Is tree planting an effective strategy for climate change mitigation?

Miko U.F. Kirschbaum, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research
Annette L. Cowie, NSW Department of Primary Industries
Josep Peñuelas, Centre de Recerca Ecològica i Aplicacions Forestals (CREAF-CERCA)
Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen
Richard T. Conant, Colorado State University
Rowan F. Sage
Miguel Brandão, The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH)
M. Francesca Cotrufo, Colorado State University
Yiqi Luo, Cornell University
Danielle A. Way, ANU Research School of Biology
Sharon A. Robinson, Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health


The world's forests store large amounts of carbon (C), and growing forests can reduce atmospheric CO2 by storing C in their biomass. This has provided the impetus for world-wide tree planting initiatives to offset fossil-fuel emissions. However, forests interact with their environment in complex and multifaceted ways that must be considered for a balanced assessment of the value of planting trees. First, one needs to consider the potential reversibility of C sequestration in trees through either harvesting or tree death from natural factors. If carbon storage is only temporary, future temperatures will actually be higher than without tree plantings, but cumulative warming will be reduced, contributing both positively and negatively to future climate-change impacts. Alternatively, forests could be used for bioenergy or wood products to replace fossil-fuel use which would obviate the need to consider the possible reversibility of any benefits. Forests also affect the Earth's energy balance through either absorbing or reflecting incoming solar radiation. As forests generally absorb more incoming radiation than bare ground or grasslands, this constitutes an important warming effect that substantially reduces the benefit of C storage, especially in snow-covered regions. Forests also affect other local ecosystem services, such as conserving biodiversity, modifying water and nutrient cycles, and preventing erosion that could be either beneficial or harmful depending on specific circumstances. Considering all these factors, tree plantings may be beneficial or detrimental for mitigating climate-change impacts, but the range of possibilities makes generalisations difficult. Their net benefit depends on many factors that differ between specific circumstances. One can, therefore, neither uncritically endorse tree planting everywhere, nor condemn it as counter-productive. Our aim is to provide key information to enable appropriate assessments to be made under specific circumstances. We conclude our discussion by providing a step-by-step guide for assessing the merit of tree plantings under specific circumstances.


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