The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its sixth assessment report released in August, reiterated its analysis of the role played by human-induced activities in contributing to catastrophic heatwaves, droughts and cyclones. It noted that in 2019, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was at its highest in at least two million years.
However, under the garb of the 2021-2030 United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, mass tree-planting campaigns are often seen as a silver bullet to the global climate crisis both by government and civil society entities.
It has become a clichéd call-to-action in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asking policymakers to limit cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and those of other greenhouse gasses to mitigate the effects of warming on natural resources, food security and livelihoods.
Such tree planting campaigns are driving the global discourse on climate change mitigation and carbon dioxide sequestration. Tree planting appeals to the popular imagination even though there are other natural carbon capture solutions.
On Environment Day on June 6, here are six myths around tree planting. Instead of indiscriminate tree planting as the end-solution to a warming planet, the way forward for ecological restoration should be to follow the principles of right place, right species and right density.
Trees aid groundwater recharge, so tree planting is a means to end water scarcity: Most tree-planting programmes that do not account for evapotranspiration trade-offs – water lost by trees to the atmosphere – will adversely affect groundwater recharge.
Studies, especially in semi-arid and dry regions around the world, have shown that if tree planting is not cognisant of the suitability of the species, characteristics of the site and density of the plantation, the interventions could actually reduce water available for human use.
While it is correct that root networks bind the soil and recharge groundwater, ad-hoc tree plantations are known to lead to soil erosion and cause greater water flow. This was evident in November when the Karnataka High Court had asked the Forest Department to consider banning eucalyptus plantations across the state. A eucalyptus tree consumes up to 90 litres of water in a day, and the species has been responsible for lowering groundwater levels in the region.
Tree-planting is critical to biodiversity conservation: While trees attract birds, insects and wildlife, they are not suitable habitats for all species.
For instance, the endemic Great Indian Bustard is a barometer of the health of grassland ecosystems. Over the last decade, the Great Indian Bustard has been on the brink of extinction due to the degradation and loss of grassland ecosystems.
Similarly, the Indian fox, which is found from the foothills of the Himalayas to the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, is most frequently spotted in dry open areas with low tree and shrub cover. A study published in January has shown that Indian savannas contain 206 endemic plant species, of which 43% were described in the last two decades.
Unfortunately, open natural ecosystems, such as grasslands in India, are threatened and continue to be diverted towards afforestation projects and bio-fuel plantations, irrigated agriculture and other urban and industrial uses.
To protect biodiversity that thrives in open natural ecosystems, grasslands and the like must not be labelled as degraded wastelands and subjected to indiscriminate tree-planting or other land-use changes.
Planting saplings should do the job: While most efforts focus on planting saplings, little is done to monitor the survival rates of the saplings. It is imperative to distinguish between the process of tree planting and tree growth.
While some studies have shown a 50%-60% survival rate in India, other places have shown a less than 10% survival rate. When saplings that are not conducive to the area are planted, the rate of survival is very low.
Fire degrades ecosystems and tree planting will curb forest fires: This argument is flawed in two ways. First, fire is utilised by agro-pastoralist communities to sprout grasses for the grazing of their livestock as summer approaches.
It is a common phenomenon that occurs within the socio-ecological context of multiple landscapes across India. Second, there is evidence to suggest that planting wrong species and at wrong densities in the wrong places can actually instigate forest fires.
Trees are a cost-effective climate solution: Indiscriminate tree planting activities that do not consider the ecological and social context of a region can lead to wasteful public expenditure.
For instance, in Himachal Pradesh, more than 50% of the expenditure carried out for tree-planting activities was deemed to be wasteful. Only 14% of the expenditure was effective. This is because the plantations were not in sync with local biophysical and social contexts of the state.
Carbon sequestration through nature requires more tree plantations: A growing body of research now shows that preventing deforestation is the most effective form of carbon sequestration. Experts have shown that even though trees capture huge amounts of carbon, they need to keep growing for a long time to be effective carbon stores.
Grasslands have also shown to be more reliable carbon sinks than forests. It thus follows that rampant tree-planting is neither necessary nor sufficient as a means to sequester carbon.
The implications of unscientifically planned tree planting are not limited to biophysical variables. Rather, tree planting can also adversely affect marginalised communities.
In India, there are over 80 million agro-pastoralist communities that depend on tree-less ecosystems. India also has the largest population of livestock in the world, which is critical to the livelihoods of agrarian households.
Take, for instance, in Himachal Pradesh, when plantations replaced fodder species with unpalatable trees and changed the Gaddi community’s access to pasture lands and disrupted migratory routes of the nomadic pastoralist community.
Environmental restoration holds great potential for achieving both ecological and social goals but these can only be met through people-centred restoration strategies. For conservation and restoration efforts to be successful, local communities should be central to the process, owing to their rich, traditional ecological knowledge that stems from generations of living alongside natural ecosystems which offer unparalleled solutions and vision to projects.
By adopting an ecosystem-centric approach, there is the hope to nudge the do-gooders away from tree-planting to adopting a socio-ecologically responsible approach for a land-use management problem.
These problems can be addressed through this approach, which must be context-specific, protect local biodiversity, account for regional groundwater and average rainfall of the region, and by designing and implementing scientific interventions that restore ecosystems to their natural state.
This implies that the initiatives must not take a cookie-cutter approach but rather be carefully chiselled interventions that respect the ecology, culture and society.
Karishma Shelar is Programme Manager, Farms and Forests at Center for Social and Environmental Innovation, at ATREE. Anuja Malhotra is Policy Analyst, Center for Policy Design, ATREE.