Nature and Biodiversity

How would planting 8 billion trees every year for 20 years affect Earth’s climate?

A worker lifts a tree from the ground at the Toudunying state-owned commercial forest estate in a village near the edge of the Gobi desert, on the outskirts of Wuwei, Gansu province, China, April 16, 2021. Over the last four decades, the Three-North Shelter Forest Programme tree-planting scheme, known colloquially as the "Great Green Wall", has helped raise total forest coverage to nearly a quarter of China's total area, up from less than 10% in 1949. In Hongshui trees have become a major part of the local economy and the area is dominated by a large state-owned commercial forest estate called Toudunying.

Through photosynthesis, trees and other plants transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbohydrates. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Karen D. Holl
Professor of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Nature and Biodiversity?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Future of the Environment is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

One Trillion Trees

Loading...
  • There are about 3 trillion trees on Earth, which is only half as many as 12,000 years ago, at the start of human civilization.
  • Whilst planting trees is part of the solution to climate change, there are still more important ones.
  • Humans need to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions quickly by transitioning to renewable energy sources, like solar and wind.

Politicians, business leaders, YouTubers and celebrities are calling for the planting of millions, billions or even trillions of trees to slow climate change.

There are currently almost 8 billion people on Earth. If every single person planted a tree each year for the next 20 years, that would mean roughly 160 billion new trees.

Trees and carbon

Carbon dioxide is the main gas that causes global warming. Through photosynthesis, trees and other plants transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbohydrates, which they use to make stems, leaves and roots.

The amount of carbon a tree can store varies a great deal. It depends on the tree species, where it is growing and how old it is.

Let’s say the average tree takes up 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. If a person planted a tree every year for 20 years – and each one survived, which is highly unlikely – those 20 trees would take up about 1,000 pounds, or half a ton, of carbon dioxide per year.

The average person in the United States produces a whopping 15.5 tons of carbon dioxide a year compared with 1.9 tons for an average person in India. This means that if each person in the U.S. planted one tree per year it would offset only about 3% of the carbon dioxide they produce each year, after all 20 trees had matured. But, it would offset 26% for somebody in India.

Planting trees is certainly part of the solution to climate change, but there are more important ones.

Clearing the Amazon rainforest for livestock farms in Brazil in 2017.
The Amazon rainforest is an example of mass deforestation. Image: Brazil Photos/LightRocket

Protecting the trees we have

People cut down an estimated 15 billion trees each year. A lot of those trees are in tropical forests, but deforestation is happening all over the planet.

Protecting existing forests makes sense. Not only do they absorb carbon dioxide in the trees and the soil, but they provide habitat for animals. Trees can provide firewood and fruit for people. In cities, they can offer shade and recreational spaces.

But trees should not be planted where they didn’t grow before, such as in native grasslands or savannas. These ecosystems provide important habitat for their own animals and plants – and already store carbon if they are left undisturbed.

Doing more

To slow climate change, people need to do much more than plant trees. Humans need to reduce their carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions quickly by transitioning to renewable energy sources, like solar and wind. People should also reduce the amount they drive and fly – and eat less meat, as meat has a much larger carbon footprint per calorie than grains and vegetables.

It is important that everybody – businesses, politicians, governments, adults and even kids – do what they can to reduce fossil fuel emissions. I know it can seem pretty overwhelming to think about what you as one person can do to help the planet. Fortunately, there are many options.

Volunteer with a local conservation organization, where you can help protect and restore local habitats. Discuss with your family new lifestyle choices, like biking, walking or taking public transit rather than driving.

Loading...

And don’t be afraid to lead an effort to protect trees, locally or globally. Two 11-year-old Girl Scouts, concerned about the destruction of rainforests for palm oil plantations, led an effort to eliminate palm oil in Girl Scout cookies.

Sometimes change is slow, but together people can make it happen.

Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityClimate Action
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Climate, nature and energy at AMNC24

Spencer Feingold

June 23, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum