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Brussels says planting three billion trees will help save the planet. Experts aren't so sure...

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The burned trunks of trees are seen after a major forest fire in Angra, Ljusdal municipality, Sweden, Sunday July 22, 2018.
The burned trunks of trees are seen after a major forest fire in Angra, Ljusdal municipality, Sweden, Sunday July 22, 2018.   -   Copyright  Mats Andersson/Mats Andersson
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When word got out that the European Commission was planning to include a commitment to planting three billion trees as part of President Ursula von der Leyen’s European Green Deal, environmental NGOs almost spat out their morning fair trade coffee.

In terms of numbers alone, the pledge has raised eyebrows: three billion trees over ten years is three hundred million a year, or around 800,000 every day. When asked about the number of trees planted since May 2020, a spokesperson for the European Commission did not have figures, pointing instead to local counters maintained by some EU regions and member states.

One, a counter by the Belgian state of Flanders, showed 232,968 plantings since October 1, 2019. The other, from the Czech Republic, showed almost 800,000 new plantings but did not give a timeframe.

“We are still working on this and are also considering options for counting, or common methodologies,” the spokesperson said.

But it isn’t the question of whether the EU could plant three billion trees that had environmentalists rattled when the strategy was revealed, it was the question of whether it should. While massive reforestation grabs headlines, experts say tree-planting actually does little to stop what is really messing up the climate, the rampant burning of fossil fuels.

Little surprise then that oil and gas companies are such big fans. In July 2019, Total announced that it would invest $100 million (€84.5m) in forest protection, soon after both Shell and Eni committed to offsetting emissions with forest conservation.

In the Netherlands, this included giving motorists the option to purchase carbon credits at the petrol pump in order to offset the climate impact of driving their vehicles - an initiative that, while making drivers feel better, will do nothing to prevent them actually driving their cars.

Then in February, even President Donald Trump - hardly the world’s most-renowned environmentalist - supported tree planting in his State of the Union address, supporting House Republicans’ so-called ‘Trillion Trees Act’.

At the time, the move was described by Greenpeace as a “feel good” initiative that “lack[ed] real action to restore forests and expand clean energy”, which was “not only part of a dangerous distraction from the climate crisis, but represents logging industry greenwashing”.

Greenpeace has been similarly critical of the European Commission's three billion trees pledge, pointing out that, much like in the US, reforestation can distract from the real efforts to combat climate change.

“The potential climate and biodiversity benefits to planting trees are limited, but the risks of greenwashing are endless," said Sini Eräjää, Greenpeace EU agriculture and forest campaigner. “Companies are quick to claim credit for the carbon stored in trees planted but reluctant to reduce emissions in the first place.

“Rather than tree planting, we should protect and restore the priceless forests that are currently under threat, and make the real cuts to emissions instead of offsetting.”

Sticks and carrots

In the Biodiversity strategy, the EC says that the EU Forest Strategy, due to be released in 2021, and the three billion tree strategy in particular will create jobs, including in the collection and cultivation of seeds, the planting of seedlings and the monitoring of their growth.

Gabriel Paun at Agent Green -- a nonprofit NGO for environmental protection in Romania -- believes the target is feasible as long as the land is identified for this new growth by the first quarter of 2021. Paun said there are real examples of where such projects have been effective, including Costa Rica, which has increased its forested area from 25% in 1990 to 52% in 2020.

In doing so, Costa Rica used both carrots and sticks. A ban on deforestation and an elimination of subsidies to livestock farmers were the latter, but the former - involving communities in re-planting and rewards for record plantings - were just as important. It is an approach Paun would like to see in his native Romania, where illegal logging is, he says, “out of control”.

But echoing the comments from Greenpeace, Paun said that there is little genuine will to stop illegal deforestation in Romania, with authorities detecting only 1% of it, he estimates. One of the biggest challenges facing the EC in its plans, therefore, may not be planting new trees but protecting the ones that are already fully-grown.

“More wood is burned annually than legally cut, and high-capacity non-intensive wood processing plants have been built that put unprecedented stress on the forest,” he said.

"The phenomenon of illegal logging has not even slowed down, despite the efforts of some state institutions and public pressure.”

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