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Can't Plant Our Way Out

October 12, 2022

By Erica Cirino

In the heart of Uganda there is a huge, regimented stand of pine trees. This forest is a prime example of “afforestation,” the process of restoring an area deforested by human subsistence activities, like farming. It is also part of the carbon offset business. By planting trees in Uganda, Green Resources, a Norwegian plantation forestry and carbon offset company, can in theory balance out the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity elsewhere. For years, the Swedish Energy Agency (SEA) paid Green Resources to plant the trees and thereby offset some of the agency’s emissions of carbon, a major cause of climate change.

At first, the Green Resources project sounds great. But pine trees don’t normally grow in Uganda, according to the Oakland Institute, a think tank devoted to social and environmental activism. Plantation-style agriculture actually sequesters less carbon, less securely, than naturally generated forests and grasslands. The pine trees aren’t really raised to address the climate crisis, but to be chopped into sawlogs and utility poles. And Green Resources, active in East Africa since 1995, evicted thousands of native Ugandans from the land so it could create the plantation in the first place, according to the Oakland Institute’s 2019 exposé. Following the institute's report, the SEA suspended and then ended its relationship with Green Resources in 2020, though Green Resources continues to grow trees and gain investors for its pine plantations in East Africa.

Around the world, tree-planting campaigns have become a popular and simple way to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. But some tree planting efforts, like the Green Resources project in Uganda, are problematic. Many have been based on shaky science hyped by the media and may amount to little more than greenwashing, giving companies cover to continue profiting as they pollute. Trees do absorb carbon dioxide, but how, where, and why a tree is planted matters greatly to its climate-mitigating potential. Tackling climate change is not as simple as planting some trees and walking away.

“Who could be against tree planting?” asks Jennifer Skene, natural climate solutions policy manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It seems like such a quaint environmental activity.” Skene has written extensively about the perils of poorly planned reforestation efforts, which can wind up superseding the protection of existing forests. And many planting campaigns are used to justify clearing climate-critical forests elsewhere, she adds.

The idea that we could plant our way out of climate change goes back at least to 1976, when physicist Freeman Dyson suggested in a paper that in the face of planetary warming, we could “plant enough trees and other fast-growing plants to absorb the excess CO2 and bring the annual increase to a halt.” Even then, however, Dyson acknowledged that trees and plants alone likely wouldn’t be enough. The only long-term response to an imminent climate catastrophe would be to “stop burning fossil fuels and convert our civilization to nuclear or solar-based fuels,” he wrote.