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Why Protecting Existing Trees Can Be Better than Planting New Ones 

Oftentimes, protecting existing trees is more beneficial for the planet than planting new ones. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plant trees, just that we should focus first on protecting the ones that already exist.

Let’s dive into a few of the reasons why protecting existing trees and forests should be a top priority. 

1. Trees can take up to 10 years before they start absorbing more carbon dioxide than they emit

Think of a newly planted tree like a child. It has the potential to help stop climate change once it grows up and matures, but that takes decades. And in the meantime, there’s a lot working against it.

Young trees are small, which means they can’t hold much carbon, even combined with thousands of other small trees. It takes newly planted trees at least 10 years to reach their maximum carbon sequestration rate—the point at which they can absorb the most tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year.

Young trees are weak, putting them at higher risk of dying from storms, pests, or other stresses. If that happens, its future climate benefits just disappear. As well, newly planted trees can’t support biodiversity, endangered species, or wildlife habitats.  

Whereas an existing forest is already full of strong, old trees that can sequester much more carbon, all the care they need is to be protected from being cut down.

2. Planting new trees requires more work 

Reforestation is a labor-intensive project.

New trees require a lot of resources before they begin providing economic and environmental impacts back to the Earth and the communities around them. Since they are new, they won’t have much cultural importance for communities, nor can they provide them with any useful resources. Plus young trees need to be nurtured. You can’t just plant them and forget them. How many trees survive is more important than how many trees are planted. 

3. Planting new trees is expensive

In their analysis, researchers estimate that it would cost $393 billion annually to plant enough trees to sequester 6 gigatons of carbon, which is the equivalent of emissions from nearly 1.3 billion passenger vehicles driven for one year. Most of the costs can be attributed to local environmental consulting, manual-intensive labor, land acquisition, legalities, maintenance, and tree/fauna/plant acquisition. Essentially the cost difference between planting new trees and retaining existing trees can be much greater.

All trees planted are not planted equally, either. There are different methods for planting trees and here’s a breakdown of two different ones. 

If you were trying to decide whether or not to plant trees in a logging cut-block (a specific area of land with defined boundaries that’s authorized for tree-cutting), the costs would include: the price of planting and growing trees for 10 years or so. It would also include management expenses such as tree thinning every few years. The benefits could be increased timber production over time, higher resale value of the land, less erosion and improved wildlife habitat.

If you were to consider a reforestation project to restore a degraded ecosystem, the costs would include: the price of planting and growing trees for 20 years or more; and management expenses such as thinning every few years. The good news is that if it is conducted properly, the benefits of reforestation can be instrumental with regard to carbon sequestration, habitat restoration, sustainable timber production, downstream flow regulation and reduced sedimentation in rivers.

While both methods benefit the environment, planting trees for them to only grow for 10 years produces a different impact than trees planted to grow for 20+ years.

4. Reforestation projects can be less sustainable 

Many environmentalists are hesitant to provide an answer on whether or not the newly-planted forests will be capable of supporting animal, insect, and plant ecosystems as current forests actively do. Because studies take years to conduct, and there are only so many reforestation projects, we won’t know the answer for a while. However, many agree that if the forest is replaced with only one species of tree and all other vegetation is prevented from growing back, a monoculture forest similar to agricultural crops can arise, which would be poorly adapted to house endangered species. 

Thankfully, most reforestation involves the planting of different selections of seedlings taken from the area, often of multiple species. Another important factor is the natural regeneration of a wide variety of plant and animal species that can occur on a clear-cut, which is a logging practice in which most or all trees in an area are cut down

In some cases, the suppression of forest fires for hundreds of years has resulted in large single aged and single-species forest stands. As a result, many reforestation organizations are re-implementing the logging of small clear-cuts and/or prescribed burning because it increases the biodiversity in these areas by creating a greater variety of tree stand ages and species.

5. We should use more than just forests to sequester carbon emissions

As is common in all things we do in life, planting trees remains just one solution to reducing carbon emissions, but there are also other, more effective ways. The ocean, for example, is a bigger carbon sink than land. In fact, many argue that planting seagrass has a much greater effect on increasing CO2 capture, as opposed to planting new trees and waiting for them to grow larger.

Scientists in Australia have been looking at the feasibility of seagrass meadows as a solution to both carbon capture and ocean acidification. Just one hectare planted with seagrass has the effect of removing more than 10,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year—equivalent to 12 cars or 2.5 people’s annual emissions

Seagrass meadows are like underwater forests: they capture and store carbon, and as the plants’ roots grow and contact more of the ground they extract even more carbon from the water. When seagrass dies it’s buried in sea-floor sediments where, over time, it becomes part of the fossil fuel deposits we seek to protect. So, seagrass meadows not only absorb more carbon than many other plants on land but also store carbon deep below ground for a very long time. Seagrass is also a major food source for coastal species and protects shorelines from storms and erosion. 

EcoCart supports a mangrove project in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar as part of wetland protection measures. More specifically, the project is aimed at the vital mangrove forests that in recent years have been depleted due to reckless human activities; like ones that cut down the forests to produce firewood and clear the way for farming rice, palm oil, or shrimp. EcoCart’s efforts​help stabilize the coastline, reduce erosion, provide protection from storms, and are home to fish, birds, and plants. Mangroves store as much as four times the carbon stored in inland forests.

Mangroves are very good for carbon capture

6. Reforestation is one solution among many

Planting trees can play a large role in reducing carbon emissions, but it shouldn’t be the only solution. There is a wide range of benefits a reforestation project has for a degraded ecosystem, however, it is not a sustainable solution if the land can’t sustain itself. Tree planting projects that get the local communities involved in reforestation will be better suited to manage and maintain them over time. With this approach, we will see more productive reforestation projects that have a lasting impact on the global climate.

A positive of reforestation projects is that many are relatively inexpensive and can be implemented by local communities while still making an impact. Furthermore, many governments around the world (like Germany) provide financial support for these types of initiatives, which helps make reforestation more accessible for people living in poverty.

Even planting smaller plants like grasses or shrubs has been shown to have positive effects on degraded ecosystems because these plants help retain soil and prevent erosion while also providing food and shelter for birds, insects, rodents, and other small animals that act as seed dispersers. 

EcoCart works to support a variety of carbon sequestration and reduction projects, like forest conservation, reforestation, wind energy, and clean cooking. Learn more about all the carbon offsetting projects that EcoCart supports.