Can Planting a Trillion New Trees Save the World?
I asked the heads of three trillion-tree organizations if anyone was keeping a global total of how many trees had been planted, or how many were still alive — whether we would, in fact, be able to tell when we had achieved the goal of a trillion trees planted. They all said no — and that planting a trillion trees was not the goal at all. Nicole Schwab, the executive director of 1t.org, told me that her organization aims to “conserve, restore and grow” one trillion trees. Reducing the achievements of the myriad organizations and individuals that make up the movement into a single figure would be both impossibly complex and misguided, she says. “From our point of view, the trillion is aspirational,” Schwab says. “We need to be bold, to raise ambition, to put in a system where whatever is pledged is going to be monitored. To me, that’s more important than actually counting toward a trillion.” John Lotspeich, the executive director of Trillion Trees, the collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and BirdLife International, told me that its goal is to protect existing forests, address the root causes of deforestation and restore degraded landscapes. While that may include planting some trees, he says, “our three organizations have not been about finding a free field somewhere and putting some trees there.”
The third trillion-tree effort, Plant-for-the-Planet — still led by Felix Finkbeiner, who helped kick off the race toward a trillion trees with his 2011 speech at the U.N. — used to display what looked like a grand total on its website, a graph showing more than 13 billion trees planted by groups around the world. Sometime in the last year or so, the graph was removed. Finkbeiner, now studying for a Ph.D. in soil microbiology in the lab of Thomas Crowther, remains enthusiastic about the global movement. But the straightforward pitch of his youth is now laden with caveats and subtleties. “We probably would prefer to see ourselves as a forest-restoration movement instead of a tree-planting movement,” he told me. “I think that this trillion-tree frame still totally makes sense, because it gives people a rough sense of the scale of restoration potential. Obviously, it’s clear and simple and catchy.”
The race for a trillion trees can continue to motivate donors, but Finkbeiner says that his organization is no longer focused on counting trees. Ultimately, he believes, the movement’s success or failure in restoring the world’s forests will be judged not by the number of trees planted, but via satellite imagery, viewed over the long term, and discussed the old-fashioned way — in hectares.
On that April morning, as Eden’s team of tree planters continued transforming the field in Engenho into a future forest, Damião Santos drove me and two visiting Eden employees to see his vision of how that forest might look. A few miles south of the village, we parked on the edge of the red dirt road and crossed another brushy expanse, following muddy tire tracks. At the edge of the field, the open landscape turned suddenly to towering forest, a mix of hardwoods and buriti palms, with dense underbrush and draping vines. Water pooled among the roots, trickling from a nearby spring. Santos stooped to pick up a just-sprouted seed. He rolled it in his hands. When scientists say that people shouldn’t plant trees in the Brazilian cerrado, he said, they spoke of grasslands and savannas, ignoring the scattered areas of dense forest like this one. These patches needed restoration, too, he said. That meant planting trees. In any case, the opinions of outside scientists were secondary — the Kalunga wanted the trees, and it was their land.
Later that day, in Engenho, I watched Eden Reforestation employees carefully counting piles of trees, working to provide the raw numbers that would eventually add to the steadily climbing tree tally on Eden’s website. These trees had already fulfilled one of the tree-planting movement’s promises, offering work to people in a place with few economic opportunities. It would take much longer to see whether the trees, which were really just seeds and seedlings, would grow up into the forest that Santos envisioned, providing the expected benefits to the local environment, or whether they and all of the billions or tens of billions of other seeds and seedlings that Eden and other groups had planted around the world would survive long enough to have any meaningful impact on biodiversity or the global carbon cycle. As a solution to the world’s most pressing problems, the trees seemed both obviously useful and woefully uncertain. Even as countries, companies and individuals spend billions of dollars to fund tree-planting projects around the world, much about the trees themselves must be taken on faith.
The tree-planting visionaries, company founders and employees I spoke with insisted that they had learned the lessons of past failures, that they had dialed back their boldest claims, that they understood tree-planting to be just one solution among the many that are needed. “We know how complicated it is,” says Jad Daley, the American Forests chief executive. “We know we have to get the science right, especially in a changing climate. They’re saying, ‘Well, if you’re focused on a trillion trees, then you’re not focused on these details of ecologically appropriate, climate-informed, community-centered reforestation,’ which is factually false. To be honest, it’s infuriating.” Maxime Renaudin, the founder of Tree-Nation, agrees. The tree-planting movement is working toward greater accountability and transparency, he says. “It’s more important that we make a few mistakes than do nothing,” he says, referring to the broader movement. “We are talking about an urgent problem. Our focus should not be on perfection.”