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Are You Wasting Money and Time Donating to Tree Planting Movements?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Does planting trees really save the environment?

Researchers argue that you might actually be wasting money and time donating to tree planting movements as well as causing more problems for the environment than solving them.


Tree Planting As-Is—a band aid solution to global warming

Science is filled with many examples of irony summed up with old proverbs such as “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry” and “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Case in point: In a recent commentary published in the journal Science, restoration ecologist Karen Holl and coauthor Pedro Brancalion, a professor in the Department of Forest Sciences at the University of São Paulo, warn that "We can't plant our way out of climate change.”

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They argue that tree planting programs provide a disarmingly simple feel-good solution to a problem that is actually quite complicated, requiring the need for people to rethink what they are doing and hoping to achieve. Otherwise all efforts are eventually doomed to fail and/or result in even worsening the situation.

The authors were referring to ambitious tree-planting efforts such as the Trillion Tree Campaign, which basically is a call to action for the public to help fight global warning through the concerted action of planting trees. Get enough people planting enough trees, and global warning will be at the very least be reduced somewhat.

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However, while the authors agree that some near-immediate benefits do arrive from the public participation of planting trees, overall it is not sustainable nor effective in prevent global warming. In fact, they point out that “…the widespread obsession over planting trees can lead to negative consequences, which depend strongly on both how and where trees are planted.” Such as:

• Planting trees where trees do not naturally thrive at the forest-level such as in historic grasslands and savannas where uncontrolled tree planting can harm endogenous ecosystems and species.

• Planting trees as a means to provide income for small landowners can actually lead to loss of property and income for the poor.

• Planting trees in the correct area, but then failing to maintain them to support their growth leads to lost investments and the land eventually put to other use such as livestock grazing.

• Planting trees in areas that displaces land needed for agriculture, which in turn leads to further future deforestation in order to support agricultural needs.

The authors agree that “…reforestation projects can be an important component of ensuring the well-being of the planet in coming decades, but only if they are tailored to the local socioecological context and consider potential trade-offs.”

To achieve this end, they propose that tree-planting efforts must be:

1. Integrated as one piece of a multifaceted approach to address complex environmental problems.
2. Be carefully planned to consider where and how to most effectively realize specific project goals.
3. Include a long-term commitment to land protection, management, and funding.

Recommendations for Future Forest Enhancement

More specifically, according to a UC Santa Cruz news piece, the authors present the following four principles that should guide forest enhancement initiatives:

--Reduce forest clearing and degradation: Protecting and maintaining intact forests is more efficient, more ecologically sound, and less costly than planting trees, or replanting.

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--View tree planting as one part of multifaceted environmental solutions: Enhanced tree cover is one of the best options to offset a portion of the greenhouse gas emissions driven by human activities, but they represent only a small portion of the carbon reductions that are needed.

--Balance ecological and social goals: Acknowledge competing land uses and focus on landscapes with the potential to generate large-scale benefits, such as the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, where regional planning of tree planting initiatives can lead to three times the conservation gains at half the cost.

--Plan, coordinate, and monitor: Work with local stakeholders to resolve conflicting land-use goals and ensure maximum effectiveness over the long term.

But, Will This Work?

While the initiatives are a good start to a more systematic and scientific approach to tree planting, we have to remember that it is often the human element that makes “the best laid schemes of mice and men go awry,” as the authors point to the need to engage local stakeholders and confront conflicting goals for land use.

"Much of the land proposed for tree planting is already being used to grow crops, harvest timber, and other subsistence activities, so tree planting initiatives need to consider how landowners will earn income," said Holl. "Otherwise, activities such as agriculture or logging will just move to other lands"

The complexity of these considerations is not a small matter. A good example of this can be found in the May 2020 issue of Scientific American where concessions made between conservation groups and development interests intended to protect the Congo Basin have actually resulted in the decline of the lives of the native Bayaka pygmies.

In the article, we are led through the harrowing details of how in spite of initiatives and measures to both protect and use the land, that both loggers and conservationists come off as the bad guys. Again, the best laid schemes of mice and men and all that.

What to Make Out of All of This

I would argue that one point that needs mentioning is that if you or someone you know has donated to a tree planting cause or have actually participated in planting a tree this last Earth Day, that it is neither money nor time wasted. The value I see in it is that it promotes awareness and mindfulness. And that is a good thing.

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But, we also need to recognize that change comes slow…and often only followed by a disaster or war. Global Warming just like COVID-19 will eventually force us to rethink how we have reacted to a new threat, and how we will survive the change that is yet to come. Once again, the best laid schemes of mice and men…and all that.

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If you have views about planting trees and what it means to you, please express your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image source courtesy of Pixabay

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.


Planting trees is no panacea for climate change, says ecologist” by Jennifer McNulty UC Santa Cruz News Center.

Tree planting is not a simple solution” Karen D. Holl, Pedro H. S. Brancalion; Science 08 May 2020: Vol. 368, Issue 6491, pp. 580-581.

Living With The Forest” by Jerome Lewis; Scientific American May 2020 issue, pp. 54-63.