Tree Planting Initiatives: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Tree planting initiatives and organizations have skyrocketed in recent years, with the promise of sequestering carbon and reversing climate change. But, is tree planting the right strategy to invest in? Does it have the positive impact it has promised to have? If my brand is considering planting trees for every product sold, should I pursue this strategy, and how can I do this effectively? Read on for the answers to these questions and many more you didn’t even know you had.
History of Tree Planting Across Civilizations
Humans have been planting trees for a long time, mainly for timber and other agricultural products. As early as 1100 B.C., China created a forest service to replant trees cut down for timber. During the Roman Empire, Cato the Elder planted conifers specifically to produce the timber needed for shipbuilding, a practice that persisted in the future for centuries. In addition, evidence has mounted that indigenous populations of the Amazonia planted domesticated tree species, helping shape the (seemingly “untouched”) rainforest that was later “discovered” by Europeans.
Civilizations have long recognized the value of planting trees to produce timber or to support specific environmental goals such as protecting land from soil erosion or replanting cut-down forest trees. However, the recent phenomenon of tree planting is very new and unique.
These days, countries, companies, citizens, and NGOs have taken tree planting to a new level. As a result, we see commitments to planting specific numbers of trees across the entire world or broad region, with the primary goal of carbon sequestration (alongside secondary goals at times, such as supporting biodiversity, reversing desertification, and spurring economic development).
Since 1990, commitments to tree planting have skyrocketed, as have many nonprofits focused on planting trees. Today, at least three campaigns exist worldwide that have committed to planting 1 trillion trees, the most notable of which is the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Trees Initiative. There are a host of factors that have contributed to this trend! First, widespread attention to climate change set the stage. Then, the 2011 Bonn Challenge fueled this interest, which set a goal of restoring 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.
More recently, a Science article in 2019 argued that restoring trees is “our most effective climate change solution to date” and that there is room for 900 million hectares (2.2 billion acres) of new trees worldwide. The talking points of this article went viral, picked up by hundreds of outlets, and led to the World Economic Forum’s One Trillian Trees Initiative.
Unfortunately, this article, and the author and researcher behind it, Thomas Crowther, were largely rebuked soon after it was released. Another Science article published in 2019 profiled colleagues calling out Crowther for “preening for the press” and publishing flawed science. “Critics panned the tree-planting paper, with one calling it shockingly bad.” Science published six lengthy critiques signed by more than 50 scientists. ( link)
But, in many ways, the counterpoints were too late. By then, the WEF and countless other organizations latched onto tree planting as a critical strategy in reversing climate change.
Over the past year, a new spate of articles has been published describing the failures of many tree planting schemes, casting doubt on the role that reforestation should play in reversing climate change. Here, we share what deep research has shown about the actual benefits and failures of tree planting and if and when to pursue this as part of a corporate strategy.
Current Tree Planting Initiatives
We don’t intend to include an exhaustive list of worldwide tree planting organizations and initiatives. Still, it is helpful to begin a review of the existing analysis of reforestation efforts by understanding the scope and diversity of relevant efforts in motion today.
Some entities are tree planting nonprofits, often setting a specific donation amount to equal the planting of one tree. These nonprofit entities often work with brands and corporations who will set up programs such that the company “plants X amount of trees” for every “Y product sold.” When you see a slogan such as, we plant five trees for every t-shirt sold, it is likely that these brands are working with one of these NGOs, giving them a specific amount of money for every product sold to ensure trees get planted.
Others are broader conservation entities that have made reforestation a component of their efforts. Still, others are platforms that aggregate and track tree planting efforts worldwide. Finally, others are specific tree planting pledges made by nations worldwide. For example, some countries have made pledges as part of the WEF’s One Trillion Trees campaign, while others have made independent commitments.
We’ll later share some failed tree planting campaigns whose outcomes did not match their goals. That said, we firmly believe every effort listed here, and every organization or effort to plant trees, is doing so with good intentions, even in situations where their outcomes are not promising. We also believe that most organizations whose outcomes are falling short are looking for ways to do better in subsequent efforts.
- One Trillion Trees: The World Economic Forum has launched this global initiative to grow, restore and conserve 1 trillion trees worldwide by 2030 - intending to protect and restore biodiversity and fight climate change. 1t.org aims to connect governments, NGOs, corporations, and individuals to work together in their reforestation efforts. Their website shows that 34 companies and 60 countries have pledged 3.6 billion trees.
- Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees: The Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees campaign is a significant forest restoration program. Their goal is to plant a billion trees across the planet to slow the connected crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
- Trees for the Future: An NGO that provides hands-on agroforestry training and resources to farming communities, helping them reclaim their land and agency, break the cycles of climate change and generational poverty, and rebuild food systems from the ground up while planting trees.
- The Arbor Day Foundation: This conversation-focused nonprofit inspires people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees.
- International Tree Foundation: This nonprofit works daily to plant and grow trees, restore and conserve forests and strengthen community and ecosystem resilience. They are focused on transformational tree planting because when tree planting is done right, it changes landscapes, communities, and livelihoods.
- One Tree Planted: This nonprofit tree planting charity plants trees in countries around the world with a one-dollar-one-tree approach that is straightforward for brands and other corporations to engage with.
- Trillion Tree Campaign: Platform that enables citizens to donate to specific tree planting projects worldwide and allows such initiatives to post their efforts and seek funding.
- Reforest Now: ReForest Now is an Australian nonprofit growing and planting trees to restore critically endangered rainforests in Australia. Their model is $5 AUS for one tree planted in the rainforest.
- Pakistan’s “10 Billion Trees Tsunami”: An effort launched by the Pakistani government.
- Saudi Arabia’s Let’s Make it Green Campaign: Commitment to plant 10 million trees to decrease the effects of desertification.
- Ethiopia committed to planting 5 billion seedlings in 2020 as part of its effort to double its forest cover by 2030.
- Ireland’s 22 Million Tree Pledge: In the summer of 2019, the Irish government announced its plans to plant 22 million trees annually throughout the next 20 years. This plan involves using plots of farmland to plant trees as well.
Considerations, Shortfalls, and Potential Benefits
In subsequent sections, we’ll talk about tree planting efforts that have been successful and others that have been failures (and what factors drove the different outcomes). In this section, we’ll talk about broader considerations, trends, and shortfalls.
Fairly or Unfairly, Tree Planting Schemes Can Feel Like “Greenwashing” or An Easy Way Out: Tree planting is one form of carbon offset, leading some brands to make grandiose or completely misleading claims of their positive impact or carbon neutrality. Some brands will promote their tree planting as the sole or core strategy they have taken on to be a conscious, sustainable company. Suppose you see situations where a brand has not been thoughtful about the sustainability of its raw materials, fabrics, packaging, or any part of its business. Still, they are incredibly vocal about their tree planting efforts. In that case, it is entirely possible that greenwashing is at play. Unfortunately, many brands fall into this category. On the other hand, we believe that brands that make conscious, often difficult, decisions across their business in support of sustainability and then adopt tree planting schemes to support their goals should be lauded for these efforts.
Tree Planting Can Make Brands Lazy About The Rest of Their Impact: On a similar note, well-meaning brands can adopt reforestation efforts as part of their sustainability strategy and then inadvertently lose steam to invest in other - more impactful - efforts. As with all things related to sustainability, entities can’t do “just one thing” and then stop if we are going to avoid the most drastic and disastrous impacts of climate change.
Reforestation and Forest Restoration are Not the Same: Initiatives often equate “Reforestation” with “Forest Restoration.” On the surface, these seem the same. But organizations can (and often do) focus on reforestation in ways that do not actually restore forests. Reforestation is a term used to describe the act of planting trees to restock depleted or clear-cut forests. So, for example, producing a monoculture plantation or a diverse forest ecosystem is considered reforestation. On the other hand, forest restoration describes efforts to conserve or return a forest region to its historical and natural state. In general, we believe the goal of tree planting (and frankly, any conservation effort) should be to restore forests and regions to their natural state, not necessarily to simply create tree cover.
The Number of Trees Planted Should Be Part of The Process, Not the Outcome: Initiatives that focus on the number of trees planted for a set amount of money are good for fundraising, publicity, and the likeability of elected officials. But they aren’t necessarily great for the planet. The metric of X trees planted glosses over so many details that can ultimately make reforestation a success. We all care less about how many saplings went into the ground than how many trees have lived for 1+ years or 20+ years and what kind of impact tree planting has had on biodiversity, local cultures, wildlife, soils, and water. As with all things related to sustainability, our obsession with simplifying things and looking for silver bullets does a significant disservice to our planet and climate activists.
The Type and Variety of Trees Matter…So Much: It is disheartening to learn how many tree planting efforts have led to massive swaths of land covered with commercial, non-native species in the name of “fighting climate change.” Yes, these trees store carbon, and in many cases, they produce profits (because they are trees that can produce timber and other marketable products), but they do nothing to restore and support the land and its wildlife at a deeper level. Instead, they create a sterile, lifeless environment that further erodes biodiversity. When researchers from University College London and the University of Edinburgh evaluated worldwide government commitments around tree planting, 45 percent involved “planting vast monocultures of trees as profitable enterprises.” There are 60,000 tree species, a third of which are threatened with extinction. Tree planting efforts, however, only plant a minuscule subset of these species. This outcome - monocrop, sterile landscapes that do nothing to create homes for our wildlife (many of which are threatened with extinction) - is not in line with what any environmentalist or eco-conscious brand is looking for.
Our Seed Library is Painfully Limited: A significant hurdle to planting a diverse set of trees is the lack of supply at local seed banks, which tend to be dominated by popular commercial species. The right groups address this issue by paying local community members to collect seeds of native trees from nearby forests. They then study those trees and their seeds and make thoughtful research-based decisions on what trees to plant, how many to grow, and how to organize them on a tract of land for the best long-term outcome. This dedication requires resources. Instead of trees costing customers $1 to plant, it could increase the amount to more (but well worth it if the outcomes are so much more promising).
The Complexity Of Factors at Play Requires Deep Expertise to Navigate. When Entities Don’t Properly Consider These, They Make Poor Decisions: For example, tree planting groups assume trees improve ground and surface water retention. In reality, in certain situations, forests deplete groundwater and can cause rivers to dry up. Suppose a group is focused on tree planting to improve a region’s water resources. In that case, experts need to be engaged who can conduct a detailed regional evaluation to determine how the planting of tree species being considered would impact the local water cycle.
Financial Incentives Can Lead to Terrible Execution For the Planet: At the highest level, the focus on “planting trees for a certain amount of money” or “planting trees because a water bottle is sold” will incentivize all tree planting organizations to maximize the number of trees they plant above all else, and often, with disregard to all else. This is what their funders and customers are demanding from them. This is the broadest and most common example of perverse financial incentives. However, government policies have other regrettable incentives. For instance, in Wales, farmers are given financial incentives to plant trees but to receive their subsidies, they only need to ensure that 25 percent of what they produce are native species. In some schemes, farmers are paid to plant trees with no policy about what they can’t do (i.e., they can’t destroy native forests to plan new growth trees).
Trees Aren’t The Right Investment Across All Types of Lands and Regions: Tree planting leads to “reforestation,” where there have never been any forests. In fact, in some instances, tree planting occurs on savannas and grasslands, some of our world’s most important carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots. For example, the savannas of Africa are being threatened by large-scale afforestation campaigns, which have devastating consequences for all wildlife, including elephants, which are natural forces of change within savanna ecosystems. Planting trees where there have been none also increases the risk of wildfire. Great tree-planting efforts in China and Brazil have wreaked havoc on grassland ecosystems because they were considered degraded and became reforestation areas.
Nature Often Knows Better Than Humans: In some ways, humans don’t have a clue! In many situations, the best thing we can do would be to fence off large areas of land near native forests or grasslands and let those areas return to their natural state on their own. This method, called natural regeneration, is cheaper and more effective than reforesting in many cases. Because natural regeneration requires little human intervention, it is usually much less expensive than tree planting. Suppose natural regeneration is insufficient in an area. In that case, programs can pursue “assisted natural regeneration” by planting a small number of trees targeted to specific goals instead of simply maximizing the number of trees planted.
Unequal Distribution of Responsibilities: Most carbon emissions come from industrialized countries in the northern hemisphere. Large-scale tree planting efforts are prioritized in the southern hemisphere. This highlights one of the significant issues of the climate movement - that more prosperous nations demand efforts and sacrifices from poorer countries that they have never had to make. These demands can stifle economic development and prosperity. Similarly, this unequal distribution related to tree planting means that countries in the southern hemisphere cannot use the land for economically beneficial activities if tree planting efforts have come underway.
Examples Where Tree Planting is Not Generating the Desired Outcome
Eucalyptus: While this is not a specific, single case study, eucalyptus is an essential lesson for any entity focused on tree planting to understand. Eucalyptus is a tree that is native to Australia and the broader region. The plant contains a strong poison, which koalas have evolved to tolerate. It is an excellent source of fuel, timber, fabric, and carbon sequestration. Because of these benefits, the tree has been planted in Africa and South America as part of reforestation efforts. Across the continents, rows of eucalyptus grow where biodiverse and carbon-rich forests and savannas once stood. Unfortunately, these trees provide minimal resources for wildlife, are water hogs, and create an environment more susceptible to wildfires. Despite these lessons, today, many tree planting efforts worldwide continue to plant eucalyptus.
China’s Grain for Green Program: A review of this program shows quite a few benefits and some significant failures reforestation efforts can learn from. In the late 1990s, China experienced a series of catastrophic floods that killed thousands of citizens. After this, the Chinese government instituted the Grain For Green Program to prevent flooding by reducing soil erosion. Individuals were given financial incentives, resources, and training on how to plant trees in degraded land most susceptible to deterioration that would lead to flooding. Since 2000, tree cover in China has gone up from 20% to 23% of the nation’s landmass. Studies have found that soil erosion has significantly decreased, trees are providing food and other household resources and likely increased carbon storage in soil. Unfortunately, studies have also shown that organizations converted most farmlands into monocrop tree plantations of bamboo, eucalyptus, or Japanese cedar.
During these decades of planting, native forests in China declined by 6.6%. According to one study, Tree Plantations displacing Native Forests: The nature and drivers of apparent forest recovery on former croplands in Southwestern China from 2000 to 2015, “instead of truly recovering forested landscapes and generating concomitant environmental benefits, the region’s apparent forest recovery has effectively displaced native forests, including those that could have naturally regenerated on land freed up from agriculture,” Hua and co-authors write. The Chinese government has worked to reverse some of these terrible consequences, but destroying native forests is not an act that this government can rectify quickly.
Turkey’s Breath for the Future Initiative: On November 11, 2019, Turkey planted 11 million trees nationwide. One city set a world record that day for the most trees planted in a single location. Unfortunately, by March, almost 90% of these saplings were dead, according to the Guardian reported, due to lack of rainfall.
Northern India: Over the last 50 years, India has spent extensive resources planting trees. Unfortunately, satellite imagery and interviews with hundreds of households in Northern India revealed that the hundreds of millions of seedlings planted “had almost no impact on forest canopy cover.” Additionally, the reforestation efforts led to a shift in the types of trees that were planted in the region, with far fewer “useful” trees that the locals need for animal fodder or firewood in their lives. Researchers hypothesize that several factors likely led to these efforts’ dramatic and embarrassing failure; the trees likely died quickly because farmers planted them in the wrong habitat, and animals probably destroyed some samplings.
Mexico: Studies have found that the government’s reforestation campaign, which cost $3.4 billion, caused deforestation. The initiative, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), paid farmers to plant trees on their land. Unfortunately, these perverse financial incentives led many farmers to clear native forestland and put seedlings into the ground. The World Resources Institute estimated that almost 73,000 hectares of forest were lost in 2019 due to this initiative.
Pakistan’s Billion Tree Tsunami: This government tree planting initiative started in 2014 and was executed without consideration of the needs of tribal cultures. It has since been blamed for the erosion of the livelihoods of the Gujjars. This nomadic group has historically rented pasture from landowners but has found that these landowners now have tree plantations instead of grazing land.
A Prime Example of Tree Planting Success
According to Mongabay, one of the most successful examples of context-specific reforestation is the Black Lion Tamarin Conservation Program, led by researchers at the Institute for Ecological Research (known by its Portuguese acronym IPÊ). In Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the black lion tamarin was listed as critically endangered in the 1970s, when there were just 100 individuals left in the world. This reforestation and conservation program restored a 1,000-hectare forest corridor between two important remaining regions of the Atlantic Forest, allowing the black lion tamarin population to replenish to 1,800 individuals in 2008. In executing these efforts, the IPE engaged - at a deep level - rural community members, resulting in a lasting positive impact on these communities as well. According to IPE, “Farmers gained knowledge, income and food security, and developed a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for protecting wildlife, conserving forest fragments and restoring forests.”
How to thoughtfully wade into tree planting
There is no doubt that reforestation, and more importantly - forest restoration - has a critical role in reversing climate change. However, we also recognize that Tree Planting Initiatives are an effective marketing tool for many brands. Your customers may not understand that you’ve invested in certified organic cotton t-shirts or are using algae ink to print your 100% recycled boxes. Still, they can quickly sink their teeth into your One Tree Planted for Every T-Shirt Sold campaign.
Hopefully, the insights shared above help clarify that this is by no means a straightforward strategy and - if executed poorly - could have devastating long-term consequences.
With this in mind, here are some tips for thoughtfully navigating this space.
1. Before investing in a Tree Planting Campaign, spend the resources ensuring that absolutely none of your fabric or natural fibers are coming from old growth, ancient or endangered forests.
This graph provided by Canopy Planet shows the most critical and efficient step we - governments, citizens, consumers, and companies - can take to support “forest restoration” is to stop cutting down old and second-growth trees to make the products and packaging we use.
If you haven’t taken these steps yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before beginning to invest your budget and marketing resources into tree planting campaigns.
2. Consider supporting programs and organizations working to keep existing forests standing.
For example, the Great Bear Rainforest carbon offset project supports First Nations to keep this Ancient and Endangered Forest intact while developing a conservation economy that benefits the region’s Indigenous communities directly.
This project comes highly recommended by Canopy Planet, one of the world’s leading advocates and protectors of ancient and endangered forests.
Programs like this can help you achieve 1% For the Planet goals, can be part of your public marketing campaign, and can likely have a more significant positive impact than general tree planting might.
3. If and when you jump into tree planting efforts, vet your program partners thoroughly and learn how they are responding to the many recent lessons of failed reforestation initiatives
We love forests! We recognize that after the first step of protecting the intact forests that remain on our planet, the next step of forest restoration is a crucial strategy for sequestering carbon, addressing biodiversity loss, and supporting water and soil health.
Look for tree planting programs certified to the Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard and, therefore, must meet a series of environmental and social criteria. In addition, the Society for Ecological Restoration has published International Principles & Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration that you can use to evaluate projects.
Mongabay has also launched an in-depth set of resources to help brands and individuals find transparent and solid reforestation programs to support. Check out the Mongabay Transparency Tool.
Finally, if you already have a tree planting partner you are working with, take time to learn about their results. Don’t just ask how many trees have been planted. Instead, ask questions like (1) What exact trees have been planted with my donations, and where have they been planted? (2) How long has tree planting been happening in these regions, and what is the broader forest restoration impact? (3) What third-party researchers have reviewed your tree planting efforts, and what conclusions have they found? (4) Many restoration efforts ultimately cause more harm than good. What steps can we take to ensure our funding does not perpetuate these issues?