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It is often a good idea to think outside the box. It is also a good idea to try and stick our head out of the bandwagon to see where it is taking us instead of just going with the flow that leads us somewhere we did not want to be in the first place. The need for planting more trees is now a phenomenon almost universally endorsed. Although there is definitely a need for more trees right now, it is worth noting that the positive impact of having more trees is not as beneficial as it seems for planet Earth and the human race in the long term.
Before we move on to discuss the dynamics of whether it is possible to plant too many trees or not, it should be made clear that trees are vital pillars of Nature that help make our planet habitable. Not only are trees the lungs of the Earth, but they also help sustain the vast range of life forms that constitute entire ecosystems. Most importantly, trees and the forests which they constitute are responsible for releasing Oxygen into the atmosphere, the single most essential element for life. In short, trees are not only good but crucial for this planet and for sustaining life on it.
Why are We Planting Trees?
Once upon a time, planting new trees (reforestation and afforestation) was a task that belonged to mother nature only. Although humans were harvesting trees to meet their needs, Nature was able to balance everything ultimately. Humans did not feel the need to fill entire landscapes with trees other than for agricultural purposes. Tree populations were naturally regulated through the process of natural propagation, reproduction, herbivore consumption, and forest fires. However, it is not the case anymore. Humankind and how it has ravaged Nature have brought about a phenomenon that is gradually making our planet uninhabitable: Climate Change. The rapidly rising temperatures, melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, and various animal species entering the endangered species list have now forced us to acknowledge that we can no longer continue exploiting our planet.
Climate Change is disrupting the Earth’s natural temperature balance, and studies are constantly discovering new and incredibly far-reaching adverse effects it has on the human race and the environment. The one thing that is contributing the most to global warming is the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The steady rate of deforestation all around the globe has played a role in contributing to global warming as humans are clearing forests to make space for agriculture, construction, and harvesting wood. However, the drastic increase in greenhouse gases, such as Carbon di Oxide, Nitrous Oxide, and Methane, due to transport and industrial activity has played an even more significant part.
As trees are being cut down at a rate faster than at which Nature can replace them, because we feel we can deal with Climate Change with more trees, and because we feel responsible for the damages we have done to this beautiful planet, we have now taken it on ourselves to plant more trees. Surely it will help. More trees are good for the planet; however, it is also worth noting that a good thing in excess is, in fact, not good at all. We’ve got ourselves a catch-22.
A Trillion Trees are Not the Answer
From world leaders to school children, tree plantation drives have been kicked off on all levels. From the Billion Tree Tsunami in Pakistan, Give Me Trees Trust in India to the ambitious desert afforestation projects in China and the Arab world are only some examples of how every country has decided to plant more and more trees. Although “a trillion trees” sounds like almost an unachievable feat, it is very much doable if countries continue working at the same rates as they promise. The question is, do we want a trillion trees? Are a trillion trees enough to solve our problems?
Trees absorb Carbon di Oxide from the air and release Oxygen. Forests are carbon sinks, which means they store more carbon inside than they release into the environment. Individual trees, as well as large groups of them in a forest, take atmospheric carbon and help store it as plant matter into the soil. An international research team at ETH-Zurich has examined the viability of planting more trees to mitigate the effects of climate change, and it has concluded that by planting more than half a trillion trees today, we could reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by almost 25%. In other words, it could reverse 20 years of Carbon emissions at the current rate.
It is only wishful thinking to believe that a problem as severe as Climate Change, which is actually threatening the very sustainability of life on Earth, will be entirely solved by planting many trees here and there. Even a trillion trees would not be enough. Questions have been raised against studies claiming reforestation will help make a significant impact on the effects of Climate Change, such as the one mentioned above. To what extent are the findings of this research accurate? Even if they are, how long will it take to plant half a trillion trees? How long will it take the planted forests to reach maturity for them to function in full swing? All such questions remain unanswered, and so the viability of planting trees to address the woes of Climate Change remains under question.
If by some chance, we are able to plant and ensure the survival of a trillion trees, it is still not enough. Because by the time we are done planting this many trees, and by the time these trees have reached maturity, if we continue at the current rate of carbon emissions, we would have crossed the point of no return anyway. The speed at which greenhouse gases are being produced due to the various human activities would make the Earth uninhabitable for even the saplings we intend to plant to fight Climate Change. And hence, a trillion trees are not what we need. What we need is a robust and proactive approach to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly along with a reasonable number of trees planted in a well-planned and sustainable manner to fight Climate Change. We need to take the foot off the accelerator and stop concentrating all our efforts on planting new trees.
By now, we have gone over why there is a need to plant more trees and whether that is the only solution to the problems facing humanity and planet Earth. It has been concluded that although more trees are needed, even a trillion trees alone is not the all-in-one solution. Nevertheless, the question, whether it is possible to have too many trees remains unanswered. To address this, we shall look at how excessive and un-planned tree plantation can pose a danger to the well-being of humankind, planet Earth and how it might set off the fragile balance of Nature.
The Problem of Water Scarcity
Nation-states today are all caught up in a rat race to plant new trees. China is famously known for the ambitious targets it sets for herself, and one such target has been set in the arena of tree plantation. Under its Great Green Wall tree plantation drive, the Asian hegemon has planted trees by the billions, mainly to stop the expansion of its sprawling deserts. Scientists believe that planting trees in such arid areas, where there is no natural vegetation, is an excellent way to increase forest cover and decrease dry and barren areas simultaneously, which seems like the perfect package to fight Climate Change. According to reports from the Chinese government, the total area occupied by deserts in mainland China was increasing by almost 10,400 sq. km per annum in the year 2000. Similar reports in the year 2017 show that desert area was not increasing but shrinking by 2,400 sq. km per annum, substantiating China’s tree plantation drives and their results over the last two decades.
However, there is one thing that can potentially rule Chinese desert afforestation efforts to be more dangerous for the environment than they are beneficial: water scarcity. Other studies have shown that arid and semi-arid areas as a whole have instead increased in China. The majority of the plant species being introduced to desert areas in China are non-native species and consume more water than native vegetation. Researchers have also found that the new forests developed as a result of afforestation projects are already absorbing vast amounts of rainfall and are drastically reducing the amount of water that runs off into rivers. All this, coupled with higher average temperatures, could intensify water scarcity and can lead to more severe water shortage problems for humans. It would not be wrong to say that making dense forests out of areas that initially belonged to the desert is unnatural. And like all unnatural things, Nature has its own way to counter its effects and restore its balance. Deserts and semi-arid regions serve a unique purpose on our planet, and if we try and reduce them, Nature will act to restore them.
Water scarcity is not the only problem that emerges when too many trees are planted where they do not belong. When non-native tree species are planted without proper thought and planning, they can give rise to a wide range of far-reaching challenges. Dubbed as a “biodiversity catastrophe of monumental size,” the introduction of the non-native Paper Mulberry tree to Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, has made the city almost uninhabitable in the Summer months for thousands of allergic people.
Why Planting Foreign Species is Not a Good Idea
The fast-growing and hardy Paper Mulberry was introduced to the city in the late 1970s in an attempt to greenify the city as fast as possible. According to reports, the quick germinating seeds were showered across the city from planes, and the tree took root wherever it found damp soil. All this seemed like an excellent way to instantly turn the city cool and green without spending a lot of resources. However, what was not known at the time was that there would come a point in time where the city would have too many of these trees, and authorities would be forced to cut them down for the well-being of the citizens.
No one objected to the multitudes of the foreign tree species being planted in the city back then, but it is only now that the city authorities wish the step would have never been taken. By the time Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority realized what a great mistake it had made by planting “too many of these trees,” it was too late. The Paper Mulberry was already well-established and thriving in the temperate climate of the city. Any attempts to eradicate the Paper Mulberry population from the city have resulted in high costs and little to no success. Every time the resistant trees are chopped down, they fight back by sending up new shoots that grow far, wide, and dense.
Such is the nuisance of the tree; no animal can eat its leaves, neither can the wood be brought to human use. The leaves, if touched, leave a long-lasting rash and red spot on the skin. The pollen from the Paper Mulberry tree is the biggest problem of all. While pollen from native tree species does not cause many problems, research has shown that Paper Mulberry pollen is specifically responsible for the development of respiratory illnesses such as rhinitis and asthma among the citizens of Islamabad, filling hospitals with thousands of pollen allergic people throughout Spring and Summer.
Now that people realize it is too late to rid the city of the pest of the Paper Mulberry, they wish that second thought was given to the idea before planting thousands of these trees in Islamabad. Indeed if the authorities had asked themselves whether it was possible to plant “too many trees”, they would have avoided this dire situation. As we ask ourselves this question today, we need to identify how similar the situation of the whole world was with that of Islamabad when the decision to plant the Paper Mulberry was being taken. A few right decisions today will go a long way and save us from the inconvenience of correcting many wrong ones and, it is never too late to make the right decision.
How Trees Cause Pollution
That is not all. Human-made forests, artificial methods to plant and protect new trees can often lead to excess tree populations. While planting new and dense forests is a controversial matter in itself, the human-made policy to stamp out any and all forest fires in order to “protect” the forests and the wildlife in them have led to billions of excess trees growing in forests. Over thousands of years, forest tree populations were naturally regulated and kept limited by forest fires. However, since the start of the 20th century, governments have introduced measures to robustly stamp out any wildfires in order to protect the environment. Not many realize that protecting forests in this way was actually going against the forces of balancing Nature, and like all things that go against Nature, there was a response.
The forests in the Western Region of the USA, such as the Rockies and the mountains of Sierra Nevada, as a result, have hundreds of excess trees per acre of forest land. This means billions of excess trees as a whole. This increased number of trees looked like the best thing that could happen to these forests, but when we scratch the surface, the reality is quite different. The bigger, denser forest canopy as a result of excess trees means around 20-30% of all rain and snow does not seep into the ground, and to make matters worse, the trees suck up large amounts of the groundwater reserves. Forest experts also claim that all those excess trees have radically changed the natural temperature, humidity, and light conditions under the forest canopy, having a drastic impact on the ecology of the forest. Native plant species are crowded out, shade-tolerant plant species spread rapidly, and in worst cases, all of the natural vegetation under the forest canopy is killed due to the lack of light.
The biggest problem of all, the problem of pollution still remains untouched. While it may sound ridiculous to most, that trees can lead to more pollution than automobiles is an actual fact. Well, trees do not contribute to pollution in this way if they are left to grow and reproduce naturally. However, when trees are unnaturally preserved, and billions of excess trees are forced to grow close and dense, the inevitable wildfires result in devastating damage and pollution. Wildfires are a natural concept, but the unnatural number of trees growing close together means the fires will rage hotter and spread wide and far, releasing smoke and greenhouse gases by thousands of tons.
Having too many trees is not just food for thought but a reality. Cities and forests around the world are experiencing the dilemma of having too many trees in all the wrong places, while at the same time the whole world is campaigning for more trees. Of course, we do need more trees. However, we need to be extremely careful about planting the right trees, in the right places, in the right numbers, and with the right planning.
Balance is the key. Nature has its own way of restoring balance, and we humans may or may not like how Nature goes about her duty. Humans have indeed inflicted a great deal of damage upon our beautiful planet, and while Nature is powerful enough to restore the planet to its original condition, there is no harm in helping Nature undo our own ravages. Planting trees is one way to do that, but if we do that too without planning and in an unsustainable manner, we might as well do more damage than good.
The world needs to rethink its goals and reset its strategies to fight Climate Change. We know by now that tree plantation drives that lack sustainability planning and environmental feasibility are pointless. Planting new trees by the thousands without any planning is only a way of wasting precious resources and giving ourselves false satisfaction. Moreover, if no swift action is taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions, we will get nowhere even with a trillion more trees. We will get severe water shortages, raging forest fires, and Nature that is angrier than ever.