Area larger than the US needed for net zero tree-planting plans, scientists find

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An area larger than the United States is needed to meet net zero tree-planting "carbon sink" pledges, a report has found.

Countries have vowed to devote land and resources to implementing carbon removal strategies, which focus predominantly on planting more trees to soak up CO2.

Analysis by Melbourne Climate Futures at the University of Melbourne found that the total amount of land pledged in plans submitted to the UN from more than 200 countries totals around 1.2billion hectares.

In the “Land Gap Report” the authors state this is “close to the extent of current global cropland” and exceeds the landmass of the United States (983million hectares).

The staggering figure was described by the scientists as “unrealistic” and “unfeasible” who added it would likely result in negative impacts on livelihoods, land rights, food production and ecosystems.

Calculations by climate scientists show that over half of the required area (633 million ha) requires a land-use change in order to be dedicated to carbon removal.

The other 551 million hectares would involve restoration and reforestation of damaged ecosystems, which the researchers say “holds more promise for climate and biodiversity and poses fewer threats to other dimensions of sustainability”.

Such an enormous reallocation of land has the potential, the researchers write, to “displace food production including sustainable livelihoods for many smallholder farmers”.

“This study reveals that countries’ climate pledges are dangerously over-reliant on inequitable and unsustainable land-based measures to capture and store carbon,” said Kate Dooley, the lead author of The Land Gap Report.

“Clearly, countries are loading up on land pledges to avoid the hard work of steeply reducing emissions from fossil fuels, decarbonising food systems and stopping the destruction of forests and other ecosystems.”

She added that amid a “global land squeeze” there is a need to think carefully about every plot of land and how it is used.

“It's worrying to see these unrealistic expectations for land in country climate pledges, particularly at a time when the globe is feeling the pinch of food price crises,” said co-author Jens Friis Lund, a professor at the University of Copenhagen.

“And governments are not alone in planning major changes to the way land is used. Corporations are currently pushing for scale in the voluntary carbon markets to service claims of carbon neutrality, but no one is doing the math on what is actually possible.

“This really brings home the point that we need to rein in this push to shift the mitigation burden onto land.”