Trump hails 1tn trees plan but ignores roots of problem

Fiona Harvey
Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Media

Trees are great. They give us oxygen, take away CO2, provide nests for birds and habitats for wildlife, protect against flooding and even help to clean up lung-shredding air pollutants from traffic.

As the world’s forests come under increasing threat from fires, agriculture and logging, the WWF-led initiative to ensure 1tn trees are restored, saved from loss or better protected by 2050 has gathered international support. Now Donald Trump is onboard too, he told Davos.

Exactly what Trump’s support amounts to in practical terms is unclear. Will he restore the protected lands that he opened up for commercial development, the biggest reduction in public lands in US history? Reverse his push for logging in the Alaskan Tongass National Forest? Bring back the jobs cut from the US Forest Service? Will he lean on his ally Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to stop the burning of the Amazon?

Or will he just sign up to a snappy feel-good headline? Because who, after all, doesn’t like trees?

TheTrillion Trees initiative was launched in 2017 by WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society and BirdLife International, three of the world’s biggest conservation groups, which work in more than 120 countries. They estimate that the planet is losing 10bn trees a year, and are working on large-scale projects to restore and replant trees in some of the worst-hit areas.

To make a real impact, however, tree fans must take on some of the biggest vested interests on the planet. Fossil fuel businesses are rightly regarded as the main culprits in rising global emissions, but the food we eat, clothes we wear and stuff we use takes a heavy toll on the world’s forests and peatlands, and therefore the planet’s ability to absorb carbon, as well as devastating species loss. Corporate commodity supply chains are responsible for about four-fifths of the loss of tropical forests across Asia, South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

The big question for tree supporters is whether they are willing to address the root causes of deforestation as well as replanting degraded areas, and whether they can couple this with the massive reduction in carbon emissions required from energy, transport and industry. As Greta Thunberg responded at Davos: “Planting trees is very good of course, but it is nowhere near enough.”

Trump’s own record on environmental issues does not suggest a willingness to take on those vested interests, and his withdrawal from the UN’s Paris climate agreement – which pledges to keep global heating below 2C, and 1.5C if possible, and for the first time requires all nations to make a contribution to curbing emissions – is the most climate-wrecking of all his international moves.

As giant redwoods that have stood for millennia topple over in California as a direct result of the climate crisis, we should remember that replanting them is not an option. If Trump wants to protect them, he will need to address the US role in the climate crisis – and that starts with meeting the Paris goals, not running from them.