Planting ‘millions of trees’ may not be the answer to deforestation
Large-scale plantations offer little biodiversity and can impact negatively on hydrology and local land rights, writes Prof Tim Forsyth
The announcement at Cop26 to halt and reverse global deforestation over the next decade (Cop26: world leaders agree deal to end deforestation, 1 November) is to be welcomed, but still raises important questions about the role of tree plantations. For years, environmentalists have not just resisted the destruction of old-growth forests, but also the conversion of landscapes to large-scale tree plantations, because they offer little biodiversity and can impact negatively on hydrology and local land rights.
Yet plantations are still classified as “forests” by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and various organisations propose them as means of “reversing” deforestation, or achieving net zero carbon emissions (where emissions are balanced by activities that capture carbon).
Critics such as the Rainforest Foundation UK have pointed out that many projections for using plantations in global climate change policy imply covering an area roughly the size of Australia in fast-growing trees, and fail to acknowledge the social costs of doing so. In October, a report from parliament’s international development committee urged the UK government to pay more attention to the drivers of vulnerability to climate change, rather than those that emphasise tree planting alone. Yet before Cop26, Boris Johnson stated that “planting millions of trees” was part of UK climate change policy.
The desire to do something about climate change and deforestation should not blind us to asking important questions about whether proposed solutions are actually feasible, or might generate other difficult problems.
Professor, department of international development, London School of Economics