would that really make a difference and help us reverse the effects of climate change?

What is carbon offsetting and how does it work?

There is a widespread belief that planting trees will offset all of society’s carbon emissions. This is based on the premise that harmful emissions in any part of our planet have the same effect on our climate and hence the belief that planting trees in any part of the world will absorb the carbon dioxide present in the air to cancel out carbon emissions. Plus, trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, the air we breathe that keeps us all alive. This is what carbon offsetting is in a nutshell.

A mother teaches her child how to plant a tree. Photo: Eyoel Kahssay.

According to World Resources Institute, the biggest contributor to harmful emissions is global energy consumption. This includes transportation, electricity, manufacturing and construction. And there’s a growing notion, especially among big companies in the energy sector, that they should plant trees as a counterbalance to the harmful environmental impacts of their economic activities.

Related Post: Is Carbon Offsetting Really a Climate Solution or is it a Licence to Pollute?

The road to one trillion trees

It is estimated that we have three trillion trees all over the world. Climate change ecologist Tom Crowther, in an interview with CNN, stated that the planet needs a further 1.2 trillion trees to combat climate change. And this is what has got the whole world planting. The Trillion Tree Campaign, spearheaded by Plant for the Planet and its chairman Sagar Aryal said that this is achievable with the cooperation of governments and the private sector.

Planting trees seems such a simple and straightforward solution to our climate change problems, right? But there’s a lot more to it than just placing a seed or sapling in soil. Organizers also need to consider the historic ecosystem of the area and not just plant any tree where they want. There are trees that grow best in certain climates. Some trees are flammable and can even lead to wildfires. Others have the potential to become invasive and crowd out native species. There are specific trees that are logged for the high value of its timber. Bottom line is, if we plant the wrong tree in the wrong place, it is a waste of effort, resources and may even be bad for the environment.

The forest is where we see a dense population of trees but sadly, deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place. This is yet another challenge to the tree planting movement. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has found that 420 million hectares of forests around the world have been converted to other land uses since 1990 such as large-scale commercial agriculture and subsistence farming. Although the rate of deforestation has declined in recent years, cutting down trees in 10 million hectares of land annually is a major blow to the global effort of planting a trillion trees by 2030.

Why planting trees won’t save us from climate change

Climate change is such a complicated issue that won’t be solved by just planting trees. As Bonnie Waring, a scientific consultant to Plant-for-the-Planet and The Carbon Community, writes for The Conversation, “As an ecologist, I worry that a simplistic perspective on the role of forests in climate mitigation will inadvertently lead to their decline. Many tree planting efforts focus on the number of saplings planted or their initial rate of growth – both of which are poor indicators of the forest’s ultimate carbon storage capacity and even poorer metric of biodiversity. More importantly, viewing natural ecosystems as “climate solutions” gives the misleading impression that forests can function like an infinitely absorbent mop to clean up the ever increasing flood of human caused carbon emissions.” In her piece, the ecologist shares how the total number of trees that are planted will only be able to absorb up to 100 gigatonnes at the most and that there is no more additional capacity on land to plant more of them.


Furthermore, it will take an average of 30 to 40 years before the trees planted will reach maturity and realise its full potential of capturing carbon. And as climate change threatens society now, we really can’t afford to wait for the trees to reach full maturity. Because as folks try to plant one trillion trees, human activities continue releasing more greenhouse gas emissions – presently the world is emitting 37-40 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide yearly – far outpacing the slow, steady work of the planet’s natural processes. This is why planting trees alone won’t save us from climate change.

What needs to be done

We need different interventions — both short and long term solutions — because we are in a race against time. Experts have already identified countries and major sectors that emit greenhouse gases. It’s now time to make them accountable as we lobby for them to reduce their carbon emissions. They shouldn’t be allowed to just buy their way out of carbon emissions by planting more trees. They can’t hide behind carbon offsetting and continue with business as usual. As Greenpeace’s Alia Al Ghussain says, “These companies and industries need to put people and planet over profit by completely overhauling their business models.”

Related Post: Net-Zero, Carbon-Neutral, Carbon-Negative… Confused By All The Carbon Jargon? Then Read This

Some countries and companies have already committed to net-zero emissions. If the rest can follow suit, that would be a big boost to combat the climate emergency that we’re facing. Aside from planting trees, there are many solutions on offer such as alternative fuels, renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, organic waste management, and oil recycling. There are also various carbon offset programmes that aims to raise the standards in each industry.

It all boils down to reducing our carbon footprint today. Not talking about it (or writing about it) but actually taking action every single day. We all need to do our part and engage in sustainable behaviour. There are many things we can do individually or as a household. Make it a point to reduce electricity consumption. Buy fewer items of clothing and normalise outfit repeating by rewearing what we have. Use alternative sources of energy if available. Switch to fossil-fuel free banks and investments. Be more conscious of what we eat; eat more organic food, support local growers, and less meat if possible. Take public transport rather than private vehicles. Don’t patronise fast fashion or trend items and invest instead in responsibly-produced classic pieces that won’t easily go out of style. Sign petitions demanding your government end the sell-off of natural resources. Attend climate marches (if COVID-safe and legal to do so) demanding your politicians commit to better climate policies. These may be simple steps but if everyone played their part, we can all make a significant contribution in the grand scheme of things as we collectively tackle climate change.

Want to take more action to tackle climate change? You’ll love our post 30 Things You Can Do About Climate Change that provides a comprehensive list of things you can do to reduce your impact on our environment.

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Cover image by Daiga Ellaby.

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