Multiple benefits of Tree Planting
Recently, a senior policymaker in Eswatini shared with me a video of mass tree planting in Pakistan as a COVID-19 recovery and climate action project. Construction workers and others who lost jobs due to COVID-19 were given $3 per day to raise seedlings and plant trees while following safety measures of wearing masks and maintaining safe distancing. Pakistan’s tree planting project is inspiring; and is part of the country’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami programme. The origin of the project was before the pandemic, when in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched this ambitious 5 year project to counter the impacts of climate change; rising temperatures, flooding, droughts and other extreme weather. Their ambitious goal is to plant 10 billion trees across the country in 5 years.
In Africa, a similar ambitious tree planting project was implemented by Ethiopia. The highlight was a single day in July 2019, on which people across the country turned out to help with planting 350 million tree seedlings. Recently, in the UK, the Committee on Climate Change wrote a letter to their Prime Minister urging for increased tree planting to be at the heart of the green recovery. As part of COVID-19 recovery, there is need to create thousands of jobs in a short time, which does not require specialist skills and can provide income to the most poor and vulnerable, while at the same time allowing for social distancing. Tree planting ticks all the boxes and additionally, offer the best returns for government spending while moving closer to reaching net-zero emissions. Furthermore, a greener country attracts more tourists and tourism recovery plans are part of post COVID-19 strategies.
Zoonotic diseases and Deforestation
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light that zoonotic diseases that spread from animals to humans and is a sign of how interconnected health of humans and health of ecosystems are. There is a direct correlation of pandemics to deforestation and the health of our ecosystems. For example, the Ebola virus disease; in which bats were the carriers of the virus, spread to non-forest human inhabited areas due to forest fragmentation (which reduced habitats for bats). Deforestation is likely to increase frequent contact between infected wild animals and humans, increasing the threat of pandemics in the future. Hence, it is essential that we protect our existing forests and not encroach into them for expanding our agricultural farms and human settlements.
Forests and Climate Change
Globally, we lose trees at a rate of 50 soccer fields per minute. The forests in our world are some of the most valuable resources we have; besides providing oxygen, cleaning our air, providing a source of food, construction material, and habitats for biodiversity to thrive, most importantly, they are important line of defence against climate change. The United Nations have stated that we have about ten years to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. Tree planting is the easiest, cheapest and most effective climate solution.
However, we need to be careful and not look at tree planting as a panacea for everything. Planting trees in the wrong ecosystems could have adverse impacts for biodiversity and human well-being. Trees emit complex chemicals, some of which warm the planet and the dark leaves of trees can also raise temperatures by absorbing sunlight. Hence, before embarking on tree planting projects, a thorough, detailed, ecological understanding is critical for conservation and reforestation efforts to succeed.
Tree planting and post COVID recovery
Trees are a symbol of life and as we move towards a post-COVID-19 world, tree planting is likely to be part of the mix of projects that countries will implement. The attraction towards tree planting cannot be denied as they support green recovery pathways while providing multiple wins of job creation and resilience building for climate change. However, we need to look at recovery plans holistically, be informed by science and ensure that when we do tree planting, it is the right tree, at the right place for the right purpose.
Dr.Pullanikkatil is chairperson of the National Committee (Tourism and Economic Recovery Committee; Unlocking Climate Finance) set up by the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Affairs in the Kingdom of Eswatini that supports post COVID-19 recovery. The ideas in this article were inspired from discussions with committee members.