In July 2019, a British ecologist co-authored a study estimating that Earth had space for an extra trillion trees on land not used for agriculture or settlement. Its implications were intoxicatingly hopeful. By restoring forests in an area roughly the size of China, the press release accompanying the paper suggested two-thirds of all emissions from human activities still present in the atmosphere could be removed. The study, led by Jean-François Bastin, a postdoctoral researcher at Crowther’s lab in ETH Zürich, Switzerland, was the second most featured climate paper in the media in 2019, according to one analysis.
It inspired the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) One Trillion Trees Initiative, launched last year after Salesforce billionaire Marc Benioff read the paper on the recommendation of Al Gore, the former US vice-president.
The study has now faced intense scientific criticism.
Several ecologists were outraged that forest restoration was framed as the “most effective climate change solution to date”, arguing that it was a dangerously misleading distraction from the urgency of cutting fossil fuel emissions.
Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and director at California’s Breakthrough Institute, pointed out problems with the paper when it came out. “Reforestation might buy us up to a decade of time – maybe six or seven years of current emissions,” he says. “It’s not nothing, but it doesn’t really fundamentally change the story: we still need some pretty massive reductions in our emissions. The brutal maths of climate change is that, as long as emissions are above zero, the world will continue to warm. You’re going to max out pretty soon if you only try to use forests. Tree planting is not an alternative to mitigation.”
The paper dramatically overstated where new forests could grow by including savannahs and grasslands in its artificial intelligence-derived estimate of land suitable. Ecologists were divided over how to reforest: allow humans to plant enormous numbers of saplings or leave ecosystems to regenerate on their own? Some feared the paper would be used to justify indiscriminate tree-planting, with damaging consequences for biodiversity, agriculture and access to water.
The science behind the press release’s claim that new forests could suck in two-thirds of all historic human emissions remaining in the atmosphere was also questioned. In May 2020, the study’s authors made three corrections, including an acknowledgment that they were incorrect to state “tree restoration is the most effective solution to climate change to date”, and clarifying that new forests could absorb about half as much carbon from the air as the paper initially appeared to suggest, explaining that they did not mean reforestation was a potential magic bullet or a substitute for reducing fossil fuel use. Reforestation was a potent tool for climate crisis mitigation, just less so than initially suggested, and certainly not a replacement for decarbonisation.
Last month, a global review of tree-planting initiatives in the tropics and subtropics since 1961 found that while dozens of organisations reported planting a total of 1.4 billion trees, just 18% mentioned monitoring and only 5% measured survival rates.
The lesson the World Socialist Movement would like to point out is that capitalism will grasp at any supposed solution to the climate crises if it means not only is capitalism preserved but another money-making scheme is created for what can be called ecopreneurs