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Why businesses should stop planting trees and start protecting forests

Investing in forest protection is the most effective approach to enhancing forest carbon sequestration and supporting biodiversity.

Tree planting

Source: Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz

Tree planting pledges have become a near-universal sign of corporate environmental commitment, despite widespread project failures, negative unintended consequences and a lack of accountability. Over 100 companies from 148 countries have pledged to the World Economic Forum’s Trillion Tree campaign. And a recent study found that 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies in France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have been involved in tree planting projects over the past two decades.

Companies cite carbon offsetting, remediation, sustainable sourcing, communications and marketing, and team building as the primary drivers of this trend. With 90 percent of Americans in support of tree planting, it’s a winning issue for businesses and politicians looking to gain favor with key stakeholders. But is it the right strategy to solve the biodiversity and climate crises? Evidence suggests no, and here’s why.

Protecting forests should take priority over planting new ones

Tree planting programs often lead to a loss of biodiversity, taking us further away from achieving a nature-positive world. Mexico’s Sowing Life campaign destroyed over 180,000 acres of forest in its first year due to a perverse incentive structure. China’s Grain for Green program reduced the country's native forest cover by 6.6 percent as a consequence of planting single-species tree plantations. And projects across the world have destroyed non-forested ecosystems (grassland, shrubland and peatland) through afforestation, the act of planting trees in areas where forests would not otherwise occur.

Despite all the campaigns and pledges, forests continue to disappear globally at an unprecedented rate. Even if we could plant enough trees to keep up with the current rate of forest loss, the traits that make forests long-term carbon sinks and biodiversity strongholds — large trees, mature ecosystems and soil accumulation — can take centuries to re-create.

Chart showing tree cover loss by global region (from World Resources Institute)

Source: World Resources Institute

Preventing further ecosystem destruction is the most effective, immediate and low-cost approach to enhancing forest carbon sequestration and supporting terrestrial biodiversity. Instead of pledging to plant trees, companies should commit to implementing a credible deforestation policy and investing in forest protection beyond their supply chains.

In the absence of sustained stewardship, forest protection will fail

Of the forests that remain intact, 82 percent have been degraded by human activity. This includes forests that are already classified as protected. The impacts of degradation include an increase in land claiming and violation of territorial rights, deterioration of health and food security, changes in microclimate and water availability, loss of biodiversity and the collapse of local economies. Degraded forests fail to achieve their full carbon storage potential

Protection alone is not enough; protected forests are still exposed to rising temperatures, changes in water availability, wildfire frequency and intensity, novel pathogens and introduced species.

Resilient forests require sustained stewardship. In many forested regions, that means addressing the sociopolitical drivers that cause deforestation and degradation to begin with. Tree planting programs are often pitched as providing economic benefits to local communities, including smallholder farmers. But they fail in this regard when planted trees are not maintained, the land is used for activities other than restoration or the land is recleared.

One of the most effective ways to support long-term forest resilience is securing the rights of rural and Indigenous communities to make land management decisions. Forests managed by Indigenous people protect most of the remaining biodiversity on earth and also sequester more carbon than those outside Indigenous lands. In addition to advocating for stronger land titling laws in sourcing regions, companies should establish clear free, prior and informed consent policies before undertaking activities in Indigenous-owned forests.

The best place for tree planting is not in a forest

Planting trees is not the same as protecting or restoring forests. But there are several cases where tree planting is a critical tool for achieving the desired outcome.

Perhaps the most important use case is in cities, especially in communities historically underserved by local governments. Achieving tree equity in cities has innumerable benefits, including improved air and water quality, counteracting extreme temperatures and enhanced quality of life. A great example of this is American Forests’ pledge to plant and protect 1.2 million trees in cities across the United States.

This effort goes beyond planting trees to establish models of community stewardship. The project includes developing tree nurseries in cities to provide affordable tree stock, hosting learning labs for local stakeholders, propagating disease- and pest-resistant specimens that require less maintenance, establishing career pathways for marginalized communities and developing innovative finance mechanisms for urban forestry. Corporate funding partners include Bank of America, Timberland and Footlocker, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Salesforce.

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