A long way to go… Amenic181/Shutterstock
Planting almost a billion hectares of trees worldwide is the “biggest and cheapest tool” for tackling climate change, according to a new study. The researchers claimed that reforestation could remove 205 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere – equivalent to about 20 years’ worth of the world’s current emissions. This has criticised as an exaggeration. It could actually be dangerous.
While the paper itself included no costings, the researchers suggested a best-case estimate of just US$300 billion to plant trees on 0.9 billion hectares. That’s just 40 US cents per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO₂) removed. More detailed studies on the costs of carbon removal through reforestation put the figure closer to US$20-50 per tonne – and even this may be optimistic at such large scales.
Our research suggests that the promises implied in such studies could actually set back meaningful action on climate change. This is because of what we call “mitigation deterrence” – promises of cheap and easy CO₂ removal in future make it less likely that time and money will be invested in reducing emissions now.
Why would anyone expect governments or the finance sector to invest in renewable energy, or mass transit like high-speed rail, at costs of tens or hundreds of dollars a tonne if they – and shareholders and voters – are told that huge amounts of CO₂ can be absorbed from the atmosphere for a few dollars a tonne by planting trees?
Why should anyone expect energy companies and airlines to reduce their emissions if they anticipate being able to pay to plant trees to offset everything they emit, for the paltry price of less than 50 cents a tonne. If studies like this suggest removing carbon is cheap and easy, the price of emitting carbon for businesses – in emissions trading schemes – will remain very low, rather than rising to the levels needed to trigger more challenging, yet urgently needed, forms of emission reduction.
A false carbon economy
The promises of cheap and powerful tech fixes help to sideline thorny issues of politics, economics and culture. But when promises that look great in models and spreadsheets meet the real world, failure is often more likely. This has been seen before in the expectations around carbon capture and storage.
Despite promises of its future potential in the early 2000s, commercial development of the technology has scarcely progressed in the last decade. That’s despite many modelled pathways for limiting global warming still assuming – increasingly optimistically – that it will be deployed at a large scale in coming decades.
This model of tackling climate change goes hand in hand with another tool – pricing carbon emissions. This potentially allows companies to go on emitting by paying someone else to cut emissions or remove CO₂ elsewhere – an approach called climate offsetting. But offsetting makes exaggerated promises of carbon removal even more risky.
Tree planting financed through offset markets would guarantee the polluter could continue emitting carbon, but the market couldn’t guarantee removals to match those emissions. Trees might be planted and subsequently lost to wildfire or logging, or never planted at all.
Trusting in trees to remove carbon in future is particularly dangerous because trees are slow to grow and how much carbon they absorb is hard to measure. They’re also less likely to be able to do this as the climate warms. In many regions of the world but particularly in the tropics, growth rates are predicted to fall as the climate warms and devastating wildfires become more frequent.
Relying on trees to absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere in the future also appears misleadingly cheap because of the effects of economic discounting. Economists discount the current value of costs or benefits more deeply, the further in the future they occur. Models which determine the cheapest mix of policies available all use some form of discounting.
When researchers add carbon removal options like tree planting to these models, they tend to generate pathways for slowing temperature rise which reduce the role of short term action and replace it with imaginary removals late in the century.
This is because discounting over 30 to 60 years makes the removal options look incredibly cheap in today’s prices. Priming models to focus on minimising cost causes them to maximise the use of discounted future removals and reduce the use of more expensive near term emissions reduction.
I am not arguing against reforestation, nor for a purely technological response to climate change. Trees can help for many reasons – reducing flooding, shading and cooling communities, and providing habitat for biodiversity. Incentives for reforestation are important, and so are incentives for removing carbon. But we shouldn’t make trees or technology carry the whole burden of tackling climate change. That demands moving beyond technical questions, to deliver immediate political action to cut emissions, and to begin to transform economies and societies.
About the Author
Duncan McLaren, Professor in Practice, Lancaster University
The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall
by Mark W. Moffett
If a chimpanzee ventures into the territory of a different group, it will almost certainly be killed. But a New Yorker can fly to Los Angeles--or Borneo--with very little fear. Psychologists have done little to explain this: for years, they have held that our biology puts a hard upper limit--about 150 people--on the size of our social groups. But human societies are in fact vastly larger. How do we manage--by and large--to get along with each other? In this paradigm-shattering book, biologist Mark W. Moffett draws on findings in psychology, sociology and anthropology to explain the social adaptations that bind societies. He explores how the tension between identity and anonymity defines how societies develop, function, and fail. Surpassing Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens, The Human Swarm reveals how mankind created sprawling civilizations of unrivaled complexity--and what it will take to sustain them. Available On Amazon
Environment: The Science Behind the Stories
by Jay H. Withgott, Matthew Laposata
Environment: The Science behind the Stories is a best seller for the introductory environmental science course known for its student-friendly narrative style, its integration of real stories and case studies, and its presentation of the latest science and research. The 6th Edition features new opportunities to help students see connections between integrated case studies and the science in each chapter, and provides them with opportunities to apply the scientific process to environmental concerns. Available On Amazon
Feasible Planet: A guide to more sustainable living
by Ken Kroes
Are you concerned about the state of our planet and hope that governments and corporations will find a sustainable way for us to live? If you do not think about it too hard, that may work, but will it? Left on their own, with drivers of popularity and profits, I am not too convinced that it will. The missing part of this equation is you and me. Individuals who believe that corporations and governments can do better. Individuals who believe that through action, we can buy a bit more time to develop and implement solutions to our critical issues. Available On Amazon
From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.