Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Is planting trees the best use of land?

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Opinions
Is planting trees the best use of land?
04 Sep
2019
Trees have many uses when it comes to better planetary health, but Marco Magrini asks if planting saplings is the only way we can best utilise our available land

Everyone knows that to help mitigate the ongoing climate crisis, we need to plant new trees. A paper recently published in Science estimates that the Earth could support an additional 9,000,000 sq km of forest, potentially hosting 500 billion trees capable of capturing more than 200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide at maturity. It would be a serious help.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

The Earth’s landmass is 149,000,000 sq km. Take out glaciers (15 million) and deserts (28 million), and we are left with 104,000,000 sq km. Subtract cities (1.5 million), freshwater (1.5 million), forests (39 million) and shrubs (1 million) and we finally get 51,000,000 sq km of arable land, badly needed to feed 7.5 billion human beings.

Very few people are aware of the immense complexity of the whole system. ‘Widespread use at the scale of several millions of square kilometres globally of tree-planting and bioenergy crops’ – reads a leaked IPCC draft report – ‘could have potentially irreversible consequences for food security and land degradation’. In other words, more extensive monocultures and more bioenergy crops, fuelled by more fertilisers, could erode soil and its capacity to soak up carbon. Bioenergy has now a 50 per cent share of the world’s renewables consumption, according to Fatih Birol, executive director at the Institue of Economic Affairs: ‘as much as hydro, wind, solar and all others combined’. It’s good news, but not entirely. If we add the fact that increasing desertification and rising ocean levels (both propped up by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) will take away more arable land, we arrive at a crucial ‘trilemma’. Should we use our spare soil for agriculture, reforestation or bioenergy?

Such a question would make sense in a multilateral, concordant world;  not on a planet where the president of the richest country scraps an environment-saving treaty, thus encouraging the president of the most tropically-forested nation to unleash a tree-cutting spree. 

Last year, 36,000 sq km of forest was felled. Wouldn’t it be better to start by stopping deforestation altogether? Animal farming takes up 77 per cent of the world’s arable land and provides us with 18 per cent of the calories. Shouldn’t we globally cut back on meat consumption? Modern bioenergy (such as liquid biofuel from bagasse, or biogas from residues) is already available. Shouldn’t we banish first-generation biofuels, which are distilled from food crops?

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

Julysub 2020

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

geo line break v3

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in OPINIONS...

Opinions

The only way forward is to reject coal, says Marco…

Opinions

A proposed development at Toondah Harbour, in the Moreton Bay…

Opinions

Many of the crises we are currently experiencing trace their…

Opinions

The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly shocked energy markets, but it’s…

Opinions

Graham Loomes, professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School shares…

Opinions

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shifts in working practices have…

Opinions

A message for A-Level geographers from Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder…

Opinions

Helen Sharman CMG OBE, the first British astronaut and now…

Opinions

‘Regeneration’ more often than not means ‘gentrification’, says Jade MacRury

Opinions

It is imperative that governments support the farming and agriculture…

Opinions

The effects of climate change are disproportionately unforgiving, with those…

Opinions

By revaluing food we can revalue nature to build more liveable,…

Opinions

Callum Roberts is a professor of marine conservation at the…

Opinions

Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO and co-founder of TIPA, argues that clearer…