Is planting trees really the best way (of stopping climate change)?


A young tree has the potential to help stop climate change once it is grown up. But that takes decades, in the meantime there’s a lot working against it.

  • It’s small, which means it doesn’t hold much carbon anyway, even combined with thousands of other small trees.
  • It’s weak, which means it’s at higher risk of dying from storms, pests, goats or other stresses – in which case the promised climate benefits are suddenly gone.
  • It’s young, so it can’t support biodiversity or endangered species.
  • It’s new, so it won’t have cultural significance, nor provide any useful resources to local communities.
  • And it needs nurturing. You can’t just ‘plant it and leave it’. How many trees will survive is more important than how many trees are planted.

But how often do you see tree-planting campaigns talk about their impact in terms of time?

Most often, you’ll see impressive statistics about the number of trees planted. But as we’ll see, the act of tree-planting alone won’t make up for all the trees we’re losing.

That’s because the trees we’re losing are decades (sometimes centuries!) old. They’re tall and fully grown. They hold massive amounts of carbon right now. They are strong enough to withstand natural disasters and other stresses, and they have developed enough of a network to support each other if something does happen.

They provide critical resources like food and medicine to local communities. And because they are part of a real forest ecosystem – not just a grid of little trees – they are home to irreplaceable biodiversity and endangered (endemic) species. Which, in turn, also makes the trees stronger and more resilient. If we lose these forests, we lose all of that today. That’s why we have to protect existing forests and ecosystems.

Tree planting is a big issue, you’ve probably seen lots of catchy slogans: ‘Reforesting Bonaire not only for the parrots but also for our people and planet,Tree planting day, Planting trees is the best option for fighting climate change. Reforestation can save the planet.

But as for how effective it is, the numbers tell a different story.


According to the UK’s Royal Society, it takes new forests at least 10 years to reach their maximum sequestration rate – the point at which they can absorb the most amount of carbon from the atmosphere every year. They’ll keep doing that until the trees mature, which, depending on the species, will happen after around 20 to 100 years.

Reforesting up to 800 million hectares worldwide could remove up to 300 billion tonnes over 25 years. Or, according to another similar report, reforesting 900 million hectares worldwide could remove around 200 billion tonnes – if the forests mature to a similar state as ecosystems in protected areas.

Those are big numbers. But there are a few things to note here.

First, this requires newly planted forests to grow into a mature ecosystem. That takes time – decades at least – and will only happen if they are cared for immediately after planting, and then allowed to mature naturally.

That often doesn’t happen. Many tree planting projects don’t plan for anything after planting, including after-planting care, so many trees may not survive.

Altogether, this means that many planted forests will never reach maturity. And if they don’t, tree planting isn’t delivering the benefits you think it is.

Second, a new tree will take at least ten years, and probably more, to really start making a difference to the climate. Which is understandable – young trees are pretty small.

Third, ‘maximum sequestration rate’ doesn’t tell you anything about how much carbon the tree is absorbing every year – only that it’s sucking it up as fast as possible. And a small tree can only absorb so much.

Fourth, it also has nothing to do with whether the tree has stored as much carbon as it possibly can. That’s because stored carbon accumulates over years and decades.

An old tree has already matured, so it won’t absorb carbon as fast as a young one – although, of course, it does absorb some. But it holds a massive amount of carbon in its trunk, branches, leaves, and roots. It’s built that store up over decades, by absorbing a little more carbon and growing a little more every year. Then there are the soils: in some forests, there’s more carbon in the soils than in the trees.

Trees need decades, sometimes even centuries, before they reach maturity.

Which means that it’s even more important to protect what we have. As they say, prevention is better than the cure.

Don’t take our word for it. Here’s William Moomaw, lead author for five reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): ”Tree planting is a great thing to do, but [it] will not make much of a difference in the next two or three decades because little trees just don’t store much carbon. Letting existing natural forests grow is essential to any climate goal we have”.

According to one study, preventing the loss of one hectare of mature, carbon, and biodiversity-rich forests will typically avoid emissions of about 100 tons of carbon, while tropical reforestation typically sequesters about 3% of that, or 3 metric tons of carbon, per hectare each year. This means that, in a given year, as much as 30 times more land is neededfor reforestationto generate the same climate mitigation outcome as avoided deforestation in the first place (Griscom et al., 2017)



We’re not trying to say that tree planting isn’t important. It is. It’s the best option for degraded lands, and especially for restoring some natural ecosystems.

While the role of forest restoration in supporting climate, biodiversity, and community goals is extremely critical, and increased interest is encouraging, it’s important to remember that protecting existing forests can often achieve much more in terms of delivering these outcomes.

We’re trying to fight climate change and destruction of biodiversity, ecosystems today. To protect and preserve Nature for future generations. Planting trees just doesn’t cut it for any of those.

We have to put all our efforts into saving existing, natural tropical dry forests. Forests that safely store away huge amounts of carbon. Forests that protect animals, birds, biodiversity, and ecosystems. Forests that support people, livelihoods, and cultures.

Forests that are never coming back if they get cut down.

That’s why we do what we do.