Change the world. Plant a tree.

A long time ago in a childhood far, far away we were told about massive environmental challenges that our planet was facing. The poster child of the late 80s and early 90s was deforestation in the Amazon – along with saving whales and pandas.

Sadly not very much has changed when it pertains to the Amazon (or Brazil’s other forests) and that deforestation continues apace each and every year. Yet our understanding of the peril and plight of the planet definitely has changed. We are aware more keenly than ever before that the balance of nature sits on a knife edge. For some climate change is a climate crisis. One of Sweden’s most famous people is a 16 year old girl, Greta Thunberg, who is freaked out about the future of the planet.

It seems that we can make a significant difference to our world by getting behind one simple, cost-effective and beautiful ideas. We don’t need a new technology, we need more of what God has gifted us with: trees.

According to a recent report,

Planting billions of trees across the world is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis, according to scientists, who have made the first calculation of how many more trees could be planted without encroaching on crop land or urban areas.

Why is planting trees such a good idea?

Trees are an extremely effective carbon-sequestering mechanism. Through photosynthesis, trees literally remove carbon dioxide from the air. With the aid of water and sunlight, they replace much of that carbon dioxide with oxygen. While some carbon is returned to the atmosphere through respiration and the decay of fallen leaves, much of the carbon is stored in the woody trunk. As long as that tree is standing, the carbon is out of the atmosphere, or sequestered. Carbon storage usually increases in forest soils as well.

Of course we would need to plant a lot of trees to make the difference we would need – around a trillion trees in fact. Which, unsurprisingly, for a number so vast is not as easy as it sounds.

So much land has been converted into other uses, however, that reforestation on a large scale requires tradeoffs. To truly plant a trillion trees, some agricultural land would have to be converted into forest, reducing food production. If trees are planted in areas that traditionally didn’t have them, such as meadows, ecosystem services and biodiversity might be lost in those habitats. Trees need a lot of water, sometimes requiring expensive irrigation. Another factor to consider is what kind of trees to plant; large monocultures might help carbon storage but will not function as real forests.

The bad news is that at present not only are we not increasing the number of trees and forests, we’re still losing them at a rapid rate.

It’s no secret that Earth is rapidly losing its forests. Just between 1990 and 2015 the world lost 129 million hectares of them, which equals “two Texases,” as the Washington Post put it. Deforestation is responsible for an estimated 5 billion tons, or 17 percent, of annual global carbon emissions, not to mention soil erosion and biodiversity loss.

That’s the bad news. The good news is despite this horrendous loss of trees it’s better than it was in 1982. How can it be both better and worse at the same time?

Essentially we’re gaining trees but losing forests. Trees are being planted in cities more than ever before and in managed forests and while we’re losing them in Brazil we’re gaining trees in the Arctic. But to make a difference we need to end the losses and start making net gains. Basically, it’s not enough for us to simply plant trees – we have to grow forests.

And in some places forests are making a resurgence.

Between 1990 and 2015, Europe’s total forestland grew 90,000 square kilometers — about 35,000 square miles. There has been so much progress, in fact, that there are more trees and larger forests in the EU today than there were at the start of the 20th century.

It seems to be something of a pattern that rich countries can afford to plant trees and poorer countries need to chop them down for food and firewood. So it was heartening to see Ethiopia change the narrative by planting 350 million trees in one day. Ethiopia is a good case study. A hundred years or so ago 35% of Ethiopia was covered by trees, today it’s around 4%. To fight the desert and drought Ethiopia needs more trees.

And it’s not just Ethiopia. According to Jeremy Williams

What’s happening in Ethiopia is not unique. There are large scale reforestation initiatives underway in the Congo, Niger, Uganda, Tanzania, and more. Rwanda has pushed forest cover from 17% to 30% in the last couple of decades. Like plastic, there is an under-reported wave of African leadership on forests. Places like England, where forest cover is just under 10%, should watch and learn.

Trees are a good thing and the more of them the better.

Dr Dan Ridley-Ellis, the head of the centre for wood science and technology at Edinburgh Napier University, said: “Trees not only help mitigate climate change by absorbing the carbon dioxide in the air, but they also have huge benefits in combating desertification and land degradation, particularly in arid countries. They also provide food, shelter, fuel, fodder, medicine, materials and protection of the water supply.

Rich westerners should get behind tree planting for several reasons and most of them selfish. Firstly, it combats climate change in an effective manner and that will make us feel better about our comfortable lifestyles. But also trees help us in one of the western world’s other big blights: mental health. According to a study in Sydney

Adults with 30 percent or more of their neighbourhood covered in some form of tree canopy had 31 percent lower odds of developing psychological distress. The same amount of tree cover was linked to 33 percent lower odds of developing fair to poor general health.

For the Christian if further incentive was needed (and you shouldn’t really) consider this from Matthew Sleeth:

Other than people and God, trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible. There are trees in the first chapter of Genesis (v. 11–12), in the first psalm (Ps. 1:3), and on the last page of Revelation (22:2). As if to underscore all these trees, the Bible refers to wisdom as a tree (Prov. 3:18).

Every major character and every major theological event in the Bible has an associated tree. The only exception to this pattern is Joseph, and in Joseph’s case the Bible pays him its highest compliment: Joseph is a tree (Gen. 49:22). In fact, Jeremiah urges all believers to be like a tree (17:7–8).

The only physical description of Jesus in the Bible occurs in Isaiah. “Want to recognize the Messiah when he arrives?” Isaiah asks. “Look for the man who resembles a little tree growing out of barren ground” (53:2, paraphrase mine).

Do you think trees are beautiful? You’re in good company. God loves trees, too. By highlighting every sentence containing a tree in the first three chapters of Genesis, one can get a pretty good sense of what God thinks about trees. Nearly a third of the sentences contain a tree.

I’ll let Matthew Sleeth have the final word:

Trees are God’s investment in humanity’s future. They are the only living thing to which God gives a ring on each birthday. Only he knows the exact timing of Christ’s return. I hope it is tomorrow morning. But, in the meantime, I’ll plant trees that will take a century to grow, and I’ll try to spread the gospel like there’s no tomorrow.

If you’re looking for some recommendations of who to support – try this Tree Planting and Forest Conservation Charities.

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