Could planting 1 trillion trees counteract climate change?

In recent years, climate change has been looming like a dark cloud over the globe. contributing to everything from raging wildfires in the Amazon, Australia, California as well as other parts of the globe, refugees fleeing drought and crop shortages in Guatemala, ocean levels rising and more. 

But the urgency around the issue reached new heights in 2018 when the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that rapid, "far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" would be needed in order to drop carbon dioxide levels by 2030 and prevent catastrophic global warming.

Karmonia gigas sprouts grown in a nursery ready to be planted in Tanzania. 

Scientists indeed have proposed drastic measures, in the same IPCC report, the United Nations suggests that adding 2.5 billion acres of forest to the world could limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. In other words: Responding to climate change will require planting new trees. A lot of them.

And now, the U.N. might just have the data to back up its proposal.

In a recent study published in the journal "Science", a group of Swiss scientists found that global tree restoration to the tune of 223 million acres of canopy cover — an area about the size of the United States — is "our most effective climate change solution to date."

These trees would store 205 billion tons of carbon, or roughly two-thirds of the carbon that has been emitted "as a result of human activity since the Industrial Revolution".

The team used a form of artificial intelligence known as "machine learning" to build "a model to link tree cover with climate/soil/topography, based on 78,000 observations of tree cover in protected areas." The researchers then projected the data further to estimate the "total potential tree cover of the planet". Afterward, the team excluded land currently being used for urban settlements, croplands and existing forests, which yielded the total amount of land available for restoration.

Total land available that can support trees across the globe (total of currently forested areas and forest cover potential available for restoration).

The scientific community agrees that forest restoration is important to addressing climate change, but that restoration alone will likely not be enough. It takes time, after all, to implement such big restoration projects and also for these trees to store carbon. The possibility of future restoration should not be used as an excuse for continuing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. 

The study's authors acknowledge that it will take a lot of goodwill to make this grand vision a reality.

"What we need is universal action: international agencies, NGOs, governments, all citizens — anyone can be involved," says Bastian. "Local communities and small organizations may be especially effective. While they do not have the same reach as national agencies, they have the benefit of knowing what works best in their own backyards."



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