The “green conundrum”: long-term strategies to tackle the climate crisis

Your company’s HR may have emailed you asking if you’d like to volunteer. Your state or municipal government could do this on a large scale. Even your favorite sustainable clothing brand promises to plant a tree or three when you step out in that chic outfit you covet.

The message is everywhere – plant more trees. As we sizzle or swelter through a record summer and read the dire warnings from the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report about how the climate crisis will only get worse if we don’t Let’s not act now, planting trees, we’re told, is a way for city dwellers to lessen the worst of its impact. The premise is appealing.

There is no debate about the multiple benefits that trees provide – starting with carbon sequestration, or capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and thereby reducing the amount in the atmosphere and combating global warming. A 2019 analysis, for example, estimated that less than a third of all emissions from human activities could be eliminated by planting a trillion trees. Then there are the less tangible benefits.

“There is now enough research to show that trees provide many psychological benefits: they relieve stress, reduce blood pressure and even allow us to recover faster when we are sick. A window with a view of a tree while we recover from illness speeds up the process,” say Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, scholars at Azim Premji University and authors of Cities & Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. “Trees have many uses, and each of us connects to trees in different ways,” says Nagendra.

“While planting trees is one way anyone can help fight climate change, it must be done with great care. It cannot be done just because it makes us feel, at us or any government, business or non-profit organization.

— HARINI NAGENDRA (R) & SEEMA MUNDOLI, authors, Cities & Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities

Countries have also committed to increasing tree cover. Under the Paris Agreement, India seeks to put a third of its geographical area under forest cover by 2030, which will act as a carbon sink that will absorb 2.5 to 3 billion tons of CO2. State governments have embarked on ambitious tree-planting campaigns, with UP claiming to have planted a record 250 million saplings in a single day last year. But in the rush to plant more trees and meet the targets, environmentalists warn, these tree-planting campaigns could in some cases end up wasting money and, in the worst-case scenario, actively harming the environment.

A recent analysis of tree planting efforts in Himachal Pradesh found that “more than half of the state budget for tree planting is wasted on plantations that are unlikely to survive and/or are ill-conceived to achieve the state’s goal of increasing forest cover”. “Tree planting can actually be harmful to climate mitigation and other ecological impacts if done in the wrong places, such as open natural ecosystems, for example, areas that are grasslands, savannahs. A lot of reforestation is targeted in these places,” says TR Shankar Raman, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF).

The NCF team has led the painstaking restoration of approximately 100 hectares of degraded rainforest in Anamala, Tamil Nadu over the past two decades, with the participation of multiple stakeholders, including businesses. By planting trees in grasslands, we are disrupting what are ecosystems in their own right, and we are unlikely to achieve the climate change gains that prompted the planting in the first place. “Planting trees everywhere is not a good idea. Tree planting should be done in carefully identified locations suitable for tree growth.

This raises the question of the type of trees to plant. “Many tree-planting campaigns are often of limited use if we have no mechanism to ensure that the saplings are the right type and will survive beyond a few months,” says Mundoli.

“Corporations today are getting involved in large-scale tree planting and investing money, but it’s very important that they fund programs that are sound from an ecological restoration standpoint” “

— restoration perspective” TR SHANKAR RAMAN, scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation

As a report by a Supreme Court-appointed expert panel on compensatory conservation notes, “tree-planting campaigns are often based on flawed science: planting in grasslands and other open ecosystems , and even prioritize invasive alien trees over native trees.” Instead of invasive alien species – aesthetically pleasing as they are, such as the favorite gulmohar, native to Madagascar – local saplings would be a better choice. Species diversity is also important. “By providing more tree diversity, you are also supporting other biodiversity such as butterflies, birds and insects. This is something people can think about when engaging in tree planting. trees in an urban setting,” says Raman.

One method of tree planting that has captured the imagination of governments, businesses and citizens is the Miyawaki mini-forest, which has sprung up all over the country. Conceptualized by Japanese ecologist Akira Miyawaki, it involves planting local species of trees densely to allow them to grow faster to create a forest in a few years instead of the dozens it usually takes. These “quick” results made Miyawaki Forests an attractive option.

But environmentalists and environmental activists criticize its indiscriminate adoption and enforcement, especially in cities where, in a rush to achieve goals, non-native saplings purchased in bulk from nurseries are planted, and in areas that are not not supposed to have forests at first sight. place. Shubhendu Sharma, founder of Afforestt, a company pioneering the Miyawaki method in India, says the biggest problem with the way these forests are farmed is the lack of authenticity. “People plant whatever is available in nurseries. But the principle is to first identify the right species of trees and shrubs and grow them in a nursery from seeds collected from trees growing naturally in their own habitat,” says Sharma.

Since this would be a slower process than buying thousands of saplings, it is important that the motivation for decision makers is not the number of trees planted. “Otherwise, we will end up creating a low-quality landscape instead of a natural and biodiversity-rich landscape with species native to the region.” In the West, there are conversations and conservation initiatives around “rewilding”. Since it is a question of reintroducing large mammals and carnivores into habitats from which they disappeared, according to Shankar, in the Indian context, “ecological restoration”, centered on the restoration of habitats which respects the region and diversity of species, is preferable.

For tree planting campaigns to be successful, it is also crucial to have the buy-in of the local community. While the community is the “eyes on the street,” each community is complex, with competing interests, say Nagendra and Mundoli. “Some may be worried about falling branches, others may be worried about allergies – these are all valid concerns. So it’s very important to engage with the community, understand their reservations and take their concerns into account. preferences. Once they are part of the decision-making, there is a greater possibility that they will care for and protect the trees in the future,” says Mundoli.

All exercise, says Nagendra, must be done with care and planning. “It cannot be done just because it makes us or any government, business or non-profit organization feel good.” Experts say that, above all, planting trees should not be seen as a silver bullet to undo the adverse effects of climate change. “The most important way to tackle the climate crisis is to reduce the use of fossil fuels. If we just plant trees and don’t address this issue, it’s unlikely to be very helpful,” says Raman.