"If no one had ever said, 'Plant a trillion trees,' I think we'd have been in a lot better space."
In 2019, ecologist Thomas Crowther sparked a global tree-planting craze to offset carbon emissions.
But now the former chief scientific adviser for the United Nation's Trillion Trees Campaign has had a change of heart, Wired reports, pleading with environmental leaders to bring their mass tree planting to a halt.
Taking the stand at this year's UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, Crowther spelled out the overlooked drawbacks of mass tree planting, such as stifling biodiversity and not being as effective carbon capturers as once believed.
Most insidiously of all, he warned that tree planting is used "as an excuse to avoid cutting emissions," as quoted by Wired.
"If no one had ever said, 'Plant a trillion trees,' I think we'd have been in a lot better space," he added. "But maybe there wouldn't have been so much noise and attention on nature, so that all the very responsible scientists who are here could correct it and turn it into something that is good."
In 2019, Crowther and his team published a soon-to-be blockbuster study with a bold and controversial conclusion: that the Earth could fit another 1.2 trillion trees. This highlights "global tree restoration," the researchers wrote in the paper, "as our most effective climate change solution to date."
At the time, some scientists criticized the paper as overestimating both the amount of carbon trees could absorb and the amount of land that could viably be forested.
But the optimism it instilled was too infectious to die down. After all, trees were a seemingly easy solution to our existential climate woes.
Big oil companies like Shell immediately capitalized by pledging to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in reforestation initiatives. The social media campaign Team Trees that aimed to plant 20 million saplings became a viral sensation, securing a million-dollar donation from Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Despite the craze and widespread optimism, carbon emissions ironically continued to climb. Ever since, Crowther's work has taken a more measured, sober tone.
His latest study, published last month in the journal Nature, takes aim at "greenwashing," the deceitful practice by companies — and countries — in which they flaunt their supposedly eco-friendly efforts to overshadow their heinous environmental practices.
Crowther, by speaking at the climate summit, wanted to kill the practice.
"Killing greenwashing doesn't mean stop investing in nature," he said, per Wired. "It means doing it right. It means distributing wealth to the Indigenous populations and farmers and communities who are living with biodiversity."
What's more, Crowther believes that the focus should now be on preserving existing forests rather than planting new ones. According to his research, letting existing woodlands expand and mature naturally will offset around 50 percent more carbon in the long run.
More on climate change: Carbon Dioxide Is Becoming More Fearsome, Scientists Find
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