Key Figure in the 'Plant Trees' Movement Has New Message

Ecologist Thomas Crowther says it's better to maintain existing forests than to plant new ones
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 24, 2023 7:07 AM CST
Key Figure in the 'Plant Trees' Movement Has New Message
   (Getty / Clark Ahlstrom)

At this month's environment COP28 summit, renowned ecologist Thomas Crowther addressed environmental officials from around the world and asked them to stop planting so many trees. Which is noteworthy given that Crowther himself is "at least partly" responsible for the worldwide push on that front in recent years, reports Wired. It was Crowther's 2019 study that made the case that the world had room for another 1.2 trillion trees, arguing further that those trees could suck up vast amounts of carbon we humans emit into the atmosphere, per the Messenger. The study became a media sensation, with Crowther making the rounds to tout "our most effective climate change solution to the date," as the study put it.

Other scientists faulted the message at the time, saying the study overestimated two important factors: how much land is available for tree planting and how much carbon those trees would be able to absorb. Still, governments and even big oil companies such as Shell seized on the initiative and started planting millions of trees, "eager to burnish their green credentials without actually cutting their emissions," per Wired. The practice has been derided as "greenwashing," and Crowther—who says his 2019 study was misinterpreted and simplified by the media—is now advocating a different strategy.

Instead of planting billions of new trees, the world should preserve existing forests and allow them to regrow as a smarter way to capture carbon, says Crowther, who published a new study last month in Nature to that effect. As the Messenger notes, this study emphasizes the importance of pairing the practice with actually cutting emissions. "Killing greenwashing doesn't mean stop investing in nature," he told the COP28 summit. "It means doing it right. It means distributing wealth to the Indigenous populations and farmers and communities who are living with biodiversity." (More trees stories.)

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