What’s Better Than Planting a Trillion Trees?

Feb 10, 2020 by

The New York Times

Protecting the forests while we are at it.


Contributing Opinion Writer

Mature, healthy trees felled to make room for a new home in Nashville.
Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

NASHVILLE — After what seemed like 100 years of impeachments hearings, anything uttered on Capitol Hill now sounds to my ear like the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Nevertheless, a few words from President Trump’s State of the Union address managed to break through the wah-wahs last week: “To protect the environment, days ago, I announced the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and around the world,” he said.

Could it really be true?

You will forgive me for thinking there’s no way it could be true. The whole point of the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Trees initiative is to reduce carbon in the environment and slow the rate of climate change by growing and preserving a trillion trees, worldwide, by 2050. But instead of addressing climate change, the Trump administration has rolled back or weakened 95 environmental protections already on the books.

The burning of fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change, but much of this administration’s hostility to environmental protections is a result of its commitment to promoting the fossil fuel industry: allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public landsapproving construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, encouraging more offshore drilling in the Atlantic. The Trump administration has even gutted the popular Endangered Species Act, which was passed with strong bipartisan support at a time in history when the word “bipartisan” was not an oxymoron. Is it any surprise that the Environmental Protection Agency is now widely known among conservationists as the Environmental Destruction Agency?

I’m trying to figure out how this business with trees might be different. Did the president experience a Scrooge-like conversion at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, with the brilliant Jane Goodall, who supports the One Trillion Trees initiative, playing the role of Marley? If so, it would be a conversion narrative more potent than any since St. Paul was struck down by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. Paul went from persecuting Christians to becoming the faith’s most famous evangelist, responsible for the spread of Christianity around the ancient Western world. Donald Trump’s conversion to environmental sanity could be the start of saving the world itself.

Nothing would give me greater joy than a conversion story in which the Republican Party recognizes and addresses the climate calamity that is already here, but redemption is hardly at hand. More likely: The president has concluded that planting trees will allow him to continue his wrecking-ball policies while simultaneously posing as an environmentalist. Call it an arboreal cap-and-trade arrangement in which there are no caps and virtually no trades — the continued pillaging and polluting of the environment in exchange for planting a trillion trees.

For countries whose leaders recognize the dystopia we are headed toward if significant emissions-reducing measures aren’t taken immediately, the One Trillion Trees initiative is a brilliant arrow in the quiver of climate-change policy. Leaves absorb carbon, wood sequesters carbon and roots stabilize soil so that the carbon already trapped there stays there. Moreover, some 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity occurs in forests. Protecting trees is a way of protecting much of what makes life on earth life on earth.

And planting trees is a tangible way to address climate change that can be done on both a micro and a macro scale. Got a sunny spot in your yard? Plant a tree. Got a country where logging or development or agriculture has mowed down whole forests? Plant millions of trees.

Unfortunately, the math is more complicated than that line in the State of the Union address implies. Planting a seedling is better than doing nothing, it’s true, but it takes decades for a seedling to replace a tree, and that’s if the seedling survives at all: In China’s Great Green Wall reforestation program, up to 85 percent of the plantings fail over time, according to Yale Environment 360. For large-scale reforestation to succeed, the right trees have to be planted in the right places — a variety of species, not a monoculture, all native to the ecosystem at hand — and they have to be cared for until the roots are well-enough established to survive the temperature extremes, storms, floods and droughts that are the hallmark of climate change. It can be done, but it can’t be done without effort.

Reforestation is a crucial goal, but even more crucial is the other goal of the One Trillion Trees initiative: preserving the trees we already have. So far we’re doing a terrible job of it. Here in the United States, we’re losing 36 million trees a year in metropolitan areas alone. In Canada, the ancient boreal forest is being mowed down for the sake of toilet tissue. In South America, the rainforest is being burned down for the sake of cheeseburgers.

Here in Nashville, we are losing trees to development at a rate that would take your breath away: 918 acres of canopy from 2008 to 2016, and development has continued unabated since that last census was taken. In my neighborhood alone, just during the past two months, builders clearing three lots have taken down nearly two dozen mature shade trees and more ornamentals than I could keep track of. A beautiful magnolia, a whole stand of towering pines where the neighborhood crows roosted at night, several hackberries that provided food for migratory birds and local species alike. It’s possible to save big, old trees during construction, but these developers didn’t even try.

Last summer, Nashville passed legislation that requires commercial developers to plant more trees — increasing tree density from 14 to 22 per acre — and offers incentives to preserve “heritage” trees. It’s an important first step, but it doesn’t impose any penalties on builders who choose not to preserve those heritage trees, and it doesn’t apply to single-family homes and duplexes at all. The bulldozers on my street aren’t going anywhere until the next round of legislation is negotiated.

I have hope for a next round. “We’re not set up to be a very tree-minded city,” Councilwoman Angie Henderson, the lead sponsor of the new bill (and my former student), told The Tennessean last summer. “I am looking at this as a series of tree-related regulations.”

The president of the United States should look at the One Trillion Trees initiative the same way. It’s a start. If it stops there, it will accomplish nothing at all.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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