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TSS EXCLUSIVE: Reforestation as An Answer to Climate Change

By Laurenzo Overee

Barren Moor. Thinning Atmosphere. 

James lives on a planet filled with treeless slates of blighted land. Industrial fumes continue to plague the skies as the quality of oxygen plummets to an all-time low. He dons an oxygen masks as a crucial accessory matching his jeans and t-shirt. The world governments are incapable of reversing the damage that had been unleashed decades prior to the sordid aftermath.  

James’ story may become the fate of the lands if humans remained oblivious to the pressing concerns of climate change. The struggle has already begun.  

Mounting Concerns

Since the 1990s, more than 1.3 million square kilometers of forested area have been cut down. A landmass as large as a football field is being deforested in the Amazon every minute. About 18 million acres of forests are lost each year – roughly the same size as Panama. 

Trees are being chopped down and processed to fulfill the burgeoning demands of  infrastructure through road-building and logging for furniture and paper industries, while they are not being replanted and repopulated quite as fast enough. 

In Peru, big corporations have been operating illegal mining activities, clearing trees through the use of poisonous chemicals. These deleterious activities have been altering rainfall patterns, resulting in drought and pest infestations that compromises the biome. 

Some scientists are looking toward plants as a sustainable climate mitigation solution. Plants refine sunlight, carbon dioxide and soil nutrients, which produce fresh oxygen that permeates the air. Additionally, when they reach the end of their lifespans, plants are returned to the soils of the Earth, where resulting carbon is equally divided between ground and sky and fulfils an environmental equilibrium. This natural cycle of trees reduces the net carbon levels found in the atmosphere. 

These experts are aiming to replenish the concentration of trees within deforested areas.  Each plant can contribute towards fixing nitrogen levels in the atmosphere through soil bacteria – differing in its contribution based on size, age, species, and location.  

Reforestation as An Answer

Recent satellite imagery suggests that 2.2 billion acres of replanted trees could negate up to two-thirds of man-made carbon emissions, which have been released since the days of the Industrial Revolution. This translates to roughly 250 billion metric tons of harmful carbon floating within the atmosphere. 

The UN intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has convened to discuss dire issues on climate change that face pressing deadlines: the world has 12 years to limit warming within this century to temperatures 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The higher the temperature and drier the area, the harder it will be for trees to take root for survive in reforestation efforts.  

Thomas Crowther, head of the latest reforestation study and founder of Crowther Labs at ETH Zurich, states, “We all knew that restoring forests could play a part in tackling climate change, but we didn’t really know how big the impact would be. Our study shows clearly that forest restoration is the best climate change solution available today. But we must act quickly, as new forests will take decades to mature and achieve their full potential as a source of natural carbon storage.” 

Reforestation is being proposed as an additional measure to existing international climate change initiatives such as clean energy, the use of electric vehicles and the reduction of energy consumption. Reforestation however, is not to be interpreted as an all-encompassing solution.  

On the other hand, a contrasting Science Advances article posits that only some parts of the world are suitable for reforestation. The team shortlisted specific regions where reforestation is deemed viable, in places that are typically situated in tropical zones. The proposed areas include major parts of South America, India, and Indonesia. 

The study was led by tropical forestry professor Pedro Brancalion and supported by forest ecologist, Robin Chazdon, who explained that these hot spots were specially chosen according to their biodiversity and major contributions in global air quality and rainfall patterns. This contrasting theory reduces reforestation areas to  247 million acres, significantly smaller than the proposed target according to Crowther’s study.   

Verdant Quandary

However, the urgency for reforestation remains a serious issue as global temperatures continue to soar. The regrowth and maintenance of trees in deforested areas require time, which remains a privilege that the planet can ill-afford. Replanting efforts require high costs, and governments may be unwilling to spend on carbon mitigation due to a lack of immediate financial returns.  

Also, many areas of deforestation had been specifically chosen to improve the economy  through livestock grazing, agriculture, and industrialisation. Governments will likely only decide to reclaim these lands for reforestation purposes if the benefits outweigh existing national profits and ensuring financial stability to dependents who will be displaced by the move.  

Environmental researcher Joseph Poore voiced his concerns on reforestation, “This research is excellent, it presents an ambitious but essential vision for climate and biodiversity but without freeing up the billions of hectares we use to produce meat and milk, this ambition is not realisable.” 

There are some experts who continue to discredit the lofty carbon-limiting predictions of reforestation. Climate analyst, Zeke Hausfather believes that the estimation of carbon limitation is off by over a margin. 

According to the analyst, rather than depending entirely on additional trees, some of the historic carbon emissions will be absorbed by soil and seas. Hausfather states, “That’s not to say that reforestation is not an important mitigation strategy, just to caution that like every other climate solution, it’s part of a larger portfolio of strategies rather than a silver bullet.” Chazdon further warns that reforestation should not be pegged to monetary gain as deforestation may gain the upper hand through seeming more lucrative. 

Governments from countries such as Indonesia, have already begun reforestation as reparation efforts to decades of large-scale mining efforts and agricultural operations, but results have remained poor mainly due to budget issues. Alternatively, some non-governmental organizations have already begun massive reforestation efforts through outreach programs. TreeSisters is a global network that has replanted over 5 billion trees in countries like India, Cameroon, Nepal and Madagascar through monthly donation efforts of members. However, current efforts remain far from the prospective figures required in reaping noticeable changes in atmospheric temperatures.  

The burning question remains on whether every forest is replenishable and how cooperative will governments regarding each case. There may be more feasible “carbon sinkers” in the future, but communities need to race for action before the last of the most carbon-absorbing trees are toppled as the world heats up to record levels. Time is ticking away, and a dearth of workable solutions could cause Earth to decline into a noxious wasteland inhospitable for intelligent life.