How many times have you heard of a company planting trees as a way of ‘doing their part’ for the planet? At least a handful, I’m guessing. IKEA launched its Sow A Seed Foundation in 1998 and has since then replaced 18,500 hectares of previously burned down lowland rainforest in Borneo. Meanwhile, Microsoft has partnered with Ecosia (a search engine that uses ad revenue to plant trees) to support reforestation in Brazil alongside other conservation projects, as well as planting over 135,000 trees itself. Even the UK Government has planted millions of trees over the last decade, and has pledged a million more by 2024.
The demand for metal, wood and other natural resources has drastically impacted the world’s forests and their native wildlife populations. It has also resulted in an increase in disasters during typhoons because of landslides, as well as encouraging erosion and worsening the consequences of avalanches. When companies pledge to plant trees, it conjures the possibility of a future where the impact of natural disasters is lessened, we can rejenerate habitats for wildlife, and children can happily camp in a forest lush with greenery and thick foliage and where they can engage in the sport of tree climbing using tree climbing harnesses.
This can only be a good thing, right? Well, although planting trees is a good way to increase sustainability, reduce one’s carbon footprint and help in the battle against climate change, there are, apparently, right ways and wrong ways to go about it.
I’m going to delve into this further to find out what can go wrong with tree planting, but first…
Why is there so much tree planting going on in the first place?
Basically, trees are relatively cheap to plant, and this means that organisations can state that they are working to reduce their carbon footprint without making more costly and impactful changes such as, say, installing solar panels on all of their warehouse roofs or sourcing local materials for their products. They may even ask the customer to pay for the planting of the tree; for example, luring them in with the charitable donation at the checkout (it’s only an extra 10p, so why wouldn’t you? Then, you can feel like you’re doing your part for the environment).
The organisation doesn’t even need to own any land to plant the trees on. Instead, they can partner up with a charity who will plant trees for them in countries across the world. If they’re charging the customer for this service, then it’s a case of minimal effort in exchange for recognition as a planet-positive organisation. After all, according to Sprout Social’s ‘Championing Change in the Age of Social Media’ report, 92% of consumers say they have a more positive image of a company when they stand up for an environmental issue. It’s an easy win.
However, it could also be the case that the organisation really does want to reduce their carbon footprint and do a good thing for the planet – and there are many businesses (especially small, independent businesses) where this is the case. Most of us are trying to do our best, and if our best is to plant a tree, then that is enough for the moment. After all, the benefits of tree planting can be enormous:
- A mature tree can absorb up to 22lbs of carbon per year, which means that forest of just under 1000 trees could offset the average UK person’s yearly carbon emissions (based on these figures)
- Some trees emit chemicals which bind together to make aerosols, which can create a haze that reflects sunlight back into space, helping to reduce warming
- Large scale planting in tropical regions could actually change the weather pattern to increase rainfall in the area, enabling even more plant growth and carbon storage, according to this study
- There is an opportunity to increase biodiversity with the right tree planting initiative
- Trees can slow heavy rain and reduce flooding
- Certain species can improve air quality by removing pollutants
- Forests offer social benefits such as improved mental health for locals and visitors, aesthetic value and support for the local economy by creating jobs (such as maintaining the forest… more on this below)
But while it’s important to participate in positive actions for the benefit of the planet and those that live on it, there are – as I said earlier – right and wrong ways to go about these actions. Yes, planting trees seems like a good way to fight climate change, but it’s not always the solution, and even when it is the solution, it’s not always done right.
The ghost forests of good intentions
Below are examples of where tree planting initiatives have gone wrong either through improper research and planning or improper care, resulting in wasted money and time, and even damage to local ecosystems. It’s so important that we learn from these mistakes so that future initiatives can be executed successfully.
Back in July 2021, the UK Government announced that it had planted 700,000 trees as part of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway initiative, and that 6.3 million more trees are to be planted over the course of ‘phase one’ of the project. Unfortunately, this good news comes with a pinch of salt, as three-to-four years ago tens of thousands of trees were planted under the HS2 scheme and were subsequently left to die during the drought of 2018, as bosses said they were cheaper to replace than keep alive. It makes you wonder – will this logic be applied to the current plantations in the case of another drought or other complications?
Trees are living things, and it’s only proper that we give them the attention that any living and breathing creature on this planet deserves. Their maintenance and upkeep are part of the package, and leaving them to die in drought is a travesty.
Mangrove reforestation in Sri Lanka
A study in 2017 found that nine out of 23 mangrove reforestation projects in Sri Lanka were unsuccessful, with no planted trees surviving to maturity. The study showed that survival rates directly correlated with post-care, and that most of the reforestation locations were unsuitable due to poor soil conditions, animal and insect disturbance, algal accumulation and other factors.
A project that’s bound to fail even before it begins is a foolish undertaking. If you have poured all your efforts into the activity without carefully studying the details of the plan in its inception, your efforts will go to waste. Imagine if all the carbon footprint spent in completing the task is not even enough to balance the half-baked efforts of the entire group, it would be the height of hypocrisy.
Acacia planting in South Africa
Australian acacia species were introduced to the South African landscape as a benefit to the economy. However, the trees soon began to spread and started dominating existing ecosystems. It now costs the country more to remove the spreading trees than it can profit from their farming, and native plants are at risk of being displaced. The lack of care in the initial stages of this project have led to dangerous environmental complications down the line. Not the original intention, I’m sure.
Long-term planning with a scientific background is crucial in every ecological effort. It would be a waste of time and resources to begin a project for the sake of public relations without really diving into the details and knowing the outcome in the years to come.
What’s the answer?
You might think there’s not a lot that we, as individuals, can do past planting a tree in our own gardens. However, there is! For example, we could do our research before making a donation to a tree planting initiative, write to our MPs to request better maintenance of existing forests, and do our best to reduce our carbon footprints in other areas of our lives.
When it comes to those who are planting the trees, it could be a case of lowering expectations. It may be more successful to plant fewer trees with better research and planning, and lower maintenance requirements, than it is to pledge one million trees, half of which die before they reach their first birthday.
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.