Ukraine plans to plant billions of trees to fight climate change

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has announced ambitious plans to plant one billion trees across the country in the next three years.

The announcement came just days after climate negotiations ended at the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

Along with the 27-nation European Union, Ukraine hopes to plant around three billion trees over the next decade to restore the “lungs of the planet”.

But one scientist says the “unrealistic” aim cannot be achieved.

“This is absolutely unrealistic in terms of space and timing planned by the president,” claimed Ukrainian nature conservation and biodiversity expert, Bohdan Prots.

“They must plant 10 trees or 200 seedlings in a second, so this is not possible, technically,” he added.

With a surface area of more than 600,000 square kilometres, Ukraine is the second-largest country on the continent, counting Russia in its entirety.

Many tree-planting projects fail

Tree-planting campaigns are typically well-intentioned, but they often fall short of delivering the benefits they promise, from capturing carbon to providing refuge for rare species. “Large-scale tree planting programs have high failure rates,” the authors of one paper, led by environmental researcher Forrest Fleischman, wrote in 2020.

One of the most stunning examples of these failures comes from Fleischman’s research in northern India. If there’s a place where tree-planting projects might work, it’s in the state of Himachal Pradesh, said Fleischman, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who led the recent Nature study. The state government has a strong track record of delivering services to the public, he said, and has been planting trees since at least 1980.

An analysis of satellite imagery and interviews with hundreds of households, however, revealed that decades of planting by the government — amounting to hundreds of millions of seedlings — “had almost no impact on forest canopy cover,” Fleischman wrote on Twitter. The researchers also measured a shift in the type of trees within the ecosystem, away from species that locals prefer for firewood and animal fodder. In other words, residents of Himachal Pradesh actually had fewer useful forest resources.

What went wrong? Some of the trees may have died quickly because they were planted in poor-quality habitat, Fleischman suspects. Farm animals could have also destroyed the saplings if they were planted in former grazing lands, he said. “Well-resourced forest restoration programs can fail to achieve their goals,” he added. “We need to be more skeptical of big claims.”

In other parts of the world, tree-planting projects didn’t just fail, but also harmed existing ecosystems or ways of life.

In Mexico, a $3.4 billion tree-planting campaign launched by the government in 2018 actually caused deforestation, as Bloomberg News’ Max de Haldevang reported earlier this year. The program known as Sembrando Vida, or Sowing Life, pays farmers to plant trees on their land, but in some cases, they would clear a chunk of forest before putting seedlings in the ground. One analysis by the World Resources Institute, an environmental group, suggests that it caused almost 73,000 hectares of forest loss in 2019.

How to restore forests for the long haul

Solving a problem as vast as climate change or biodiversity loss is never as straightforward as planting lots of trees. People often think, “We’ll just plant trees and call that a restoration project, and we’ll exonerate our carbon sins,” said Robin Chazdon, a forest researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Usually, she said, “that fails.”

Buzzy tree-planting programs tend to obscure the fact that restoration requires a long-term commitment of resources and many years of monitoring. “We should just stop thinking about only tree-planting,” as climate scientist Lalisa Duguma has said. “It has to be tree-growing.” Even fast-growing trees take at least three years to mature, he added, while others can require eight years or more. “If our thinking of growing trees is downgraded to planting trees, we miss that big part of the investment that is required,” Duguma said.

Forests are, of course, good for the planet. And they do absorb loads of greenhouse gases, making them an important bulwark against rising temperatures. But headline-grabbing campaigns focused solely on planting trees can harm both people and ecosystems by focusing more on the goal itself than on the purpose behind it — and distracting us from the hard work of reducing emissions. The tough reality, as Holl puts it, is that “we’re not going to plant our way out of climate change.”