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The Unintended Consequence of Mass Tree Planting

Kate Byng-Hall looks into the unintended consequences of reforestation and some of the need-to-knows.

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger

Of the world’s 3 trillion trees,15 billion are lost every year to deforestation, forest management and changes in land use, leading to concerns about the planet’s carbon storage.

Of course, more trees would mean increased habitats and food sources for wildlife, but research has also suggested that an acre of matured trees could provide enough oxygen to supply 18 people for a whole year.  The amount of carbon dioxide that trees absorb could even be enough to counteract global warming if enough were planted.

However, a report by the government’s Natural Capital Committee published in Nature is urging planters to do this responsibly, as planting new trees incorrectly could have a damaging effect on the environment, rather than an improving one.

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Plans for Planting 

The UK government has pledged to plant millions of trees to combat deforestation and clean up our atmosphere.  The Conservative Budget, presented in March, confirmed plans to plant 30 million trees per year under their governance.

If the new planting rate is achieved, it would turn around 17% of the UK into forested land, as opposed to 13% now.  At the moment, the UK's forests absorb about 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, but it is hoped that increased planting would more than double this amount.

Struggle for Diversity 

The NCC’s report suggests that badly-planned mass tree-planting could in fact hurt our habitats.  The trees chosen for planting programs are often monocultured, meaning the trees are very genetically similar, offering no variety with which to enrich the environment..

Irresponsible planting could pose a big threat to the UK’s biodiversity, as monocultured trees lead to unnatural and less resilient woodlands, especially if alien species are used which disrupt the UK’s native populations.  Trees which are present in the country’s traditional forests need to be selected in order to prevent endangered native species from being wiped out.

As one NCC member, Professor Ian Bateman from the University of Exeter, has said;

“the mantra has to be ‘the right tree in the right place’”.

There has also been a problem with rich grasslands and meadows being dug up in order to make way for new woodland, but this causes a drop in the biodiversity of the country’s habitats, and has an adverse effect on the environment.

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Essential Soils 

Peat bogs are often the chosen location for planting, but peat is actually an integral material for harbouring absorbed carbon, and overturning it during tree-planting could release all the gases which it had stored.  The research suggests that preserving the carbon stored in the ground is equally as important, if not more so, than planting more trees.

The soil in which trees are planted has to be monitored in order to maintain the balance of the country’s environment.

“We love looking at trees – we get all these positive emotions, smells and sounds – but most of us don't look at the soil that actually underpins everything” –Professor Kathy Willis, an NCC member from Oxford University 

Currently, only 0.41%of money invested in environmental monitoring in the UK is spent on researching soil.  If this was stepped up, then we could be more clued up on how to plant trees wisely, all the while keeping the carbon already in the ground locked up.  

If high standards are not maintained when planting new trees, then they could do more harm than good.


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