In the battle against fossil fuels, will trees save us?

This week’s Expert’s Pick takes us to the village of Paruyr Sevak in southern Armenia, where the mayor is proud to report the planting of new 5000 saplings. In her article for the Foreign Press, “Make Armenia Green Again” , Ariel Sophia Bardi explains the country’s national tree-planting plan, part of Armenia’s commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. However, our Communications intern Anna Swenson questions whether planting trees truly reaches the root of climate challenges.

According to the article, “Armenia’s new reformist government, led by the former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, has pledged to double the country’s tree cover by 2050 as part of Armenia’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement goals”.

Reforestation in the country has been impressive — after 25 years, the Armenian Tree Project celebrated its 6 millionth tree planting late last year (the goal being to plant 10 million trees by October 2020). But is tree planting Armenia’s only strategy to address Paris Agreement goals?

Destruction of the old-growth forest to make way for the open-pit copper and molybdenum mine at Teghut – Wikimedia commons

“Trees, the danger in Symbolism”

As Bardi’s article points out, “Reforestation, a popular talking point in climate change adaptation efforts, is tricky […] It does have the potential to reduce air pollution, increase rainfall, and absorb harmful carbon emissions. It is equally valuable in terms of symbolism […] But the danger in symbolism is that it can favor tidy, fast solutions in place of messy complexities.”

The fact is that in Armenia, planting trees is not in itself an adequate solution to reduce emissions. In fact, it may even be hiding the root problem. According to Bardi, the ambitious tree planting plan “overlooks one of the main drivers of deforestation in Armenia, a cause far more controversial than its history of individual, poverty-driven logging: mineral mining, which involves clearing swaths of forests in preparation for mining areas a swell as new roads and related infrastructure.”

Swenson agrees – “I chose this article as an example of how impressive, crowd-pleasing campaigns can be a distraction from talking about the root cause of issues that actually need to be dealt with”. Drawing a parallel with the US, she explains how the new House Republican climate agenda includes a tree-planting program, but does not call for cuts in the use of fossil fuels.

This Figure from our GSR shows how many countries still utilise fossil fuel subsidies. Source: GSR 2019


As a self-professed garden nerd who “loves trees,” Swenson admits that she sees the appeal of the nature-based solutions that are hot in climate debates. However, it is important not to beat around the bush: “If we’re making grand plans for trees to avoid tackling deeper issues, like disrupting our current fossil fuel-based economy and reducing our dependence on non-renewables, I’m out.”

“We need to mobilise all the solutions in our power”

“In order to achieve the emissions cuts we need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees by 2030, we need to mobilise all of the solutions in our power. Planting trees can be fabulous but let’s not stop there — we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by addressing systemic issues. We could start by chipping away at fossil fuel subsidies.”

REN21 studies have shown that renewable technologies are affordable. It’s clear that progress has been made in the power sector over the past decade and that it is possible for renewables to disrupt the energy sector. For more information on the progress of renewable energy, access our Renewables 2019 Global Status Report.

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