On stage last week during Climate Week in New York, Bill Gates said planting trees as a key solution to tackling climate change was “complete nonsense” and that view must be held by “idiots,” not “science people.”
But when confronted with big problems, even smart people have a tendency to dismiss great solutions out of hand if they encounter just a couple issues with them, rather than taking the time to think more deeply.
Bill Gates comes from a lifetime of success in the technology world. But could that have affected his ability to give trees a fair shake?
I’m the CEO of Terraformation, a company dedicated to restoring the world’s forests to revive ecosystems and build thriving communities. With over 50 million seeds stored across our global seed bank network, we’ve facilitated the planting of over 850,000 biodiverse trees and plants and created nearly 700 jobs worldwide—more than half of which are held by women. Our Seed to Carbon Forest Accelerator continuously launches early-stage forestry teams to build and scale biodiverse reforestation projects worldwide.
Here are three of the biggest myths that have kept people from seeing how forest restoration can be one of the best solutions to solving our climate and biodiversity crisis:
MYTH #1: TREES ARE TOO SLOW
You hear this a lot: “Trees would take 20 years to reach maturity.”
That’s not quite true. Technically speaking, trees start removing carbon from the air the moment they start growing. Every kid in school learns how plants take water and sunlight and use it to make more plant material. From the day it sprouts, a seedling is taking carbon out of the air, combining it with sunlight and water, and turning it into . . . more tree!
It’s not much at first, but trees grow quickly: within a few years, many tree species are taller than an average human. And it’s exactly in this early period of growth—the first couple decades—when trees are drawing carbon out of the air at the fastest rate. Planting new forests right now doesn’t mean we’ll need to wait 20 years; they’ll start having an effect within only a few years, if we plant a lot of them.
It’s not enough to get a single prototype working—you need to learn how to make a lot of them, reduce defects, and tailor it to different customers, especially if you’re looking to deploy globally. This process can take decades.
Trees have had millions of years of evolution to perfect themselves, to adapt themselves to do exactly what we need them to do: draw carbon dioxide out of the air and put it into the soil and plants. And every place on Earth has its own natively adapted species, so they can do it all over the world.
MYTH #2: THE SCIENCE DOESN’T SUPPORT REFORESTATION
When confronted with the idea of tree-planting as the best climate solution, Bill Gates scoffed, “I mean, are we the science people or are we the idiots?”
Well, the science people (I like to call them “scientists”) are pretty clear on this: the leading research on the global tree restoration potential says that restoring forests everywhere on all land with enough natural rainfall would represent a drawdown of 200 gigatonnes of carbon at maturity.
Upcoming research set to be published later this year confirms this number, and represents the consensus of over 250 researchers in this field. There is no single engineered solution that comes close to doing the same thing at scale, and is as reliable and affordable to implement.
Frankly, the “science people” generally agree that native, biodiverse forest restoration is a great thing to do, and one of the best solutions available to us.
MYTH #3: FORESTS AREN’T LONG-TERM STORAGE
Many people know that when a tree grows, it captures carbon. Then when it dies, it decomposes and releases all that carbon. Does that mean carbon capture by trees is only temporary for the life of the tree?
In simple terms, here’s what really happens: During the lifetime of a tree, it drops seeds. These seeds take root and become new, younger trees. When the old tree dies, it decomposes slowly over a period of years, releasing the carbon it stored. But all of the new, younger trees seeded by the old tree are there to take up all that carbon and then some. So carbon that’s released from dead trees is recaptured fairly quickly by its children.
That’s a simplified model. It’s more complex than that, because there’s a lot of fungi, bacteria, insects, all of which help to decompose the tree. And so a lot of carbon enters the soil or becomes other forms of life, not just young trees. But most of it doesn’t go back into the air, because it’s part of a forest.
This makes sense if you realize that old-growth forests are deeper carbon sinks than new forests. Why? Because they have had more time to do this growth-death-reuptake cycle. It’s ultimately how the carbon is cycled into long-term storage in the soil, and it’s how old forests become very dense: each old tree usually spawns more than one child tree to take its place.
The oldest old-growth forests on the planet are hundreds of thousands of years old, some millions of years old. That’s pretty permanent storage, if you ask me.
Bill Gates seems to have forgotten that the last time our planet’s atmosphere had CO2 concentrations at their current level, the main thing that pulled all that carbon out of the air was forests.
Today, we have about half as much forest still left standing compared to when humankind first appeared. We have an opportunity to restore a lot of that, and doing so would (according to the science people) capture a huge fraction of the carbon we have in the atmosphere.
It’s a solution that’s both scalable, affordable, and effective. We understand forests, and it doesn’t take a bunch of advanced technology to restore them.
Frankly, we’d be idiots not to do it.
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