It’s been difficult to avoid the current debate about carbon offsetting in the news recently and one topic that comes up again and again is planting trees. In a world where people are flying shorter distances more frequently can we really make up for this by planting a few trees here and there?
A number of researchers are suggesting that it may actually be more beneficial to concentrate on preventing deforestation of existing old-growth forests rather than planting new trees. These existing trees are already trapping carbon dioxide and according to recent research published in Science by Zhou et al. they may be soaking up more carbon from the atmosphere than we previously expected.
According to the World Bank, deforestation contributes to 20% of global carbon dioxide emissions. They say "In Latin America, dense tropical forest is often cleared to create pastures worth as little as $300 a hectare, while releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. In Africa and Asia, some deforestation is equally unproductive. These forests may be worth five times more if left standing, providing carbon storage services, than if cleared and burned. If developing countries could tap this value, they could also simulate more productive agriculture in degraded areas, while preserving the environmental services of forests."
It seems that people in the developed world want to do something in terms of carbon offsetting but nobody really knows the best way to go about it. In the mean time it is best that we make every effort to reduce our carbon emissions in the first place. In terms of planting trees, surely it can’t be a bad thing – and there are many other benefits to planting trees such as the wildlife, biodiversity and recreational benefits – but it remains to be proved that planting new trees is the best way of solving our offsetting problems.