When tree planting actually damages ecosystems



Giraffes prefer the open space and scattered trees of the African savanna.
Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

Kate Parr, University of Liverpool and Caroline Lehmann, University of Edinburgh

Tree planting has been widely promoted as a solution to climate change, because plants absorb the climate-warming gases from Earth’s atmosphere as they grow. World leaders have already committed to restoring 350m hectares of forest by 2030 and a recent report suggested that reforesting a billion hectares of land could store a massive 205 gigatonnes of carbon – two thirds of all the carbon released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Many of those trees could be planted in tropical grassy biomes according to the report. These are the savannas and grasslands that cover large swathes of the globe and have a grassy ground layer and variable tree cover. Like forests, these ecosystems play a major role in the global carbon balance. Studies have estimated that grasslands store up to 30% of the world’s carbon that’s tied up in soil. Covering 20% of Earth’s land surface, they contain huge reserves of biodiversity, comparable in areas to tropical forest. These are the landscapes with lions, elephants and vast herds of wildebeest.

Gorongosa, Mozambique. The habitat here is open, well-lit and with few trees.
Caroline Lehmann, Author provided

Savannas and grasslands are home to nearly one billion people, many of whom raise livestock and grow crops. Tropical grassy biomes were the cradle of humankind – where modern humans first evolved – and they are where important food crops such as millet and sorghum originated, which millions eat today. And, yet among the usual threats of climate change and wildlife habitat loss, these ecosystems face a new threat – tree planting.

It might sound like a good idea, but planting trees here would be damaging. Unlike forests, ecosystems in the tropics that are dominated by grass can be degraded not only by losing trees, but by gaining them too.




Read more:
Reforesting an area the size of the US needed to help avert climate breakdown, say researchers – are they right?


Where more trees isn’t the answer

Increasing the tree cover in savanna and grassland can mean plant and animal species which prefer open, well-lit environments are pushed out. Studies from South Africa, Australia and Brazil indicate that unique biodiversity is lost as tree cover increases.

This is because adding trees can alter how these grassy ecosystems function. More trees means fires are less likely, but regular fire removes vegetation that shades ground layer plants. Not only do herbivores like zebra and antelope that feed on grass have less to eat, but more trees may also increase their risk of being eaten as predators have more cover.

A mosaic of grassland and forest in Gabon.
Kate Parr, Author provided

More trees can also reduce the amount of water in streams and rivers. As a result of humans suppressing wildfires in the Brazilian savannas, tree cover increased and the amount of rain reaching the ground shrank. One study found that in grasslands, shrublands and cropland worldwide where forests were created, streams shrank by 52% and 13% of all streams dried up completely for at least a year.

Grassy ecosystems in the tropics provide surface water for people to drink and grazing land for their livestock, not to mention fuel, food, building materials and medicinal plants. Tree planting here could harm the livelihoods of millions.

Losing ancient grassy ecosystems to forests won’t necessarily be a net benefit to the climate either. Landscapes covered by forest tend to be darker in colour than savanna and grassland, which might mean they also absorb more heat. As drought and wildfires become more frequent, grasslands may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests.




Read more:
Exaggerating how much CO₂ can be absorbed by tree planting risks deterring crucial climate action


Redefine forests

How have we reached the point where the unique tropical savannas and grasslands of the world are viewed as suitable for wholesale “restoration” as forests?

At the root of the problem is that these grassy ecosystems are fundamentally misunderstood. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN defines any area that’s half a hectare in size with more than 10% tree cover as forest. This assumes that landscapes like an African savanna are degraded because they have fewer trees and so need to be reforested. The grassy ground layer houses a unique range of species, but the assumption that forests are more important threatens grassy ecosystems across the tropics and beyond, including in Madagascar, India and Brazil.

A flowering aloe in Madagascan grassland.
Caroline Lehmann, Author provided

“Forest” should be redefined to ensure savannas and grasslands are recognised as important systems in their own right, with their own irreplaceable benefits to people and other species. It’s essential people know what degradation looks like in open, sunlit ecosystems with fewer trees, so as to restore ecosystems that are actually degraded with more sensitivity.

Calls for global tree planting programmes to cool the climate need to think carefully about the real implications for all of Earth’s ecosystems. The right trees need to be planted in the right places. Otherwise, we risk a situation where we miss the savanna for the trees, and these ancient grassy ecosystems are lost forever.The Conversation

Kate Parr, Professor of Tropical Ecology, University of Liverpool and Caroline Lehmann, Senior Lecturer in Biogeography, University of Edinburgh

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Exaggerating how much CO₂ can be absorbed by tree planting risks deterring crucial climate action



A long way to go…
Amenic181/Shutterstock

Duncan McLaren, Lancaster University

Planting almost a billion hectares of trees worldwide is the “biggest and cheapest tool” for tackling climate change, according to a new study. The researchers claimed that reforestation could remove 205 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere – equivalent to about 20 years’ worth of the world’s current emissions. This has criticised as an exaggeration. It could actually be dangerous.

While the paper itself included no costings, the researchers suggested a best-case estimate of just US$300 billion to plant trees on 0.9 billion hectares. That’s just 40 US cents per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO₂) removed. More detailed studies on the costs of carbon removal through reforestation put the figure closer to US$20-50 per tonne – and even this may be optimistic at such large scales.




Read more:
Reforesting an area the size of the US needed to help avert climate breakdown, say researchers – are they right?


Our research suggests that the promises implied in such studies could actually set back meaningful action on climate change. This is because of what we call “mitigation deterrence” – promises of cheap and easy CO₂ removal in future make it less likely that time and money will be invested in reducing emissions now.

Why would anyone expect governments or the finance sector to invest in renewable energy, or mass transit like high-speed rail, at costs of tens or hundreds of dollars a tonne if they – and shareholders and voters – are told that huge amounts of CO₂ can be absorbed from the atmosphere for a few dollars a tonne by planting trees?

Why should anyone expect energy companies and airlines to reduce their emissions if they anticipate being able to pay to plant trees to offset everything they emit, for the paltry price of less than 50 cents a tonne. If studies like this suggest removing carbon is cheap and easy, the price of emitting carbon for businesses – in emissions trading schemes – will remain very low, rather than rising to the levels needed to trigger more challenging, yet urgently needed, forms of emission reduction.

Tree planting is cheaper but less effective at reducing emissions than building zero-carbon infrastructure like electric high-speed rail.
Pedrosala/Shutterstock

A false carbon economy

The promises of cheap and powerful tech fixes help to sideline thorny issues of politics, economics and culture. But when promises that look great in models and spreadsheets meet the real world, failure is often more likely. This has been seen before in the expectations around carbon capture and storage.

Despite promises of its future potential in the early 2000s, commercial development of the technology has scarcely progressed in the last decade. That’s despite many modelled pathways for limiting global warming still assuming – increasingly optimistically – that it will be deployed at a large scale in coming decades.




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This model of tackling climate change goes hand in hand with another tool – pricing carbon emissions. This potentially allows companies to go on emitting by paying someone else to cut emissions or remove CO₂ elsewhere – an approach called climate offsetting. But offsetting makes exaggerated promises of carbon removal even more risky.

Tree planting financed through offset markets would guarantee the polluter could continue emitting carbon, but the market couldn’t guarantee removals to match those emissions. Trees might be planted and subsequently lost to wildfire or logging, or never planted at all.

Trusting in trees to remove carbon in future is particularly dangerous because trees are slow to grow and how much carbon they absorb is hard to measure. They’re also less likely to be able to do this as the climate warms. In many regions of the world but particularly in the tropics, growth rates are predicted to fall as the climate warms and devastating wildfires become more frequent.

Relying on trees to absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere in the future also appears misleadingly cheap because of the effects of economic discounting. Economists discount the current value of costs or benefits more deeply, the further in the future they occur. Models which determine the cheapest mix of policies available all use some form of discounting.

When researchers add carbon removal options like tree planting to these models, they tend to generate pathways for slowing temperature rise which reduce the role of short term action and replace it with imaginary removals late in the century.

This is because discounting over 30 to 60 years makes the removal options look incredibly cheap in today’s prices. Priming models to focus on minimising cost causes them to maximise the use of discounted future removals and reduce the use of more expensive near term emissions reduction.

I am not arguing against reforestation, nor for a purely technological response to climate change. Trees can help for many reasons – reducing flooding, shading and cooling communities, and providing habitat for biodiversity. Incentives for reforestation are important, and so are incentives for removing carbon. But we shouldn’t make trees or technology carry the whole burden of tackling climate change. That demands moving beyond technical questions, to deliver immediate political action to cut emissions, and to begin to transform economies and societies.

This article was amended on July 13 2019 to clarify the proposed costs of carbon removal by reforestation.The Conversation

Duncan McLaren, Professor in Practice, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Greenwashing: corporate tree planting generates goodwill but may sometimes harm the planet



File 20180924 85773 b469v3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Missing the wood for the trees.
iDraw/Shutterstock

Benjamin Neimark, Lancaster University

Trees do a lot more for us than you probably think. Their roots prevent soil from eroding, their canopies provide shade and their leaves decompose into nutrients for crops, which feed livestock. Trees provide homes for a diverse range of wildlife and tree crops, such as coffee, rubber, and hardwoods, support countless livelihoods and entire economies. Trees also mark boundaries and hold immense spiritual, cultural and social value for smallholder communities around the world.

In the 1980s, charities proposed planting more trees to halt “desertification” in the Sahara Desert. This involved “afforestation” – planting trees where they had not grown for a while and “reforestation” – replacing recently lost tree cover.

Today the idea is growing strong, and an array of private companies from adult website Pornhub (yes, Pornhub) to clothing brand Ten Tree are using trees as a marketing tool.




Read more:
Pornhub has planted a few more trees, but don’t pretend it’s being responsible


Saving face or saving forests?

Businesses can offset their environmental impact by planting trees or supporting other forms of habitat restoration, so as to “pay off” the damage they cause locally. As climate change escalates, trees are in vogue for their potential to soak up the carbon dioxide we keep putting in the atmosphere.

The United Nations (UN) has even adopted a scheme for offering local communities and governments some sort of financial payout for saving trees from deforestation. This “economy of repair” has been adopted by some of the largest companies in their commitments to corporate social responsibility. One such programme is the Green Belt Movement – a Kenyan conservation NGO started by the late professor and Nobel Prize recipient Wangari Maathai.

Tree planting around the Sahara Desert has overwhelmingly relied on local efforts rather than businesses.
Niels Polderman/Shutterstock

Maathai’s original mission was to empower local people, particularly women, to overcome inequality through leading forest restoration and resisting the expanding Sahara Desert. Despite the involvement of charities and businesses, research has suggested that in programmes like these, it is farmers and local people, not companies, which make the biggest contributions to planting new trees. Since local people also inherit responsibility for them, it’s important that projects devised by outside parties are planned and executed wisely, and in the community’s interest.




Read more:
Africa’s got plans for a Great Green Wall: why the idea needs a rethink


While some may argue that tree planting is a win-win for the environment whoever does it, offsetting is just another way of corporate greenwashing. Environmental damage in one place cannot somehow be fixed by repairing habitats elsewhere, sometimes on the other side of the world.

Here are some of the ways in which indiscriminate tree planting can cause more harm than good.

Plantations are not forests

Diverse forests are often cleared for agricultural production or industrial use, and replaced by uniform stands of the same species selected because of their ability to grow fast.

Tropical forests in some cases take up to 65 years to regrow and their diversity cannot be replicated by a monoculture of reforested plots.

Ecologically illiterate

Reforestation and afforestation schemes must decide which species are appropriate to plant – native or exotic, multi-purpose or fast growing, naturally regenerating forests or managed plantations. Sometimes the wrong species are selected and Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) is one such poor choice.

Eucalyptus is usually chosen because it is fast growing and economically valuable. Yet, it is exotic to many places it is now planted and requires lots of water, which drains the water table and competes with native crops.

In Europe, replacing broad-leafed native oak trees with faster growing conifers has meant that forest cover on the continent is 10% greater than it was before the industrial revolution. However, the new trees are not as good at trapping carbon but do trap heat more efficiently, contributing to global warming. Clearly, tree planting without due caution can do more harm than good.

Trees need care – lots of it

Tree species take a long time to grow and need continual care. However, tree planting schemes usually “plant and go” –- meaning they do not put resources into managing the trees after they are placed into the ground. Young trees are particularly vulnerable to disease and competition for light and nutrients and if not cared for, will eventually die.

Newly planted tree saplings may need three to five years of frequent watering to survive.
A3pfamily/Shutterstock

Trees are political

Trees planted by states or private donors may choose sites without consulting local communities, ignoring any of their customary land rights and management regimes. This locally-owned land may be in fallow or have different economic, cultural or spiritual uses.

Blundering into planting in these places may exacerbate tensions over land tenure, spreading disinterest in tree care and stewardship. Dispossessed locals may move to existing forests and clear land for food production. Tenure rights over trees are also not always owned by whole households either, but divided between gender. Planting trees and asking questions later may sow tensions over land ownership for long after the project departs.

It’s no surprise that trees are on the green economy agenda, but this does not necessarily mean that planting them is “green” or helpful for social harmony. Allowing trees to regrow naturally is not always effective either, as trees are unlikely to survive on their own. Community involvement is therefore crucial.

This means real consultation over site and species selection, property rights over the trees, their products, and the land they grow in and who takes on the labour to keep the trees alive after they are planted. If companies are serious about planting trees then they need to care about the communities that live with them and not just their own reputations.The Conversation

Benjamin Neimark, Senior Lecturer, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stopping land clearing and replanting trees could help keep Australia cool in a warmer future


Clive McAlpine, The University of Queensland; Jozef Syktus, The University of Queensland, and Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland

Land clearing is on the rise in Queensland and New South Wales, with land clearing laws being fiercely debated.

In Queensland in 2013–14, 278,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared (1.2 times the size of the Australian Capital Territory). A further 296,000ha were cleared in 2014–15. These are the highest rates of deforestation in the developed world.

Land clearing on this scale is bad for a whole host of reasons. But our research shows that it is also likely to make parts of Australia warmer and drier, adding to the effects of climate change.

How do trees change the climate?

Land clearing releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but the effect of land clearing on climate goes well beyond carbon emissions. It causes warming locally, regionally and even globally, and it changes rainfall by altering the circulation of heat and moisture.

Trees evaporate more water than any other vegetation type – up to 10 times more than crops and pastures. This is because trees have root systems that can access moisture deep within the soil. Crops and pastures have 70% of their roots in the top 30cm of the soil, while trees and other woody plants have 43% of their roots in the deeper part of the soil.

The increased evaporation and rough surface of trees creates moist, turbulent layers in the lower atmosphere. This reduces temperatures and contributes to cloud formation and increased rainfall. The increased rainfall then provides more moisture to soils and vegetation.

The clearing of deep-rooted native vegetation for shallow-rooted crops and pastures diminishes this process, resulting in a warmer and drier climate.

We can see this process at work along the “bunny fence” in southwest Western Australia, where there is a moister atmosphere and more clouds over native vegetation compared with nearby farming areas during summer.

Studies in Amazonia also indicate that as deforestation expands rainfall declines. A tipping point may be reached when deforestation reaches 30-50%, after which rainfall is substantially reduced. Complete deforestation results in the greatest decline in rainfall.

More trees, cooler moister climate

We wanted to know how land clearing could affect Australia’s climate in the future. We did this by modelling two scenarios for different amounts of land clearing, using models developed by CSIRO.

In the first scenario, crops and pasture expand in the semi-arid regions of eastern and southwest Australia. The second scenario limits crops and pastures to highly productive lands, and partially restores less productive lands to savanna woodlands.

We found that restoring trees to parts of Australia would reduce surface temperatures by up to 1.6℃, especially in western Queensland and NSW.

We also found that more trees reduced the overall climate-induced warming from 4.1℃ to 3.2℃ between 2050 and 2100.

Replanting trees could increase summer rainfall by 10% overall and by up to 15.2% in the southwest. We found soil moisture would increase by around 20% in replanted regions.

Our study doesn’t mean replanting all farmed land with trees, just areas that are less productive and less cost-effective to farm intensively. In our scenario, the areas that are restored in western Queensland and NSW would need a tree density of around 40%, which would allow a grassy understorey to be maintained. This would allow some production to continue such as cattle grazing at lower numbers or carbon farming.

Political and social challenges

Limiting land clearing represents a major challenge for Australia’s policymakers and farming communities.

The growing pressure to clear reflects a narrow economic focus on achieving short- to medium-term returns by expanding agriculture to meet the growing global demand for food and fibre.

However, temperatures are already increasing and rainfall is decreasing over large areas of eastern and southwest Australia. Tree clearing coupled with climate change will make growing crops and raising livestock even harder.

Balancing farming with managing climate change would give land owners on marginal land new options for income generation, while the most efficient agricultural land would remain in production. This would need a combination of regulation and long-term financial incentives.

The climate benefits of limiting land clearing must play a bigger part in land management as Australia’s climate becomes hotter and drier. Remnant vegetation needs to be conserved and extensive areas of regrowth must be allowed to regenerate. And where regeneration is not possible, we’ll have to plant large numbers of trees.

The Conversation

Clive McAlpine, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jozef Syktus, Principal Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, and Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Stop the miners: you can help Australia’s birds by planting native gardens


Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, University of New England

Some Australian birds are pushing out other species, and even damaging trees. Noisy and bell miners are two of Australia’s most aggressive bird species. Found throughout eastern Australia, in recent years their numbers have increased at the expense of our smaller birds.

Both species are spreading to new areas, largely due to human destruction of habitat. Noisy miners are able to invade areas where habitat has been modified, particularly gardens.

Bell miners, meanwhile, can invade areas that have invasions of weeds in the understorey such as blackberry and lantana that they use for nesting.

The good news is we can help stop the spread of these birds, by putting native plants in our gardens.

Masked mobster: noisy miners are increasing in number and spreading at the expense of smaller birds.
Kathryn Lambert, Author provided

Good birds gone bad

Both species of these miners (genus Manorina) have been found to reduce bird diversity through their aggressive behaviour, and have been associated with eucalypt dieback.

Human disturbance has been linked to increasing numbers of noisy miners. One study in the box-ironbark forests of southeast Australia, found that noisy miners an move into areas of smaller fragments and unhealthy trees.

They then chase away other birds, reducing the number of species and potentially having knock-on effects on ecosystems. The problem is so serious that noisy miners are listed as a national threatening process.

More research is needed to find out why bell miners are becoming more common. But our research has found that bell miners show similar behaviour to noisy miners. They have a distinctive call that travels for tens of metres through the forest.

Bell miners cause Bell Miner Associated Dieback in trees. It is thought that their feeding and breeding behaviours lead to the death of eucalypts on the east coast of Australia. They also take over habitat that would be used by other birds.

Bell miners are known for their loud calls.
Sascha Wenninger/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Are the birds to blame?

Where miners are normally found in lower numbers, disturbances by people can tip the balance in their favour. This includes increasing noise levels, removing corridors of connecting native vegetation, creating gardens with exotic plants, building cities, houses, parks, logging and introducing invasive species that create thick understories.

These disturbances increase the habitat available for these two species, allowing them to increase in number and drive out the smaller birds that compete for their food sources.

Noisy miners particularly favour open areas that don’t have thickets of shrubs of smaller trees underneath the canopy. Conversely, bell miners prefer thick understoreys, particularly those create by introduced weeds such as lantana.

So if we are causing these birds to increase in number, how can we reduce their numbers and re-create the original habitat where all species could co-exist?

Build a bird-friendly garden

You need to create a multi-layered habitat of ground covers, small and medium shrubs, and trees that provide food and shelter locations all year for a variety of species.

These plant species need to have diverse structures, and should be close together to form dense, protective thickets, including climbers within medium-to-tall shrubs and trees, nectar-bearing and seed-bearing plants. Mulch can also encourage insect life for insectivorous birds.

Plants should also be local species that grow naturally in the area and are suited to the climate. Native birds that live in the area will then visit your garden as another food source in their territory.

A bird-friendly garden.
Karthryn Lambert, Author provided

Reducing weeds in your garden and neighbouring bushland (many weeds are derived from garden plants) can help native species. General natives can also be planted if you can’t find local natives in your local nursery.

Even in gardens where noisy miners dominate, smaller birds can survive in a dense understorey.

Meanwhile, a thin midstorey with fewer leaves may help to reduce bell miner abundance, as suggested by our recent study near Kyogle, New South Wales.

You should also consider the timing of flower and fruit production, to ensure that there is always food available for birds. You should also remove fruiting plants such as cotoneaster and blackberry that attract predators such as currawongs, to help reduce predation on smaller bird species.

Using chemical-free weed and pest control and mulching garden waste can also increase the food available for birds.

Lawns can also be replaced with native grasses that produce seed to attract finches and other seed-eaters such as crimson rosellas. Birds also need fresh water, which you can provide with a pond or bird bath. This should be placed within vegetation to ensure birds feel safe from predators.

Why are native gardens important?

Local biodiversity can be maintained by native gardens, ensuring long-term ecological sustainability. Small birds and other wildlife benefit from planting native species.

Many species are negatively affected by the current structure of gardens such as lawns, few scattered trees and the placement of concrete and houses without any access to nesting habitat.

Gardening in Australia needs to be changed to favour more native species and provide structure on a landscape scale that includes a variety of gardens.

The Conversation

Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, Research Associate, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

USA: Climate Change Rooftop Farmers


The link below is to an article on climate change in the USA and how urban dwellers are planting rooftop gardens in response.

For more visit:
http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/02/23/urbanites-combat-climate-change-with-rooftop-farms/