Trees, please

Can forests fix the planet?

Jen Knoch

I’ve rented my current apartment, at the top of an old house, for ten years; when I first moved in, there were no trees in our backyard. We have a large garden and spent countless hours in the yard, and somehow . . . a tree crept up on us. Decade-old photos show only sunlight where a tree now reaches three storeys tall. Around its fifth year, we were shocked when juicy, dark berries started raining down. That’s when we discovered our tree was a mulberry, and those berries were, happily, edible.

It quickly became the new local hotspot for birds, squirrels, and raccoons. We’d sit in the yard at dusk and watch baby raccoons eat their way along branches that bent under their weight. I harvested buckets of berries, my hands stained a deep blue-purple. One of my fondest memories in the yard is of my pregnant best friend standing on a chair, picking berries into a jar that rested on her belly.

Though the mulberry is technically invasive, and sometimes I resent the way it’s shaded out part of my garden, I still see the tree as a gift. It sucks carbon from the air as buses circle at the subway station behind us. It feeds the wildlife in our yard; it feeds us too. Plus, it’s not often a giant plant gets the jump on you.

Trees are so often something we overlook or take for granted, but they’re a useful tool in slowing the climate crisis and improving our environment. That said, we can’t just plant our way out of our impending climate doom — so let’s take a quick look at what trees can and can’t do.

Trees can

  • sequester carbon, although only temporarily. When they decompose (or are burned, accidentally or for fuel), most of that carbon is re-released. Nevertheless, we are out of time, so holding carbon temporarily is still useful.

  • filter chemicals that can be harmful to human health like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen (as this BBC article observes, trees are not just the lungs of the planet, but the liver), and capture particulate matter that aggravates lung conditions and has been linked to inflammation and heart disease.

  • provide food and habitat for birds and insects, encouraging biodiversity.

  • cool buildings and pavement around them, reducing energy-sucking A/C use and fighting the “urban heat island” effect that is killing people with major heat waves, and is only likely to worsen as the planet gets hotter.

  • reduce erosion and improve soil as a part of permaculture and agroforestry.

  • prevent desertification and restore soil fertility.

Trees are pretty amazing technology! But despite headline-grabbing projects like the Trillion Tree Initiative, they’re not a silver bullet solution that can single-handedly prevent climate catastrophe. There have been studies that showed a lot of promise, like this one in 2019 published in Science suggesting there are 0.9 billion hectares available for reforestation that could sequester up to 750 billion tonnes of carbon, but the actual calculations have been contested by other scientists and many are skeptical of implementation. It’s one thing to plant forests, and another to protect them in the long term.

Common obstacles for getting forests back in business include

  • Trees being unstable carbon storage, especially when they’ll also be facing new conditions under climate change. How much carbon they can store (and for how long) depends on the growing conditions, species, and the tree’s age.

  • Lack of maintenance and/or being cut down.

  • Planting monocultures or inappropriate species. Forests aren’t just trees; they’re complex systems, and you need something more like Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki’s plots of native species.

  • Not getting local communities on board. If your reforestation project displaces people, stops them from feeding themselves, or isn’t something that’s seen as useful, it’s going to fail (and has the wrong priorities).

In short, we definitely need more trees, but planted intelligently and responsibly and as part of a fuller climate change plan focused on emission reduction. Otherwise we’re just Trump planting this sad sapling to put a green sheen on his otherwise Earth-destroying mandate.

So, what can an aspiring treehugger do?

Protect the trees we have.

Though we love the idea of planting trees, and we should plant them, preserving the forests we have is far more important. The forest we create won’t be as good as the old ones for a very long time, if ever; it’s replacing your World Series-winning team with a bunch of Little Leaguers and hoping for the same results. On a policy level, that means creating and enforcing laws around deforestation, supporting Indigenous land defenders, and incentivizing land owners to keep their forest cover.

On a personal level, eating less meat will help a lot, since meat production, especially beef production in South America, is one of the leading causes of deforestation (soy, palm oil, and wood/pulp products are also tropical forest fellers). Feeding ourselves with plants also requires less land, keeping forests intact.

Also look at all the paper you’re using regularly. Over a decade ago, I pledged that, at home at least, I wasn’t going to be wiping my butt with any old-growth forest. And I’ve held to that. Recycled TP is a little pricier but often goes on sale, and Costco stocks Cascades, a great Canadian-made option.

Look for other easy switches: Do you or your office buy copier paper? Staples sells it in 30% and 100% post-consumer waste (aka recycled) and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Can you find ways to promote less printing altogether? One thing about this pandemic: we’re getting better than ever at working digitally — let’s try to carry over those habits into the after-times.

Also consider ditching the paper towels, using hankies and cloth napkins, and saying no to paper bags. Believe it or not, paper bags have a bigger carbon footprint than plastic bags, though of course they don’t linger in the environment for hundreds of year. Using your own bag is still the best way to avoid this paper vs. plastic predicament.

Plant your own trees.

While you might not be capable of orchestrating a large-scale responsible tree planting project, you can take care of at least one tree. In her wonderful memoir Lab Girl, biologist Hope Jahren states that one tree a year is cut down for each of us, and so she urges us all to make planting a tree, and caring for it, an annual tradition. She sees it not just as a responsibility but an opportunity for a long, beautiful relationship: “You’ll have a tree and it will have you.”

Sadly the City of Toronto has ended its Tree for Me program, which provided a serviceberry I planted in the yard, but there are still tree giveaway events in Toronto and if you have green space between the sidewalk and curb, the city will plant a tree there for free. (Many other municipalities have this bargain, so check with yours!) If you live on a large property in a rural area, you may qualify for planting by Trees Ontario. If you don’t have land to plant on but want to get your hands dirty, post-quarantine, you can also volunteer to take part in a community event.

Search smart.

A while ago I switched to Ecosia as my default search engine at home, at work, and on my phone. For roughly every 45 searches you do, they plant a tree with the ad revenue. It adds up pretty quickly: in a few months I’ve planted well over 100 trees without going out of my way.

Ecosia is closing in on 100,000,000 trees planted (!) and also meets the criteria I listed above: they plant native species in areas where there used to be forest, prioritize diversity hotspots, work with local partners, and get community cooperation. They also support farmer-managed natural regeneration, food security projects, and fund firefighting to save trees. Many of the projects have social as well as environmental impact, whether it’s training smallholder farmers in Peru, restoring watersheds in Ghana, or distributing fruit-bearing trees in Haiti.

Ecosia is also a B-Corp, more than carbon neutral, and has great privacy policies. (I still give Google enough data that it probably knows exactly when I’m getting my next period, but giving them less is some comfort.)

I’ll be straight with you: the algorithm (which uses Bing) is not quite as good as Google. But I consider it worth it and fine for my everyday needs. When I’m searching something tricky, I add #g to my search, and it searches with the Goog instead (but you still add to your tree tally).


In this memorable New Yorker piece on how the coronavirus has changed our cultural and emotional experience, Kim Stanley Robinson writes, “Our way of life has environmental costs that aren’t included in what we pay, and those costs will be borne by our descendants. We are operating a multigenerational Ponzi scheme.” The nice thing about trees is they’re the opposite: a gift to future generations. Every day, in almost everything we do, we are stealing from the future, from our children’s futures. Trees are a simple, beautiful way to pay it forward.


TL;DR

  • Tree planting on its own won’t save us: it needs to coupled with widespread emission reduction.

  • Trees still have lots of benefits though, including cleaning the air, cooling hot urban spaces, improving soil, and supporting biodiversity.

  • Tree planting projects need to be carefully planned, maintained, and achieved with community participation.

  • Conserving existing forests is more important than planting new ones, though we need both; conserve forests in your daily life by eating less meat and using recycled paper products or swapping for reusables.

  • Plant trees while you internet using Ecosia.


Oops!

A small correction from last week: 1 in 112 people are likely to be killed in a vehicle action over a lifetime, which I should have specified. This comes from the odds of dying report out of the National Safety Council. It is the 7th most likely way for Americans to die. Thanks to my resident skeptic for calling this out. I churn through a lot of research for these newsletters, and mistakes will happen, but I promise to always run a correction if I’ve represented something inaccurately. If you notice something amiss, please reach out!


Wins of the Week

From the New Yorker article I mentioned, on what we may take from the pandemic: “It will be hard to make these values durable. Valuing the right things and wanting to keep on valuing them — maybe that’s also part of our new structure of feeling. As is knowing how much work there is to be done. But the spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change. It’s like a bell ringing to start a race. Off we go — into a new time.” — “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations,” Kim Stanley Robinson

This week I’m excited about

  • Volunteering as a ward representative for Cheyenne Sundance’s Liberating Lawns project that connects Torontonians with growing space with others who would like to grow and share food! If that might be you, apply now!

Other than that, my well of wins has run dry, so if you value this section, help me replenish! It doesn’t have to be big: just email or write me to tell me what you’ve taken on in the last while. It really brightens my day. I hope you’re safe and well, and taking some time right now to appreciate the spring showcase of trees wherever you are.

xo
Jen