How many trees would it take to stop global heating? One million? Ten million? With the project #TeamTrees, YouTubers and influencers have set their sights on planting 20 million trees over the next three years. It seems like a simple plan: there is too much carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and trees can take it out. Though is this really the best way for people to spend their time and money in the fight against the climate crisis?
So far the campaign has managed to raise money to plant over ten million trees. At $1 per tree, Elon Musk has pledged enough for a million, while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has pledged $200,000. #TeamTrees has set up a leaderboard for donors, with the current top donation standing at $1,000,001 from Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke.
The project began in May 2019 when YouTuber Mr Beast was challenged by his fans to plant 20 million trees to commemorate hitting 20 million subscribers. Other influencers quickly piled on: Jeffree Star donated $50,000, and PewDiePie donated $69,420 saying, “This is from the 9 year olds.”
Twenty million may seem like a lot of trees, but on the grand scheme of things it isn’t actually that many. When activist Greta Thunberg suggested that we should plant more trees to help fight the climate crisis, WIRED.com did the maths on what would happen if everyone on the planet did just that. Using the same logic by assuming each tree takes up around 25 meters squared, if all 20m trees were planted together the forest would only take up 193 miles squared, which is less than half the size of London. Spread all those trees on every continent other than Antarctica, as #TeamTrees has proposed, and it quickly becomes apparent that what seems like a large number is actually pretty small.
According to Carbon Neutral, an organisation that helps companies offset their carbon emissions, trees absorb the most carbon dioxide when they’re young, as they grow quickly and use carbon to reach new heights. Carbon Neutral estimates that 15 trees can absorb one tonne of carbon dioxide, so 20 million trees will be able to absorb around 1.3 million tonnes. However, when you consider that humans pollute the atmosphere with 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, it only makes a small dent.
This dent becomes a lot bigger when you consider that the money raised by #TeamTrees will go to the Arbor Day Foundation, which funds projects to plant trees across the globe. It has reforestation projects, where it restores existing forests, and afforestation where it create entirely new woodland areas. Since 1972, the Arbor Day Foundation has planted over 250 million trees.
Still, it’s labour intensive and time consuming to plant trees. And other methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere might be more effective. Fearless Fund, an organisation finding solutions to global marine biology problems, has found that marine algae could be the answer. “Oceans cover 70 per cent of the planet,” says Fearless Fund president Alyson Myers. “We have more space to operate in to remove carbon and recycle carbon. We don’t need land. We don’t need fertilisers, and we don’t need fresh water.”
The algae is 30 to 35 per cent carbon and can potentially be used for renewable fuels or building materials. Currently this algae is growing so quickly it is actually becoming a problem for Caribbean, Mexican and US shorelines. Myers and her team are looking into ways to manage and grow it effectively.
So while algae could provide an answer to the climate crisis in a few years, planting trees is helpful immediately. “Planting the right tree in the right place is a wonderful thing to do,” says Tilly Collins, a lecturer in conservation and forest protection at Imperial College London. “I think that there are many other ways of looking at carbon that would be more effective from the carbon point of view. But the trees bring multiple benefits.”
Benefits such as helping to improve biodiversity and even helping to regulate local weather systems. Forests keep the air moist, which in turn creates more rain clouds, which can help with agriculture or boosting drinking water supplies. “Most of Brazil runs off rain-fed agriculture and one of the big problems of losing forest in Brazil is that it will have wide scale effects on agriculture,” says Collins.
But you can’t just plant trees wherever you like – they have to be properly planned out in order to get maximum benefit. If you plant over seasonal grasslands in the Arctic, you could risk harming biodiversity and make global heating worse. These grasslands are covered in snow in the winter which acts as a mirror for the heat that comes from the sun. If you plant trees there, it means less heat is reflected, leaving it to be absorbed by the ground.
Which is where proper planning comes in. In 2003, the WWF and other international NGOs established Gold Standard, a foundation, to ensure such projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions were done responsibly and sustainably. “Having good projects with long term monitoring is really important,” says Laura Leugers, director of communications for Gold Standard. “It’s not as easy as just dropping seeds in the ground or planting a seedling. If you really want to make good use of your funds or your energy, projects need to be designed the right way and monitored over time.”
Which is, hopefully, where the Arbor Day Foundation comes in. The organisation says it will be careful to choose projects that have the greatest environmental and social benefits. The money from #TeamTrees will go towards reforestation projects, to plant trees that will help restore forests. “Trees are just kind of a unifier,” says Arbor Day Foundation vice president, Woody Nelson. He finds it heartwarming that the YouTube community came together like this all because of trees. “It’s something that’s easy for people to understand. Why not plant trees?”
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