Saturday, November 27

Could planting a trillion trees stop global warming? This man thinks so | Environment


IIn 2017, Yishan Wong was ready to retire in Hawaii after leaving his Silicon Valley career behind. Wong, the CEO of Reddit until 2014, had previously held senior positions at Facebook and PayPal. But then came what he calls the “moment” when he decided he was going to face the climate crisis instead.

“I was literally on a beach trying to get away and it was too hot,” he said. The temperatures in Hawaii at the time were abnormally high and he thought, “The planet has a climate change problem. I need to solve it. “

Wong began looking for “the most cost-effective way per unit” to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. After digging through articles on climate science, he settled on his solution: trees.

In 2019, he founded Terraforming, with the goal of helping reforest 3 billion acres of degraded land around the world, an area larger than the United States, which Wong estimates could contain a trillion trees. He believes that these forests could absorb enough CO2 to stop global warming.

Reaching net zero by 2050 means drastically reducing emissions, but achieving this goal in such a short period of time and keeping global warming within 1.5 ° C also means figuring out how to remove carbon from the atmosphere. An estimate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change foresees the removal of 730 billion metric tons of CO2 this century.

Carbon removal technology – sucking carbon out of the air and then storing or using it – is one way to do this, but it is expensive and will take time to scale up. The International Energy Agency Dear that these technologies absorb about 40 million metric tons of carbon per year. The trees, on the other hand, collectively absorb about 7.6 billion metric tons per year – more than annual US emissions – even after accounting for emissions released from deforestation, wildfires and other causes.

“We already did the R&D,” Wong said. “A trillion trees has a very, very strong chance of solving the [climate] problem, ”he said, when combined with cuts in carbon emissions. Reforestation is “immediately scalable,” he said, adding that the world cannot afford to wait until carbon capture technologies are ready for large-scale deployment: “You are piling up debt, meanwhile the planet is warming.”

Reforestation is also a more inclusive solution to the climate crisis, Wong said, because it is accessible to both developed and developing countries. Solving the climate crisis will be “a real stretch of the collective capabilities of the human race,” he said, so he “wants the simplest and most affordable solution because it will operate on a huge scale.”

Terraforming will not plant a trillion trees by itself. Instead, he describes his product as “reforestation in a box.” His clients are landowners, conservationists, and governments who want to reforest areas around the world. The goal of Terraformation is to eliminate the “bottlenecks” of these projects.

The company takes a “holistic” approach, said Jill Wagner, its forestry director. Depending on the needs of a project, Terraformation can provide seed banks and nursery kits in shipping containers; It can also offer financing, software, and training. The company will also work with clients to sell carbon credits once their trees are planted.

Seed shortages are one of the biggest obstacles to reforestation, Wagner said. “Most people, even in the forestry field, don’t store seeds,” he said. “They just collect seeds and propagate what they have throughout the year. That’s really limiting and not a way to scale. “Terraformation has produced modular off-the-grid seed banks that can contain up to 5 million seeds, which according to the company is enough to reforest 5,000 acres.

A nursery in Terraformation's Pacific Flight restoration project in Hawaii's North Kohala region.
A nursery in Terraformation’s Pacific Flight restoration project in Hawaii’s North Kohala region. Photograph: Patrick Kelley / Courtesy of Terraformation

Terraforming began in 2019 with the reforestation of a 45-acre stretch of Wong’s property in the North Kohala area of ​​the Big Island of Hawaii. Once a thriving sandalwood forest, it was destroyed after years of logging and grazing, Wagner said. The company established 6,000 native plants on this property, irrigated by a solar-powered desalination system. Many of the trees are already more than six feet tall, Wagner said.

The company has raised $ 30 million of Silicon Valley investors and more than $ 2 million so far on the crowdfunding Republic site. It now has 30 active or pending projects. There are several projects in Hawaii, but it is also working with partners from around the world, including Uganda, Tanzania, Ukraine, India, Haiti, and Ecuador.

Terraformation has “the technology to really reproduce native trees in a systematic way,” said María José Iturralde, executive director of Humans for Abundance, a nonprofit organization that is partnering with the company to reforest 200 hectares (494 acres) in the Amazon jungle. .

Iturralde said Terraformation had provided “state-of-the-art” nurseries and seed banks, which are helping indigenous families restore these lands to the native ecosystems of their ancestors. The seed banks will be particularly useful for reforesting the guayacán, he said, which produces seeds only once every two years.

Seed processing in one of Terraformation's container restoration seed banks.
Seed processing in one of Terraformation’s container restoration seed banks. Photograph: Patrick Kelley / Courtesy of Terraformation

The idea of ​​global reforestation as a climate solution has been around for decades. But it has triggered the agenda. Along with Terraformation, the trillion tree cultivation campaigns have been started by World Economic Forum and prominent environmental groups, and tree planting has been embraced by high-profile figures of Jane goodall for Donald trump.

However, some scientists have said that tree planting has limitations as a climate solution, mostly because the world may not have enough land to support a trillion new trees without harming the environment or people. TO study published in 2019 stating that tree planting was “the most effective solution to climate change to date” sparked controversy, with several scientists criticizing its conclusions as exaggerated. In 2020, the authors issued corrections acknowledging the uncertainty of how much carbon trees might absorb and downgrading their analysis of tree planting as the most effective climate tool to “among the most effective.”

“There is a small but important role that forests can play in mitigating climate change,” said Joseph Veldman, a professor at Texas A&M University and one of the main critics of the paper. But, he added, “can they do it on a scale that can address climate change? The answer is clearly, if that’s our only action, no. “

The main limiting factor for reforestation is the availability of land that can support new trees. A recent study found 678m hectares (nearly 1.7 billion acres) worldwide that could be reforested, below Terraformation’s target of 3 billion acres. The study excludes grasslands, croplands, and population centers, which are unsuitable for reforestation. “You don’t want to put trees where they didn’t originally exist. That’s bad for biodiversity, and trees often don’t survive, ”said Susan Cook-Patton, a forest restoration scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a co-author of the study.

It’s also important not to establish new forests in areas that reflect sunlight and cool the planet, said Sassan Saatchi, senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Planting trees in areas like the boreal regions of Canada and Russia or certain deserts could cause a rise in global temperature. “One type of solution is not going to work for everyone,” Saatchi said. “We need to do the calculation for each region differently.”

There is also a potential disruption for people when deciding where to put the trees. “What worries me,” said Karen Holl, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, are tree-planting initiatives that “see it as a math problem and don’t think about the ecology and the people involved.” . He added that “it is not just about putting trees in the ground.” He highlighted the need to engage meaningfully with local communities, especially indigenous peoples, whose livelihoods could be affected by reforestation.

A woman participating in Ethiopia's national massive tree planting campaign.
A woman participating in Ethiopia’s national massive tree planting campaign. The country aims to plant billions of trees a year. Photograph: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

It is not possible to predict the “side effects of massive global reforestation,” Wong said, because “this is how big projects work.” But he said Terraformation will “listen and co-author with the local community” and focus on restoring native ecosystems rather than planting monoculture species, which can harm the environment. “If you restore the native species to where they were, they grow back much faster than expected,” he said.

Wong said he views the climate change problem with an engineering mindset. “You need to aim for the least risky thing that gets you to the right order of magnitude,” he said. “Usually if you get to a tenth [of the way to the solution], you are in the order of magnitude. You can do 10 times whatever you are doing right now. “

Although Wong acknowledges the complexities of tree planting, he also believes that forests can be a big problem. financial opportunity, for example, from carbon credits and agroforestry. “It is valuable when you turn degraded land into a thriving ecosystem,” he said.

“Addressing climate change is like building a house; reforestation is like a hammer, ”Cook-Patton said. “Is it the only tool you can use to build the house? Absolutely not. But is it a valuable tool? Yes.”


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