Environmental · Article

Does Planting Trees Really Prevent Climate Change?

Emily LevangEmily Levang
October 4, 2022
youB member since 2022
6 publications
Values this work is based on:
Purpose: The most important thing we can do? Keep old growth forests in the ground. When forests are logged, their immense stores of carbon are quickly released.
3m Read

I’d just gotten back from another heart-sinking beach adventure – the water in Lake Superior was warm, algae growing on rock that used to be smooth and clean; signs of climate change. Wherever you live, you may be noticing signs too; bigger storms, forest fires, record-breaking heat, flooding. It’s overwhelming and hard to fully comprehend. We hear a lot about what’s making it worse, but very little about what can make us safer. So when I saw this episode of PBS Weathered that same evening, I was blown away by the simplicity of a hugely overlooked solution. 

In this video, we discover “one of the most proven and effective drought preventing, flood mitigating, carbon storing systems in the world.” 

Drum roll please…


Simple, right? 

“But not just any forests,” says host Maiya May. 

We’ve gotten accustomed to planting trees for Earth Day, perhaps contributing to carbon offsets when we can. Planting trees is clearly beneficial, but is it really doing what we think it is? Interviewee Dr. Beverly Law has “some pretty shocking news from a carbon storage perspective.” 

Dr. Beverly Law was the “first scientist to study the actual carbon fluctuations in a forest over time.” What she found was that old growth forests are far “more important than people imagined. Mature and old forests are the workhorses. They take up more carbon annually and they have a lot more stored in the wood.” 

So what about all these trees we’ve been planting? Watch the video at 4:45 for the OMG moment when we learn that the way we’ve been thinking about forests is potentially very incomplete. According to Dr. Law, those new forests won’t be carbon neutral for twenty years or more. Not that there’s anything wrong with planting trees, but as Maiya May reminds us, “We don’t have twenty years to address climate change. Planting trees now might help in the long run, but those old forests are really the key to storing carbon before we hit tipping points for climate change.” 

The most important thing we can do? Keep old growth forests in the ground. An article in Monaga Bay underscores the importance of this approach: “When forests are logged, their immense stores of carbon are quickly released. A study found the logging of forests in the U.S. state of Oregon emitted 33 million tons of CO2 – almost as much as the world’s dirtiest coal plant.” 

Dr. Law says there are key forests to protect. “It’s the Pacific Northwest and then up into Southeast Alaska and Tongass National Forest. Let them grow. Set them aside as strategic carbon reserves to help fight climate change.” She says, “forests in Oregon store the most carbon per acre in the world – even more than the Amazon.”

If we act now, storing carbon in existing forests will help to protect us from climate change.

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