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NEXT: The Politics of Trees

David Staley David Staley NEXT: The Politics of TreesPhoto by Zhang Kaiyv from Pexels
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Two notable events in the news the past few days involved our stewardship of trees.  

Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, fired the Director-General of his country’s National Institute for Space Research because the agency revealed that deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has increased dramatically.

Since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, there has been a 39% increase in Amazon deforestation compared to the same period the previous year.  Looking just at June 2019, about 80% more forest was depleted when compared to June 2018.

Bolsonaro’s government appears to be relaxing their enforcement of environmental laws that have hitherto protected the rainforests.  The Amazon rainforest has been sometimes called the “lungs of the Earth,” its expansive size inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. Shrinking the rainforest would have dire consequences for the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. 

This is tied to the second major story around trees. It was reported that on July 29 the citizens of Ethiopia planted 350 million trees in a single 12 hour period. The original goal was to plant some 200 million seedlings, and the 350 million number has not been verified. But in any event, the effort that day likely surpassed the 50 million trees planted in 2016 in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The Ethiopian prime minister is seeking to plant four billion trees by the fall, and Ethiopia is not alone here.

China plans to plant forests by 2020 that would increase coverage from 21.7% of China’s landmass to 23%. Where Brazil is engaged in rapid deforestation, some countries want to pursue a policy of reforestation.

It is possible that we will come to see healthy, sprawling forests as an important means of controlling the levels of atmospheric CO2 such that the status of trees might become a crucial global political issue. In the same way that we describe the “politics of oil”–meaning not only its economic value but its geo-strategic importance–and in the same way that some analysts have identified fresh water as the “oil of the 21st century,” we may come to view trees as strategically important. The preservation of forests is emerging as a global political issue.

How might the politics of trees play out over the next decade? Take the case of Brazil. The Brazilian government maintains that the rainforest is sovereign property of Brazil, and that they can do with it what they please, no one else may dictate otherwise. As global climate change becomes more critical and desperate, might an international coalition of states take action against Brazil to change their behavior? Think of the current sanctions against Iran to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons. The status of trees might become so important that states would levy sanctions—and perhaps even go to war—to prevent their being decimated. We might even find that in the near-term future there may very well be some countries that identify arboricide as a crime.  

Two scientists have recently published a report that suggests that planting an additional 1.2 trillion trees around the world would have the effect of eliminating about 10 years’ worth of carbon emissions. I did the math, and to do so would require every person on earth to plant about 132 trees. For my family of three that would be around 400 trees we would be responsible for. Assuming we have the desire to do so, where would we plant these trees? If spaced out 10 feet by 10 feet, we would be able to plant 435 trees on our acre lot. (We don’t actually own an acre, but that gives some indication of what would be required.) And of course there are many people who do not own an acre plot. And among those who do, would they wish for their entire plot to be covered with trees?  

So were we each “responsible” for 132 trees, where would we plant them?  The scientists maintain that current parks, forests and abandoned land would be more than sufficient to house these new trees, but there are sure to be political battles over land use in the coming decade, and calls for turning over more land to forests.

Planting lots of empress trees would pay off almost immediately. In the first place, empress trees mature quickly, in less than a decade after they are planted. More impressively, empress trees suck much more carbon dioxide out of the air than any other kind of tree. An acre of trees can remove anywhere from 1 to 10 metric tons of CO2 per year. An acre of empress trees inhales over 103 metric tons. Imagine the environmental impact if those trillion trees were empress trees.  

Governments and NGOs have instituted reforestation programs. The NGO International Union for Conservation of Nature leads the Bonn Challenge, which is “a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.” Many countries have pledged their support, and indeed the U.S. is a signatory: The United States Forest Service has committed to the restoration of 15 million hectares by 2020. 

If not governments, might the private sector and entrepreneurs be useful here? Rather than forming companies to harvest trees, is there an enterprise that would be in the business of planting trees? Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and other billionaire dreamers might look away from Mars or Hyperloop and toward the prospect of reforesting the planet as their global moonshots. 

Of all the geoengineering schemes that have been suggested to combat CO2, reforestation might appear to be the least troublesome.  

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

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