Can Trees achieve 1.5 degrees?

UBoC’s Professor Piers Forster, who is also Director of the Priestly International Centre for Climate, and an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Lead Author, has returned from Incheon, Korea, in good heart concerning the IPCC’s Special Report SR15, upon which he’s been working for the past week.

While much of the news is stark – we have only a very few years in which to act if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and so reduce catastrophic climate change to something we hope will be at least manageable – it’s encouraging to see that the IPCC has identified reforestation as one of four key areas of action.

This map from Carbon Brief shows where afforestation is taking place around the world.

At UBoC we’ve always been champions of the 3 trillion trees on our planet – as forests, woods, copses, or just standing proudly in hedgerows or out on the savannah. The Earth’s ‘Greenery Machinery‘ is currently our best and (until someone invents some workable engineering solutions) only way to suck significant quantities of CO2 out of the atmosphere. (Oceans remain by far the biggest carbon sink – see our map here – but we don’t currently have any way to increase this transaction). Meanwhile trees deliver a host of co-benefits such as water retention, pollution mitigation, healthy soils, shelter for crops and buildings, sustainable fuel, food, biodiversity, local enterprise, human health and wellbeing, and much more.

We’ve lost about 46% of the trees on this planet  since the start of human civilisation, and we’re still losing them at the alarming rate of 15 billion a year! But this can and, yes, let’s say will, be reversed.

It won’t solve the problem on its own – there’s unfortunately not enough land available to suck all of the extra CO2 out of the atmosphere, but it will make a big difference if we start today, and it will buy time for the engineers to come up with other ways to draw down excess carbon. Some of the ideas on offer include turning it into rock, making it into batteries, converting it into fuel, and burying it in spent oil and gas fields – but they all need more work.

Our report shows the globe is already experiencing harm from existing global warming of 1.0C, species are being wiped out, coral reefs are bleaching, increases in heatwaves, floods and forest fires.” said Piers. “Every bit of warming counts. But to stay below 1.5C requires us to halve our emissions within 10 years. Nearly everyone thinks this is virtually impossible to do, we are simply too late to prevent this and should have started 10 years ago. Well there is really only one way to turn the clock back and that is by planting trees. Planting trees and improving soils could soak up more than 250 billion tonnes of CO2, effectively turning the clock back by over 6 years, giving us that little ray of hope.  As Professor Jim Skea, one of the reports co-leaders from Imperial college said. “It’s not an ‘or’ it’s an ‘and’.” We need every solution there is, so planting these trees is not just a nice thing to do, it’s our moral imperative.”