Plant a tree, save the planet? Think again

by Michelle Cadiz

Forests play an important role in regulating climate. They have an effect on temperature, humidity and precipitation — not only do they provide shade, but they also release water vapor into the atmosphere through transpiration, which in turn affects the water cycle and produce microclimates that act as buffers to the extremes of global warming. Primarily though, they act as carbon sinks, converting inorganic carbon in the ecosystem to organic carbon in their tissues through photosynthesis.

The ability of forests to absorb carbon has made them a line of defense against climate change. Currently, forests around the world are able to absorb about 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. However, due to deforestation, the size of forested areas all over the world is shrinking. As a result, the ability of forests to act as carbon sinks is also in jeopardy. According to a recent study, the Amazon rainforest is no longer absorbing, but releasing, carbon. Part of this is due to fires that are intentionally set to clear forested areas for agriculture and livestock, but even without the fires, the conclusion is the same. Previous deforestation has led to hotter temperatures, droughts, and greater susceptibility to more deforestation, which increase the carbon emissions from the forest. 

Globally, forests are cleared to create room for agriculture and livestock, and for mining. Human-caused deforestation has led to 46% of all trees around the world being felled. Since the 1960s, over half the tropical forests worldwide have been lost. In 2020 alone, 12.2 million hectares of tropical forests were lost, primarily from places like the Amazon, the Congo, and southeast Asia, making 2020 the third worst year for forest destruction since monitoring began in 2002.

In the Philippines, 75% of forests have been lost since the 1930s. Systematic logging was introduced by the American occupation, and worsened during the Martial Law era. Since then, administrations have drawn up policies and programs for reforestation, but forest cover hasn’t improved since the first Aquino administration. Rather, deforestation has reached an all-time high under the Duterte administration, reaching an average of 10,000 hectares of primary forest lost per year. Present-day deforestation is driven by land-use conversion for agricultural and residential use, as well as clearing for mining. The loss of forests in the country has resulted in worsening effects of natural disasters, such as flooding and landslides.

So what’s to be done?

The main response to deforestation and climate change has been reforestation efforts. Reforestation is seen as the cheapest, most accessible means of carbon capture, or removing carbon from the atmosphere. Some studies have even proposed afforestation — the planting of trees in historically non-forested areas to grow an artificial forest — as a potential solution

The Philippines has its own reforestation programs. The National Greening Program (NGP) was introduced during the second Aquino administration and continued by the Duterte administration as the Enhanced National Greening Program (E-NGP). The E-NGP program sought to rehabilitate 1.2 million hectares of forests by 2022, in addition to protecting the existing forests. 

On the surface, this sounds like a step in the right direction. But of course, the devil is in the details.

First of all, the program is planting exotic trees along with native trees. The native trees are planted in protected areas and are not allowed to be cut down, but the exotic, cash-crop trees are planted in “production areas,” where they could be harvested. This puts the very plan of the NGP and E-NGP under scrutiny. Planting exotic cash-crop trees shows that the NGP and E-NGP aren’t being done to help restore forest cover, but rather to plant trees for harvesting. In fact, the NGP was first conceptualized as a “poverty-alleviation” project, which is merely code for the commodification of the trees to be planted.

Planting exotic trees is also bad for the native ececosystem. Exotic trees tend to out-compete native trees, and hinder the growth of native seedlings. Non-native trees are prioritized in reforestation efforts because they grow faster, but they also decompose faster, which accelerates carbon cycling in the ecosystem.

Secondly, logistical issues have been flagged by the Commission of Audit. This includes the lack of surveying, mapping, and planning in reforestation efforts. Additionally, locals have reported that reforestation sites are burned on purpose every year so that another reforestation effort could take place, and the program would continue bringing in income.

But even if the E-NGP (and other reforestation efforts) didn’t have these issues, it wouldn’t be the climate mitigation solution that people want it to be. A study has shown that even if all the farmland in the tropics was reforested — a proposal neither feasible nor fair — carbon in the atmosphere would only drop by about 18 billion tons, which is only about two years’ worth of emissions at current rates. So while tree-planting activities may be all the rage, it’s equally important, if not more important, to preserve existing old-growth forests.

Existing forests have older trees, which are larger and store much more carbon than younger, smaller trees, making them more efficient in carbon capture compared to seedlings used in tree planting activities. In fact, the largest 1% of trees store about 50% of above-ground carbon. This is in addition to other services provided by these forests, such as protecting biodiversity, preventing droughts and wildfires, and producing microclimates.

All this answers the question of why we should protect our remaining forests. The how is more difficult. Experts say that the only way forests can be conserved is if the government has a strong commitment to protecting forests and will prioritize them over commercial interests. They must also engage and include local communities in the process, as their needs must also be met in the spirit of inclusive sustainable development.

Is that possible in the Philippines? Can we depend on our local and national government to prioritize forest conservation over personal profit? Historically, the answer has been no. But with 2022 elections upcoming, it is possible to vote into office officials who care about the planet over profit. And of course, beyond exercising our right to vote, it is on us, the Filipino people, to demand action and accountability from local, national, and world leaders, and push for a genuine reorientation of our society, for the sake of our continued survival as a species.

This article is part of the Spotlight series by YACAP’s Education Committee which talks about various issues related to climate and climate action.

Published by yacaphilippines

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines is an alliance of individuals, youth organizations, and student councils that advocate for immediate youth-led global climate action. The Fridays for Future of the Philippines.

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