Climate Change: Greening Conundrum: You’re planting trees to fight climate change but are you doing it the right way?

Your company’s HR might have sent emails asking if you’d like to volunteer for it. Your state or municipal government could be doing it at scale. Even your favorite sustainable clothing brand is promising it will plant a tree or three when you check out with the chic outfit you are eyeing.

The messaging is everywhere — plant more trees. As we sizzle or swelter through a record-breaking summer and read the dire warnings of the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report on how the climate crisis will only get worse if we don’t act now, tree planting, we are told, is one way city-dwellers can mitigate the worst of its impact. The premise is attractive.

There is no argument about the multiple benefits trees bestow – starting with carbon sequestration, or capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and thereby reducing the amount in the atmosphere and fighting global warming. A 2019 analysis, for instance, estimated that under a third of all emissions from human activities could be removed by planting a trillion trees. Then there are the less tangible benefits.

“There is now enough research to show that trees do provide a lot of psychological benefits—relieve stress, reduce blood pressure and even allow us to recover faster when we are ill. A window with a view to a tree while we are recovering from any sickness hastens the process,” say Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, academics at Azim Premji University and authors of Cities & Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. “Trees have many uses, and each of us connect to trees in different ways,” says Nagendra.

“While tree planting is a way by which anyone can do their bit to contribute to combat climate change, it needs to be done with a lot of care. It cannot be done simply because it makes us, or any govt, corporate or nonprofit feel good””

— HARINI NAGENDRA & SEEMA MUNDOLI, authors, Cities & Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities

Countries have also made commitments about increasing tree cover. As part of the Paris Agreement, India is looking to bring a third of its geographical area under forest cover by 2030, which will act as a carbon sink that will absorb 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2. State governments have embarked on ambitious tree-planting drives, with UP saying it planted a record 250 million saplings in a single day last year. But in the rush to plant more trees and achieve targets, warn ecologists, these tree-planting drives in some cases might end up merely wasting money and, in the worst case, actively harming the environment.

A recent analysis of tree-planting efforts in Himachal Pradesh found that “over half the state’s budget for tree planting is wasted on plantations that are unlikely to survive and/or are poorly designed to achieve the state’s goal of increasing forest cover”. “Tree planting can actually be harmful for climate mitigation and other ecological impacts if done in the wrong places, such as open natural ecosystems, for example, areas that are grasslands, savannahs. A lot of afforestation is targeted in these places,” says TR Shankar Raman, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF).

The NCF team has spearheaded the painstaking restoration of about 100 hectares of degraded rainforests in the Anamalais in Tamil Nadu in the last two decades, with the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including corporates. By planting trees in grasslands, we disrupt what are ecosystems in their own right and will likely not end up with the climate change gains that drove the planting in the first place. “Planting trees everywhere is not a good idea. Tree planting should be in places that are carefully identified and suitable for growing trees.”

Then there is the question of the kind of trees to plant. “Many tree planting drives are often of limited use if we have no mechanism to ensure that the saplings are of the right kind, and whether they will survive beyond a few months,” says Mundoli.

“Corporates today are getting involved in largescale tree planting and putting in money but it’s very important that they fund programs that are sound from an ecological restoration perspective””

— TR SHANKAR RAMAN, scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation

As a report by an expert committee set up by the Supreme Court on compensatory conservation notes, “Tree-planting campaigns are often based on flawed science: planting in grasslands and other open ecosystems, and even prioritizing invasive, exotic trees over native ones.” Instead of invasive, alien species — however aesthetically appealing these might be, like the favored gulmohar, a native of Madagascar — local saplings would be a better choice. Diversity of species is also important. “By bringing in more diversity of trees, you also support other biodiversity such as butterflies, birds and insects. This is something people can think about when they engage in urban tree planting,” says Raman.

One method of tree planting that has caught the imagination of governments, corporates and citizens alike is the Miyawaki mini forest, which has sprung up all over the country. Conceptualized by Japanese ecologist Akira Miyawaki, it involves planting local species of trees densely to enable these to grow faster so that a forest can be created in a few years instead of the tens it usually takes. These “quick” results have made Miyawaki forests an attractive option.

But ecologists and environmental activists are critical of its unquestioning adoption and execution, especially in cities where, in the hurry to meet targets, nonnative saplings bought in bulk from nurseries are being planted, and in areas that are not supposed to have forests in the first place. Shubhendu Sharma, founder of Afforestt, a company that pioneered the Miyawaki method in India, says the biggest problem with how these forests are grown is the lack of authenticity. “People are planting whatever is available in nurseries. But the principle is to first identify the right species of trees and shrubs and grow them in a nursery from seeds collected from trees growing naturally in their own habitat,” says Sharma.

Since this would be a slower process than buying thousands of saplings, it is important that the motivation for decision-makers is not the number of trees planted. “Otherwise, we will end up creating a low-quality landscape instead of a natural, biodiverse one with species indigenous to the area.” In the West, there are conservation conversations and initiatives around “rewilding”. Since this involves reintroducing large mammals and carnivores into habitats from which they have gone extinct, Shankar says, in the Indian context, “ecological restoration”, focusing on habitat restoration that respects the region and diversity of species, is better.

For tree-planting drives to be successful, it is also crucial to have buy-in from the local community. While the community is the “eyes on the street”, every community is complex, with competing interests, say Nagendra and Mundoli. “Some may worry about falling branches, others may be concerned about allergies — these are all valid concerns. Hence it is very critical to engage with the community, understand their reservations and account for their preferences. Once they are part of decision-making there is a greater possibility that they will care and protect the trees in the future,” says Mundoli.

The entire exercise, says Nagendra, needs to be done with care and planning. “It cannot be done simply because it makes us, or any government, corporation or nonprofit feel good.” Experts say that, above all, planting trees should not be viewed as a silver bullet to undo the ill-effects of climate change. “The most important way to address the climate crisis is to reduce fossil fuel use. If we just plant trees without addressing that, it’s unlikely to be very useful,” says Raman.

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