Planting trees will not solve climate change on its own
Planting trees to combat climate change is more complex than it’s made out to be. What else can businesses do to fight global warming?
By Isabelle Philip
February 27, 2022
Consumer interest in mitigating climate change makes incorporating eco-friendly solutions into one’s business model a practical decision. One popular method of doing this is for a company to fund planting trees in exchange for consumer action — for example, some services plant one tree for every sale while others contribute a certain percentage of every sale towards the effort. In theory, such tree planting initiatives combat climate change because trees sequester carbon, thereby offsetting the negative environmental impacts of consumerism.
While these types of initiatives are sure to catch the eyes of consumers eager to take steps to offset their own carbon footprints, there is reason to be skeptical of far-reaching claims. After all, planting trees is beneficial, but it isn’t a cure-all for climate change, and it’s important not to mistake it as one.
Does planting trees help the environment?
Planting trees can combat global warming because of their ability to absorb carbon as they grow. However, the amount of CO2 that a tree stores varies across its lifespan and depends on its surrounding ecosystem. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, forests absorb approximately 2.6 billion tons of CO2 per year. Trees planted around waterways also contribute to their protection by providing structure to the surrounding soil, filtering groundwater for contaminants, and reducing flooding by intercepting rain with their leaves and roots.
These numbers make tree planting a very attractive avenue for climate change activism. Planting trees is the starting point for many environment-focused nonprofits such as the Eden Reforestation Projects, the Arbor Day Foundation, and One Tree Planted. It’s important to understand that not all tree planting methods are created equal.
When it comes to planting trees, there are two general paths taken: reforestation and afforestation. Reforestation, which is the more effective and long-lasting solution, refers to restoring existing forests that might have been razed or damaged in a natural disaster such as a forest fire. Afforestation, the route that likely increases environmental degradation, refers to planting new trees where forests have not recently existed. Trees in newly forested areas are less likely to adapt to their environment which increases mortality rates and decreases the likelihood and length of the carbon sequestration of the planted trees.
According to the written testimony of Dr. A. Carla Staver, Associate Professor at Yale’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, forestation in general is a gamble. Tree mortality rate is 90% or greater, depending on the type and age of the tree. There’s no guarantee that newly planted trees will reach maturity, be it due to natural death, being harvested, or being planted in areas where forests didn’t exist before, increasing risks for forest fires and other consequences. When trees die they release CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the air. Tree growth is also a very slow process, meaning that the climate benefits we hope for will take time that we can’t afford to lose.
Planting trees as a marketing strategy
As the idea of planting trees to stop climate change has become popular, many businesses have employed it as part of their strategy. The ways in which this strategy is implemented vary in effectiveness, just like the methods for tree planting themselves.
Transparency regarding financing and impact is important to look for. Companies may decide to donate a certain percentage of their revenue to tree planting efforts by partnering with an organization that works on reforestation. Many nonprofits that companies partner with disclose what percentage of their funding is allocated to overhead versus the reforestation project itself. Understanding the effectiveness of tree planting projects is important too. Information to look for:
- Reforestation vs. afforestation
- Verification methods and process for ensuring trees are planted
- Disclosure related to number of trees planted, tree mortality rate, amount of carbon sequestered
- How the impact can be attributed to offsetting your carbon footprint
Unfortunately, some businesses make larger claims with less focus on sustainability as a whole. More questionable initiatives like this are often referred to as greenwashing, which is a form of marketing that preys on climate-focused consumers by making a product seem more eco-friendly than it actually is. One such business is Aspiration, a bank that wants to help you fight climate change.
A closer look at Aspiration
Aspiration’s well-advertised selling point is its “Plant Your Change” initiative, which uses the rounded-up change from consumer purchases to fund nonprofits that plant trees. At the time this article was published, the initiative claimed that “each round up puts a tree in the ground.” This is true if you’re contributing 10 to 20 cents per round up, which is approximately what it costs Eden Reforestation to plant a tree.
But what if you contribute 50 (or for that matter, 99) cents – does that mean you’re planting more than one tree? Not necessarily, since the fine print mentions that beyond the cost of planting one tree, the round-up may be used for “administrative costs, marketing and promotion costs, third-party vendor fees, and other conditional costs.”
There’s also a lack of clarity in the advertised number of total trees planted by the program - the fine print at time of publishing mentions that this number is based on the cumulative rounded up charges to date and not necessarily the number of trees already in the ground. The lack of transparency makes it easy to question what the rest of the money is being used for.
A big marketing claim by Aspiration is related to being fossil fuel free. Their status is a bit murky, however, as a recent critical ProPublica article goes into more detail about Aspiration’s mutual fund containing companies which are massive users of fossil fuels.
While the marketing initiative for the new Aspiration Zero credit card of “fighting climate change with every swipe” isn’t an outright falsehood (after all, planting trees is better than not doing anything at all), it’s surely an oversell. Planting trees isn’t enough to solve climate change, and efforts like it threaten to mislead consumers.
There’s also an inherent disconnect between incentivizing people to spend more and reducing carbon emissions. Aspiration encourages its customers to “spend daily… to neutralize your carbon footprint.” Manufacturing consumer goods leads to GHG emissions, so increasing the amount of items you buy leads to increased emissions. Being carbon neutral is not the same as net-zero. Offsetting overconsumption should not be the goal. Instead, consumers should be working to reduce their emissions as much as possible and then using offsets for the remainder.
3 alternate methods for climate change mitigation
The impact of planting trees on climate change is not as straightforward as we might hope. In assessing corporate efforts to combat climate change, here are three strategies to look for:
1. Forest management and the protection of existing ecosystems
Tree planting without a focus on long term forest maintenance and maximal carbon sequestration is ineffective in accomplishing very pressing goals, goals which can’t be met with half hearted efforts. Decreasing deforestation to retain sequestered carbon and aiding the natural regeneration of forests are similar sustainable steps that mitigate climate change with positive long-term effects. Similarly, grasslands can be more effective as carbon sinks than forests and their maintenance should be prioritized.
2. Reducing fossil fuel consumption
Quoted in a 2019 NASA feature on the viability of tree planting to mitigate climate change, senior scientist Sassan Saatchi at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory cautions “It’s definitely not a solution by itself to addressing current climate change. To do that, we need to reduce human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
This makes sense. After all, planting trees is an attempt to counteract the effects of fossil fuel production, so why not attack the source?
According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2019, fossil fuel combustion for energy caused 74% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Reducing these emissions, a plan which includes the transition to alternative energy sources, is a key aspect of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
3. Reducing consumption, period
A clean energy transition is crucial but let’s not overlook the benefits of less consumption and a circular economy. A recent report found that 45% of global GHG emissions come from the production and use of everyday items, such as clothing, food, and cars. Moving towards an economy that disincentivizes overconsumption and encourages reduction and reuse will greatly aid in climate change mitigation efforts.
The responsibility lies both in the hands of producers to make well-made, long-lasting, sustainable products and in the hands of consumers to be mindful in their purchases. However, for any burden to be laid on the consumer, they must be provided the adequate wage, benefits, protections, and information that would give them the liberty to make such decisions.
That being said, consumers can also look to their personal finances when considering their role in the climate movement.
Planting trees and climate change: impactful, but not enough
When it comes to climate change, planting trees can have varying degrees of success, and the complexity of the issue means that the businesses getting involved with these initiatives aren’t always achieving what they market. Consumers should look into eco-friendly programs to see if they’re having the impact on global warming they say they’re having. Corporate initiatives that hone in on reducing consumption and preserving existing carbon sinks, along with the ecosystems that surround them, are positive signs as are green investment strategies that can put one’s money to work protecting our environment.
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