If tree planting is not supported by protection and care, forests can do more harm to the climate than good. In conversation with Daimen Hardie, executive director at Community Forests International
The July 2019 report published in Science stated that there is space on Earth to grow another 0.9 billion hectares of continuous forest, which «has the potential to store an equivalent 25% of the current atmospheric carbon pool». Since then, the public, governments, charities, and businesses have been galvanized to plant more trees. We plant trees, and as they mature, they capture vast amounts of greenhouse gases that are damaging to the environment. This could protect future generations from the effects of carbon on the climate.
Alongside carbon capture, trees boast a host of scientifically proven benefits, both when planted in rural and urban areas. Trees improve wellbeing, including patient recovery in hospitals; they reduce heating and cooling costs in nearby buildings; they reduce asphalt and car temperatures; they have even been linked to safer living spaces. According to one study, published in Environment and Behaviour, «Residents living in ‘greener’ surroundings report lower levels of fear, fewer incivilities, and less aggressive and violent behavior».
Daimen Hardie is the executive director of Community Forests International, alongside designing climate action strategies for the European Union. «Tree planting is this thing that we do to give back to the world. It’s got so much charisma and everybody can get behind it. But the process of bringing a forest back is an intergenerational process. These forests take decades, if not hundreds of years to be restored. Planting the tree is just one of the first steps», says Hardie.
If tree planting is not supported by protection and care, forests can do more harm to the climate than good. Hardie’s home country of Canada is a prime example of forest potential, but also the drawbacks of poorly managed or unprotected forest areas. «Canada has huge forests and forestry industry, and the potential for Canada’s forests to be this really great global carbon storehouse are vast», says Hardie, «but under business-as-usual that’s not the case».
Canada has the second-largest forested area by country on Earth, but current reports show that Canadian forest lands are making climate change worse. Trees store carbon as long as they are healthy and living, but as soon as they are cut or burned, that carbon returns to the atmosphere. A combination of forest fires, insect infestations, and natural disturbances , alongside logging, has caused Canada’s forests to emit more carbon than they sequester. In 2016, Canada’s managed forests emitted 78 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
In 2016, wildfires in the community of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada damaged or destroyed over 4,000 homes and caused 88,000 people to evacuate. On investigation into the fire, scientists linked back to drainage of the area’s peatlands for tree plantations in the 1970s. The combination of dried peatland together with spruce trees caused forest fires that were not considered extinguished for over 400 days.
Vast amounts of carbon were dumped into the atmosphere, which could have been prevented if the 40-year-old plantations were managed more carefully. Water drainage and risk of forest fires must be considered for the long-term health of forests and their ecosystems. «For better or worse, humans are one of the biggest forces on the planet, and we need to take responsibility for responding to natural disasters and take some responsibility for protecting our forest against those natural disasters», says Hardie.
Clearcutting for the logging industry is another factor in carbon release into the atmosphere. Itis cheaper and easier to cut down whole areas of land, but that kills off wildlife habitats and threatens balanced ecosystems. «In Canada, we’ve managed our forests more like farms», says Hardie, «making all of our decisions based on those shorter-term profits or shorter-term fibre output, and we haven’t been managing them for climate security or carbon drawdown». But there are methods where forests can be logged and still remain healthy. Hardie emphasizes that these alternatives to clearcutting that can contribute to carbon drawdown, through «harvesting lightly, in a way that lets a longer-lived, more diverse species come back and thrive». This kind of intervention can actually increase carbon storage in a forest.
Land ownership and legal rights are also part of the protection and restoration equation, both in Canada and around the world. «It’s valuable to protect forests in the long run. We must control the land that we plant on», says Felix Finkbeiner, founder of Plant-for-the-Planet, who are responsible for some of the most successful tree planting programs around the world.
In Canada, Community Forests International purchase and protect land through a carbon offsetting scheme. With donations from companies hoping to lessen their climate impact, Community Forests International buys and manages areas of endangered Acadian forest in the Canadian Maritimes. «We’ve protected over 1000 acres of old Acadian forest, which is this really special type of endangered forest in the Maritimes, through partnerships with companies that want to demonstrate leadership on climate, and on social responsibility», says Hardie. They then pursue conservation easements; legal deeds that ensure the land is protected from clearcutting or other damaging practices in the long-term.
In cities, individual tree planting needs careful forethought. Risk of damage from construction, vandalism, air pollution, and poor maintenance create a higher than average mortality rate for urban trees. For city trees to survive their challenging environments, they must be planted with adequate root space for the mature tree. When roots outgrow their given space in paved areas, they damage infrastructure and are at greater risk of harm. During a tree’s lifetime, it could be disturbed by digging for new cabling or plumbing. Underground damage often results in the tree dying, sometimes a year after the injury. It’s hard to link tree death to the cause, so future-proofing in the form of proper spacing and legal protections are important to ensure the plant’s longevity.
Aftercare is also important in city tree-planting schemes. A report in Scenario Journal on urban tree planting revealed that in New York and Sacramento, over a quarter of trees from planting programs had died within the first five to nine years due to poor care — or sometimes not even being planted in the first place. This not only represents carbon release, but also a financial loss for the governments that invested in the programs.
The tree planter’s maxim is ‘the right tree in the right place’. Consideration of the type of tree and where it’s going will aid the long-term health and protection of urban and rural forests. In the north of Ireland, industrial-level planting of non-native Sitka spruce trees has reduced biodiversity. The evergreens have grown tall and wide, choking out light to native tree species and eliminating food sources for other wildlife. Similarly, when individual tree species are over-planted in urban areas, the trees are at higher risk to pests and diseases such as the emerald ash borer, and significant amounts of canopy cover can be lost in a short space of time.
An alternative way to protect trees is simply by not planting at all — clearing the land, ensuring it’s protected, and getting out of the way to allow for natural regeneration. This works particularly well in tropical areas such as the Amazon, and areas bordering existing forests where a diverse array of plants will be seeded naturally. Trees that grow in the wild are more naturally resilient. However, the UK’s tree council point out that natural regeneration is not possible for trees planted in urban areas, where planting and active protection is necessary for any tree growth at all.
Although governments are quick to produce tree planting goals, a top-down approach does not always yield the highest results. A local community must be invested in protecting their new and existing forests.
«The science really proves that indigenous communities and other collective communities do a better job of keeping forests intact over the long term, including the really important life-giving services of those forests, carbon storage being one of them», said Hardie. The Land Back movement in Canada will promote healthier forests across the nation, as indigenous communities that have a long-standing value for nature, and experience stewarding the land, are entrusted with the care of their land. In Latin America and Africa, this has proven to be true, as secure land rights have been linked with higher rates of forest restoration and protection.
In the UK, the Tree Council has seen success in urban and rural environments through tree wardens; volunteers who plant, care for, and advocate for trees that are at risk. Tree wardens have planted over 7.5 million trees in community efforts across the country.
Daimen Hardie describes how the focus of Community Forests International in Canada was inspired by their work in Zanzibar. «When they restore a forest, they know that part of that restoration process will involve creating income and jobs, and they will harvest some of the forests that they restore to pay for the things that their family needs», says Hardie.
Community Forests International work together with locals to reforest degraded areas, implementing practices such as spice agroforestry, where forest crops can be sold, creating food, energy, and livelihoods. «The idea that we can put up a fence around nature in one area, keep people out, and then in all the other parts of the landscape just have unbridled destruction is not going to get us to a good place», says Hardie.
When workers and landowners have a vested interest in forest health and biodiversity, a more reciprocal relationship is possible. In both rural and urban forests, community involvement is important for tree protection, biodiversity, and long-term carbon drawdown. These protection measures combined will hopefully impact tree health for generations to come.
«The best way to protect trees — the hardest to effect — is to change our relationship with forests, and the natural world more broadly, to one that is more reciprocal and about caring about thinking of the future», says Hardie, «When we can affect that cultural change, then that’s what’s really going to change the world».