Can Planting a Trillion Trees Stop Climate Change?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change1 estimate that nature-based solutions, including healthy forests, could provide up to one-third of the emissions reductions required by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement targets. Trees are the world’s best machines when it comes to absorbing carbon. Human activity emits about 11 gigatons of carbon and it is estimated that forests, fields, grasslands and oceans absorb about 6 gigatons. So if we plant more trees the 5 gigatons that goes into the atmosphere could get absorbed.
Most countries are now looking at increasing their forest to reduce emissions. Countries like the UK are actively looking at creating such Carbon Sinks by planting forests in urban areas as well.
So the thinking is that if we were to plant lots of trees we would be able to avert devastating climate change and all will be well. With the Arctic showing temperatures in excess of 30 degrees and several other parts of the world facing record breaking heat, this kind of quick, magical thinking is easy to accept. But, hold on, it’s a trap. Climate change is large, complex and scientific. Headlines grabbing ideas are fabulous to capture the public’s imagination, but just like the pandemic has shown us, there is no substitute for expert driven scientific advice.
There is no doubt that trees would be excessively useful in carbon sequestration, but to plant that many number of trees, we need land and resources to grow them too. To fix global warming we need to stop burning fossil fuels and there is simply no getting around that fact. And business needs to step up. Sustainability is not magic, its hard work that requires companies to redesign every small aspect of their business to reduce emissions.
Companies are adopting a slew of strategies to work on this important and complex challenge. Take the case of Amazon. In September 2019, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a massive new commitment to fight climate change called “The Climate Pledge”. The Climate Pledge, co-founded by Amazon and Global Optimism, is a commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2040. As part of this pledge, Amazon would measure and report emissions on a regular basis, implement decarbonization strategies, and offset any remaining emissions. In June 2020, Verizon, Infosys, and Reckitt Benckiser (RB) signed The Climate Pledge as well and more companies are expected to become part of this collective2. The company has adopted a five pronged approach to measure and reduce its carbon footprint. This includes transportation, electricity, packaging, devices and a financial model to enable the necessary reduction in emissions and shifts to environmentally processes and materials. Amazon has also signed up to Science Based Targets.
As part of this strategy, 80 percent of Amazon’s energy use is to be renewable by 2024. Amazon announced five new renewable energy projects3 – When complete, the five new Amazon renewable energy projects totalling 615 MW of installed capacity will supply approximately 1.2 million MWh of additional renewable energy to the grids that supply the company’s fulfilment network and Amazon Web Services (AWS) data centers, which power Amazon and millions of customers globally. To date, Amazon has announced 31 utility-scale wind and solar renewable energy projects and 60 solar rooftops on fulfilment centers and sort centers around the globe. Together, these projects totalling over 2,900 MW of capacity will deliver more than 7.6 million MWh of renewable energy annually, enough to power 680,000 U.S. homes.
Further, Amazon has also started a Climate Fund to focus on greening and preserving wildlife. Amazon committed funds to conserve, restore, and support sustainable forestry, wildlife and nature-based solutions across the Appalachian Mountains and an Urban Greening program in Germany, which uses nature-based solutions to help cities become more climate-change resilient. The program will collaborate with city officials and local community organizations to create and implement plans for, increasing biodiversity and planting trees and revitalizing urban wetlands, and adapting existing green spaces.
Why is this important? Because Amazon is the largest retailer in the world and one of the world’s most valuable companies. This shows us that, for anyone to be truly sustainable – a multifaceted, multidimensional approach is needed. We certainly need to plant more trees, but a unidimensional solution, such as only planting more trees, is not the answer. Instead, a calibrated, scientific approach is needed which looks at internal operations, measures impacts and executes sustainability transformation at scale.