Over the weekend, Instagram feeds were inundated with pet photos (disclosure: including mine) after an unidentified group developed a digital sticker that promised a new tree planted for every pet picture posted. The trend exploded: By Monday, more than 4 million people, including B-listers Sarah Hyland and Lili Reinhart, had posted pictures of their cats and dogs. That’s a lot of trees.
Reporters debunked the trend after it went viral, which prompted the people behind it, Plant A Tree, to confess on Instagram: “We immediately realized the post would grow too big and that we didn’t have the resources to plant that many trees.”
Plant A Tree said it launched the “Add Yours” sticker on Instagram on Nov. 2 and deleted it 10 minutes later.
“Even though we deleted it, a week later out of nowhere the stories continued to spread out of our control, reaching millions of reposts,” the post says. It concludes by introducing a fundraiser for a different tree-planting group, Trees For the Future, “so we can ACTUALLY plant 4 million trees.”
But will—and should—they?
Trees “are having a bit of a moment right now,” said Joe Fargione, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy who’s based in Minneapolis. “There’s no anti-tree lobby. [Trees] have lots of benefits for people. Not only do they store carbon, they help provide clean air, prevent soil erosion, shade and shelter homes to reduce energy costs, and give people a sense of well-being.”
Even corporations and politicians usually at odds with efforts to reverse the climate crisis love tree planting. Oil and gas company Shell announced it’s funding a reforestation project with Tŝilhqot’in communities in British Columbia, while former president Donald Trump touted support for the global 1 trillion trees initiative throughout 2020.
“A lot of this is about public image and that's a good motivation—we want corporations to care about these things—but it's very superficial. You need to do this well,” tropical forest ecologist Robin Chazdon told VICE World News earlier this year.
The reality, though, is that tree-planting initiatives are not always done right, and are rarely subjected to meaningful oversight—have you ever checked if that trendy brand planted a seedling after you bought your plaid?
“This is very much a PR campaign and the consumer doesn't have time to look up and check. Besides, a lot of this isn’t transparent and you can't find out,” Chazdon said. “There needs to be an independent body or standards that regulate tree-planting initiatives.”
Tree-planting efforts have turned into a frantic Wild West, with many viral initiatives, especially the Instagrammable ones, proving to be the environmentalist’s version of a white girl screaming “this is my song” at the club. They mostly just make us feel good. They also sometimes cause more harm than good.
“Whether their intentions are good, heart is in the right place, it doesn't mean it's going to work,” said BJ McManama, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. “I would say white is an attitude, not a colour. It’s an approach to life.”
Tree-planting fervour didn’t come from nowhere, and it holds a consistent spot in the climate crisis-fighting zeitgeist. In 2019, Science published a popular study that said planting billions of trees is the best way to combat climate change. The researchers estimated an additional 0.9 billion hectares of land available for reforestation on Earth—or room for billions of trees, which would capture two-thirds of the carbon emissions caused by humans so far. But critics rushed to point out that it’s not so simple.
Tree-planting efforts have to be done right for them to matter. Some well-intentioned efforts have introduced invasive plant species and harmful plant diseases to new areas. Others have led to more deforestation. Planting the same type of tree compromises biodiversity, and can put nearby communities at greater risk of wildfires. Planting trees in vital grasslands, and thus degrading them, is also problematic. In fact, European settlers have been destroying the North American prairies by planting trees for more than a century.
“Planting trees is easy. But following them and ensuring their survival requires a lot of effort and resources. This shows that there is not enough effort and money put into the monitoring of plantations,” Christian Messier, scientific director of the Institute of Temperate Forest Sciences, told La Presse in French in 2019.
The result is that too often, tree-planting efforts go seriously wrong. Turkey, for example, was heralded for planting 303,150 tree saplings in one hour in a single location—a Guinness World Record. Three months later, the Guardian reported that up to 90 percent of those seedlings had already died because they were planted during a season with too little rainfall to support them. In Canada, 13,000 black spruces planted in a former open-pit mine disappeared—after the company that planted them sold carbon credits to polluters.
VOX reported how in Mexico, a 2018 government-funded tree initiative paid farmers to plant trees. In some cases, farmers clear cut forested areas before planting new seedlings, causing an estimated 73,000 hectares of forest loss in 2019.
Even urban tree-planting efforts, which seek to provide shade for locals struggling with rising temperatures, have largely favoured white and wealthy neighbourhoods rather than the poorer ones who need it most. VICE News previously reported how poorer and brown neighbourhoods in Portland, which are at times 18 F hotter than the rest of the city, have 21 percent canopy coverage, compared to wealthier neighbourhoods boasting 52 percent coverage.
To spot Portland's wealthy areas, look no further than tree coverage, Anjeanette Brown, a recently appointed member of Portland’s Urban Forestry Commission, told VICE News.
Meaningful tree-planting efforts have to factor in local ecosystems, biodiversity, and local economies, experts say.
“Forget tree planting, start tree growing,” said sustainable landscapes scientist Lalisa Duguma. “Tree planting is taking a seedling and putting it in the soil: that’s planting. But tree growing is a long-term investment.”
McManama told VICE World News that local, Indigenous-led reforestation efforts have proven the most effective. She pointed to the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, where they have harvested wood from hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland for more than a century. They’ve maintained forest resilience by planting a variety of tree species and culling them selectively, she said.
“We have to start looking at the restoration of established forests and we definitely need to not do monoculture tree plantations, no matter what,” McManama said. “Look at standing forests and see what can be done to prevent and slow down the effects of climate change.”
Criticisms of white-washed tree planting efforts aside, there’s also the question of feasibility. Planting a billion or trillion or even 4 million trees is a lot. A group would need to plant nearly 11,000 trees every day for a year to hit the 4 million mark—a figure that requires about 27 novices to plant 400 trees each in an eight-hour day, or 11 seasoned professionals each planting a thousand. Now, multiply that by every tree-planting initiative out there, from government-backed initiatives to Instagram and clothing brand campaigns—it’s hard to keep track.
“We can’t plant trees everywhere higgledy-piggledy. That won’t work,” renowned botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger told the Tyee. “We need to know what we are doing, and you can’t go all asswise about stuff.”
That means posting a cute picture of your dog, as cute as she is, won’t safeguard local ecosystems: The wrong tree could be planted in the wrong area, and either die right away or threaten the surrounding ecosystem.
And if you’re feeling bad that your pet picture didn’t result in a tree getting planted, there’s still a basic thing you could do, in addition to supporting Indigenous stewards. Plant a native tree in your community, Beresford-Kroeger told VICE World News earlier this year. It will at least safeguard or improve biodiversity, capture some carbon, and they’re nice to look at.
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