As the world continues to deal with the issue of climate change, can trees become a vital component in the fight?
That's a vast idea put forth last week by a study published in the magazine Science. A report suggested that planting trees — lots of them — could be the least expensive and most effective method at humanity's disposal to deal with climate change.
The idea is more complex than that, and it's also controversial. But certain aspects of the science do have a basis in logic.
The researchers said that planting a trillion trees globally could potentially remove about 67 percent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions created by humans since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century. That's about 205 billion metric tons of carbon. This would also cut about 25 percent of the overall CO2 from the atmosphere.
This theory is based on elemental plant science: Trees absorb carbon dioxide, which is a major factor in creating climate change, and a worldwide effort to expand the world's tree base would help clear the air, so to speak.
"This is by far — by thousands of times — the cheapest climate change solution," stated study co-author Thomas Crowther, who is a climate change ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
Of course, a trillion trees is a lot. Scientists estimate this would require reforesting land area about the size of the United States. To put it in better perspective, the plan calls for adding from 1 trillion to 1.5 trillion trees to the earth's landscape; the world's current tree inventory is estimated at about 3 trillion trees.
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The architects of the plan said there is enough space in the world to add these forests of new trees without impacting cities or current agricultural land.
Still, essentially planting vast new forests would be a "monumental challenge," Crowther admitted.
What's more, more than this would be needed to combat the effects of climate change. Crowther said a significant reduction in carbon emissions would still be needed in order to make the plan work. In a way, the trees would be something akin to a healing process for the planet while humans worked to pull back from burning fossil fuels.
Also, the plan would effectively target deforestation practices that have long taken place in the Amazon, where rainforests are being cut down to make way for more agriculture. That, one might assume, would have to end.
The calculation of the space needed would also presumably not allow for much more human expansion, which would be rather problematic, to say the least.
There are those who are skeptical or dismissive of this idea as the most effective way of dealing with the global climate crisis. And indeed, it could be only one front among many in addressing this issue and probably not the paramount priority in dealing with greenhouse gases.
Nevertheless, expanding the world's forests can have a healthy impact on this planet, and as such, this idea could be the basis for future global priorities as we continue to address climate change and its critical impact. While it's not a silver bullet, the concept can be a valuable piece of an overall approach.