Fact check: Claim that planting trees makes no sense in fight against climate change is false

Musalia Mudavadi

Chief Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi plants a tree during the launch of a tree planting exercise at Egerton University farm in Njoro, Nakuru County on May 19, 2023. 

Photo credit: John Njoroge

Mitigating climate change through forestry was first proposed in the 1970s, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

However, it would take more than a decade for international negotiations to consider the same at the national level, calling for the "definition and quantification of the role of forests".

In 1992, the world adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) to address the problem of global warming. Trees would be used to sequester, store and provide carbon substitutes to reduce global warming.

As countries and the world take initiatives to fight climate change, including by planting trees, Dezeen recently published an article stating that "experts believe planting trees 'makes no sense' in the fight against climate change due to permanence concerns".

The article, entitled "Planting trees 'doesn't make any sense' in the fight against climate change due to permanence concerns, say experts", states that "afforestation is an unreliable way of permanently sequestering atmospheric carbon" and that "forests need to last 100 years to be effective".

But this claim is misleading.

The first claim, that "afforestation is an unreliable way of permanently sequestering atmospheric carbon", is challenged by ScienceDirect, a scientific journal, which states that "afforestation and properly managed forest areas are examples of effective carbon sequestration from the atmosphere".

"There are two basic methods of carbon sequestration: direct and indirect. The direct method is implemented by immediately sequestering carbon compounds at the source of their formation, before they enter the atmosphere. The second method of sequestration - indirect - involves the use of plants that sequester CO2 during photosynthesis or when carbon compounds are sequestered in a soil environment. With these methods, sequestration can take place through physical, chemical or biological processes," says ScienceDirect.

"Carbon sequestration by forests can take place through their biomass or in the soil on which they grow. The activity of trees in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere depends mainly on their species, stage of development, type of soil environment and climatic factors," the journal says.

It adds: "The intensity of CO2 uptake by forest ecosystems depends largely on climatic factors, temperature, humidity and soil fertility. An important treatment that positively affects carbon sequestration is reforestation or the use of appropriate tree species - forest species that sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide, such as pine, spruce, larch, beech, alder, oak or birch forests".

The second claim, that "forests need to be 100 years old to be effective", is misleading. is misleading. While the Clean Energy Regulator confirms that "afforestation is subject to the permanence obligation, it states that the permanence period is either 25 or 100 years, not strictly 100 as mentioned in the Dezeen article.

So does planting trees make sense?

Research Gate, in its article The role of trees and plantation agriculture in mitigating global climate change, states that there is a need to plant trees with large canopies on a large scale in order to reduce the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"The role of plantations in mitigating global climate change is... the influence of trees on the water cycle, the barrier against destructive storms and desertification, the protection of the soil surface against erosion and intense heat, the binding effect of the dense root system...," the journal says.

"There is an urgent need to properly integrate trees and plantations into our agricultural systems, homes, institutions, markets, parks and other public places. This would not only help reduce the build-up of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants, but also increase the production of plantation crops in a locality, thereby alleviating food insecurity and poverty," it adds.

According to the journal Science, the Earth's ecosystem can support another 900 million hectares of forests, and if we planted more than half a trillion trees, we could sequester about 205 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25 per cent.

In 2007, the African Union adopted the Green Wall Initiative, which will see the countries of the Sahel build a "wall" of restored forests and land from one end of the continent to the other, stretching 8,000 kilometres.

"The initiative has been selected as one of the first 10 World Restoration Flagships of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. The Flagships are inspiring examples of how landscape-scale restoration can address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, loss of nature and biodiversity, and pollution and waste," says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

It adds: "By 2030, the Great Green Wall aims to restore 100 million hectares of land, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon and create 10 million jobs. It will provide food and water security, habitat for wild plants and animals, and a reason for residents to stay in a region plagued by drought and poverty".

In Kenya, President William Ruto launched a programme on 22 December that will see the country plant 15 billion trees by 2032. The initiative aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, halt and reverse deforestation, and restore 5.1 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes.

This fact check was produced by Nation with support from Code for Africa's Pesa Check, the International Fact-Checking Network and the African Fact-Checking Alliance Network.