Swiss Researchers Have A Simple Idea For Countering Climate Change: Plant A Trillion Trees

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Swiss researchers are studying the effects of planting trees to capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Fred Tanneau /AFP/Getty Images)
Swiss researchers are studying the effects of planting trees to capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Fred Tanneau /AFP/Getty Images)

Researchers in Switzerland have a simple idea for countering the impacts of climate change: Plant more trees.

Lots of them — more than a trillion, to be precise.

Over time, these trees would capture more than 800 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to a study published in the journal Science. That adds up to about 25 years’ worth of carbon pollution.

“The nice thing about this solution is it’s really low-tech,” says Thomas Crowther, a co-author of the study and climate change ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “It doesn't need a politician to make a decision, and it doesn't need a scientist to come up with some new invention. All it needs is all of us getting involved.”

According to the study, there’s a lot of space on the planet to plant new trees, particularly in Russia, the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China.

Crowther doesn’t discount the role of cutting emissions in fighting climate change — that still needs to happen, he says. But in terms of capturing the carbon dioxide already choking the atmosphere, he tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that trees are already doing that job “fantastically.”

“Now, I'm not trying to discourage all of the brilliant technological advances, but we've already got [a] huge amount of space available for trees,” Crowther says, “and if we can restore trees on those lands — 0.9 billion hectares is available for us to restore trees — and if we restored them and they grew to full mature forests, they would capture a major chunk of that excess carbon that is in the atmosphere and really help us in that fight against climate change.”

But is this too good to be true? Crowther admits it might sound that way.

“It's like the hippie solution: plant a tree, save the world,” he says. “But the amazing thing is now we've got the signs to back it up. It really is this unbelievably powerful tool.”

Interview Highlights

On why trees are the answer to fighting climate change

“Humans have been burning fossil fuels, which has released a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is causing the greenhouse gas effect and it's warming our planet. But the nice thing is, trees, as we know, photosynthesize. That means they capture carbon from the atmosphere and suck it down into their trunks and in the roots, and then they even pump it into the soil. So we've always known that they have the potential to be our allies in this battle.”

On why this solution won’t work if carbon emissions aren’t cut simultaneously

“That is such an important point: We have to cut emissions. But at the moment, we've still got loads and loads of carbon that's already accumulated in the atmosphere and so trees could be a really powerful [way] to capture that existing carbon in combination with those cuts to emissions.”

On where new trees could be planted

“It's amazing. We thought it would be focused in certain parts of the world. But what's amazing is these degraded ecosystems, these places where trees should naturally be, are distributed all over the world. So every country can really play its part. Now, I would stress that the best countries are often in the tropics, because those are places that trees grow really quickly and they suck up the most carbon. But really, we can all play a part in this — whether it's governments or just us.

“Of course, we have to have, first, urban land for humans to live, and second, agricultural land to support our growing population. And that's why we made sure that we focused on areas that we are not using. We excluded those urban and agricultural areas.”

On his message to critics of the study 

“So, as with every story, there's always ... the bigger the story, the bigger the naysayers. And so of course there's gonna be people who like other solutions, and that's great. That's the part of it — we want every climate change solution. We want to encourage everyone to do whatever they want, and all we're saying is that for any of those people who are interested in having that tangible impact, there's something that all of us can get involved with and it's a really nice, simple way to get connected to nature as well.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on July 11, 2019.

This segment aired on July 11, 2019.

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