Can Afforestation Fight Climate Change?

soldier planting tree during daytime

Planting trees has emerged as one of our most formidable weapons against climate change. 

Trees absorb tons of carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in their biomass. Scientific evidence shows that the more trees we can plant, the faster we’ll be able to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and keep global average temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

One of the most popular ways to plant more trees is through afforestation, which is the process of planting forests in regions that previously had no tree cover. Scientists believe that if implemented well, large afforestation projects can green large tracts of urban and rural lands and soak up to 189 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year, making it a promising tool against rising global temperatures.

In this article, we explore what afforestation is and how it can help us fight climate change.

Key takeaways

  • Afforestation is considered one of the cheapest and most natural negative emissions technologies (NETs). Trees grown through afforestation can sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and prevent them from becoming trapped in the atmosphere.
  • Afforestation projects in India, China, and North Africa have helped green desertified areas, bringing ecological benefits and new sources of income to local communities.
  • Scientific studies suggest that afforesting non-forested land could offset around 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide between 2020 and 2100.

What is afforestation? 

Afforestation is the process of growing a forest in an area that previously had no tree cover. Usually done on desertified lands, abandoned agricultural fields, and industrial areas, afforestation increases the forest cover of an area and brings ecological and economic benefits to local communities.

In recent years, afforestation has gained popularity as one of the most natural and easy-to-implement negative emissions technologies (NETs). Trees grown through afforestation naturally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis by storing the carbon dioxide in their biomass as they grow. 

This carbon sequestration ability has made afforestation a favorite among policymakers and conservationists who are fighting against climate change. Afforestation can be implemented in both rural and urban areas, including barren lands such as landfills and former construction sites. As long as a piece of land can be topped with soil, saplings or seeds can be planted on it using afforestation methods.

Why is afforestation important?

Afforestation is important because it offers a variety of environmental and economic benefits to an area. 

One of the key reasons that afforestation is practiced by local governments and conservation groups is because of its ability to prevent or reverse desertification. Land that has lost vegetation due to drought, wildfires, or overgrazing can become dry and prone to soil erosion. 

No longer productive, these lands become void of most wildlife. But through afforestation, biodiversity can be restored through the careful and deliberate selection of tree species. As the trees grow, they attract birds, insects, and other animals into the afforested areas to establish new habitats. The growth of the trees also improves soil fertility as the trees exchange nutrients with the soil and hold the soil particles in place, preventing erosion during flooding.

In addition, the trees act as wind barriers that weaken the ability of wind to carry soil particles away. They also create cool microclimates in arid and semi-arid areas that help local communities stay cool during hot summer months. 

Besides its ecological benefits, afforestation can also have commercial uses. Local communities can choose to grow fruit trees and short-term crops in afforested areas to boost the local economy. Doing so turns previously arid areas into productive lands and protects the new forests from getting cut down as their produce brings in income.

Examples of afforestation 

Afforestation has been implemented in many parts of the world, from the Indian subcontinent to northern Africa. Here’s a look at how different afforestation projects have been carried out.

India

India is one of the world’s most enthusiastic practitioners of afforestation. Using the Miyawaki technique, which consists of sowing very young saplings close together, conservationists and urban planners in India have restored degraded land within 25 to 30 years. 

India’s increasing interest in afforestation comes partly from its 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) pledge to green 33 percent of its desertified land by 2022. In the state of Kerala alone, 22 micro-forests were grown using afforestation methods in the past few years. The state now has plants to grow at least 20 more micro-forests in the coming years.

China

There is probably no country more invested in afforestation than China at the moment. Since the 1990s, China has spent more than $100 billion on afforestation projects across the country. It has planted more than 35 billion trees through its national “Grain for Green” initiative, which encouraged farmers to convert their agricultural fields into forests to combat desertification.

Afforestation has helped China reduce the risk of flash floods and crop failures in rural areas. The additional trees have also made soils less vulnerable to erosion. Researchers estimate that between 1973 and 2003, the afforested areas in China absorbed around 774 million tonnes of carbon

The Sahel

The Sahel is the site of the world’s largest afforestation movement. It’s home to the Great Green Wall movement, which aims to grow an 8,000km zone of trees across eleven countries from West to East Africa. 

Using the same afforestation principles created by the Green Belt Movement that was started in 1977 by Professor Wangari Maathai, the Great Green Wall movement seeks to both create fertile lands in the arid regions of the Sahel and empower youth and women to take up ecopreneurship opportunities

After completion, the Great Green Wall is expected to protect local communities from droughts and extreme hot weather events.

What is afforestation and its advantages and disadvantages? 

Advantages

Afforestation is often touted as a cheap way to reduce carbon emissions with the added benefit of improving depleted soils. Research has found that afforested areas enhance soil health, making them better able to store carbon from the atmosphere and lock in moisture.

Recent studies suggest that afforesting non-forested land could offset around 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2020 and 2100. Afforested areas usually contain hundreds if not thousands of trees that can capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. These trees are grown from seeds or young saplings, which are low in cost and can be planted with the help of volunteers or community members.

In some areas where afforestation has been carried out using cash crop trees, jobs have also been created. Acacia mangium plantations in Brazil, for example, have boosted local economies as the trees can be quickly grown and sold as material for paper pulp and other tree products, reducing the demand for trees in natural forest ecosystems. 

Disadvantages

Despite the advantages of afforestation, some scientists and development practitioners have pointed out the unseen costs of this plantation process.

One of the biggest concerns raised is that successful carbon emission reduction using afforestation will require millions of hectares of land. According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, at least 500 million hectares of afforested land – an area about twice the size of Argentina – will be required to limit the rise of global average temperatures below 1.5 degrees celsius. 

Others point to the potential unsustainability of afforested areas. Land that has been afforested using fruit trees or commercial trees may only help store carbon for short periods as these trees have shorter lifespans than other longer-living, native species. Trees may also be cut down for fuel or export, further reducing the climate mitigating effect of afforested areas

Growing new forests on patches of perceived ‘degraded’ land, such as savannas or grasslands may also destroy pre-existing ecosystems. These ecosystems could contain rare species of trees and plants, which might be outcompeted by the introduction of new, non-native species of trees, potentially leading to a loss of biodiversity. 

Afforestation vs. reforestation 

Afforestation and reforestation are processes that increase the tree cover of an area through tree planting. They’re both carried out to improve the environmental conditions of a particular area.

But other than this key similarity, afforestation and reforestation differ in the locations where they’re implemented. According to the IPCC, reforestation is the establishment of forest cover in regions that have experienced a gradual decline of trees due to human activity or natural causes. 

Non-governmental organizations and local governments often reforest natural areas that have been damaged by wildfires, disease, logging, mining, or agriculture to rebuild natural habitats and ecosystems

Afforestation, on the other hand, is implemented in areas where there have been previously no forests, or where forests have been missing for decades. These could be desertified areas, bare urban land, or grasslands. 

Unlike reforestation, which usually uses the same tree species as the ones remaining in the deforested areas, afforestation may be implemented using trees that are non-indigenous and invasive to an area. This carries with it the risk that afforestation could destroy original non-forest ecosystems

Can afforestation fight climate change? 

Yes, afforestation can help fight climate change if it is conducted in the right conditions. Some studies suggest that large-scale afforestation projects could remove more than 189 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2100, a five-fold increase in sequestration levels to what is currently being achieved now. 

But for afforestation to be effective, it has to be linked to a variety of ecological safeguards. Afforested areas can serve as carbon sinks as long as they don’t damage pre-existing ecosystems and remain protected from commercial exploitation. Trees in afforested areas need to be able to mature into old age to sequester enough carbon to have a positive impact on climate change.

The trees selected for afforestation projects should also help transform arid or semi-arid regions into productive areas. The trees should be able to sequester large amounts of carbon in their biomass and establish roots that keep moisture in the soil. If these conditions can be met, afforestation projects can have a net positive effect on the environment.

How to support and invest in organizations helping with afforestation 

Aspiration is a B Corp certified online financial platform that helps customers support conservation groups engaged in afforestation projects. Using our savings accounts, customers can set direct donations to environmental groups through our Environment Fund.

But it’s not just charitable environmental organizations that customers can support. Customers can also buy automatic carbon offset trees through our “Plant Your Change” and “Planet Protection” programs. Our system rounds up every transaction made using an Aspiration debit card to the nearest whole dollar and plants trees with the spare change on behalf of our customers.

Try Aspiration today and become a champion for afforestation.

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