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Planting Billions of Trees Is the 'Best Climate Change Solution Available Today,' Study Finds

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Planting Billions of Trees Is the 'Best Climate Change Solution Available Today,' Study Finds
London skyline and Primrose Hill Park. NicolasMcComber / E+ / Getty Images

Planting more than 500 billion trees could remove around 25 percent of existing carbon from the atmosphere, a new study has found. What's more: there's enough space to do it.


The study, published in Science Friday, set out to assess how much new forest the earth could support without encroaching on farmland or urban areas and came up with a figure of 0.9 billion hectares, an area roughly the size of the U.S., BBC News reported. That makes reforestation "the most effective solution" for mitigating the climate crisis, the researchers concluded.

"Our study shows clearly that forest restoration is the best climate change solution available today and it provides hard evidence to justify investment," senior study author and ETH-Zürich Professor Tom Crowther said, as BBC News reported. "If we act now, this could cut carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by up to 25 percent, to levels last seen almost a century ago."

The new trees would remove around 200 gigatonnes of carbon, or two thirds of what humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.

However, the researchers emphasized that tree planting was not a replacement for reducing greenhouse gas emissions or phasing out the use of fossil fuels.

"None of this works without emissions cuts," Crowther told Time.

Even if tree planting began today, it would take 50 to 100 years for the new trees to soak up those 200 gigatonnes of carbon, he told The Guardian. And, as National Geographic pointed out, the researchers found that potential tree-planting land could shrink by one-fifth by 2050 even if global temperature rise is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as some tropical areas could grow too hot to support forests.

Even so, Crowther said tree planting was an important means of immediate climate action.

It's "a climate change solution that doesn't require President Trump to immediately start believing in climate change, or scientists to come up with technological solutions to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere," Crowther told The Guardian. "It is available now, it is the cheapest one possible and every one of us can get involved."

Assistant-Director General at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization René Castro praised the study's utility.

"We now have definitive evidence of the potential land area for re-growing forests, where they could exist and how much carbon they could store," Castro said, as The Guardian reported.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers first looked at around 80,000 satellite photographs of protected forest areas around the world to assess the tree cover in each. They then used Google Earth Engine mapping software to develop a model for predicting where new trees could grow, National Geographic explained. They found that more than half of the world's reforestation potential was located in six countries: China, the U.S., Russia, Australia, Canada and Brazil.

However, trends are moving in the opposite direction in Brazil, where deforestation is on the rise under the right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro. Recent satellite images show that a football-field-sized swath of the Amazon is being lost every minute, according to National Geographic.

Bolsonaro has also been hostile to the rights of indigenous communities to the forest. But such rights are essential for conservation: deforestation rates are much lower in forests that recognize indigenous claims.

"We have served as guardians of these lands for generations ... We also understand how to restore them to health," Joan Carling, a member of the Kankanaey tribe in the Philippines and co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development, told National Geographic by email. "With the security of our lands and resources, we can prevent destructive logging, mining, agri-business, and other projects from occurring in our territories."

Political realities are why some scientists criticized the optimism of Crowther's findings.

"Planting trees to soak up two-thirds of the entire anthropogenic carbon burden to date sounds too good to be true. Probably because it is," University of Reading professor Martin Lukac told BBC News. "This far, humans have enhanced forest cover on a large scale only by shrinking their population size (Russia), increasing productivity of industrial agriculture (the West) or by direct order of an autocratic government (China). None of these activities look remotely feasible or sustainable at global scale."

University College London professor Simon Lewis, meanwhile, said that the amount of carbon the study said trees would absorb was too high. He said the study had not accounted for the carbon already in the soil before trees were planted or the hundreds of years it would take for the trees to achieve their full storage potential, The Guardian reported.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

A large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on Aug. 6, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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