We can’t just plant our way out of the climate crisis

Let’s not lose the forest for the trees

Image: Ben Neale

by Maya Glicksman, policy advisor and Ugbaad Kosar, deputy director of policy

As technological carbon removal has garnered widespread attention, one response resurfaces again and again: Why complicate climate solutions with expensive, experimental technology when Earth’s most efficient carbon removal machines already exist in nature? Why not just plant more trees?

While we understand the uncertainty that comes with any burgeoning technologies, it’s risky to paint any approach (even trees!) as a silver bullet solution. In fact, an oversimplified “this-or-that” mentality can do more harm than good — it shuts down nuanced conversations, ignores the complexity of different CDR pathways, and pits tech- and land-based solutions against each other. In reality, we’ll likely need a combination of tech, land, and cross-solution pathways to achieve necessary gigaton-scale removals by mid-century.

First, the merits of forestry approaches

On top of their carbon-storing power, forests provide a wide range of benefits that serve community health, local economies, and climate resilience needs. These myriad benefits make forests key to meeting equitable carbon removal goals, supporting a strong case for their protection, restoration, and sustainable management.

But scaling up tree planting is no easy feat

The scarcity of seedlings presents a real challenge, but it’s not just about seedlings — it’s also about people. The same study found that only 32% of nurseries currently produce at full capacity, citing workforce shortages as the greatest barrier to expansion. Specifically, nurseries depend heavily on a seasonal migrant workforce, and survey respondents cited immigration policy as their single largest concern.

Forest carbon removal also raises complex land use concerns, as many of these approaches require large swaths of arable land. Planting can intensify competition with other uses like agriculture or depend on land that is not suitable for long-term carbon storage under a changing climate. The way we reforest is key — the site, scale, and mix of tree species must be selected to protect whole ecosystems and the services they provide.

A disproportionate dependence on forest carbon removal

Carbon equivalence

Atmospheric carbon can re-enter either carbon cycle. However, the different timescales and sizes of these cycles can help us rethink how to depend on different carbon removal pathways.

Because they belong to this shorter-term, smaller-scale carbon cycle, forest carbon sinks have finite capacity that reflects losses over time, primarily due to disturbances like land use change. In other words, planting trees restores carbon that forest ecosystems have already lost — but this restoration can’t account for the vast amounts of carbon humans have released from fossil sources, which took millions of years to accumulate underground.

Geographic equivalence

Pursuing large-scale forest carbon removal requires governance frameworks that protect the livelihoods and well-being of vulnerable communities. While some geographies are simply more suited to certain types of carbon removal, project developers can’t ignore the complex social, political, and cultural factors for communities that exist within those geographies. Forest carbon removals must not come at the expense of communities’ access to and sovereignty over ancestral forests, key natural resources, and economic vitality.

No silver bullets

Many forestry approaches are shovel-ready today and can be fully realized with policies that support carbon removal, community well-being, and ecosystem resilience. Here are five key recommendations to support an equitable and durable scale-up of forest carbon removal.

1. Increase investments across reforestation activities to ensure that regional seedling supply can meet accelerating planting demand.

2. Expand and create new federal corps programs to support job creation and workforce development in forestry within vulnerable and underemployed communities.

3. Advance forest carbon monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) technologies and approaches.

4. Explore policy options to separate land-based and fossil-derived carbon accounting to reflect their different carbon sinks and cycling rates.

5. Increase international collaboration to support equitable and global scale-up of carbon removal.

Alongside robust and justice-oriented tech CDR policy, these recommendations can support a multi-pronged approach to carbon removal, maximizing the carbon impacts of each pathway while supporting an equitable transition.

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