Ever since visiting Davos for the World Economic Forum last month, Trump has been obsessed with trees. He continued going on about them at the State of the Union on Tuesday night.
“To protect the environment, days ago, I announced that the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world,” he said said at his State of the Union on Tuesday night.
Since Trump first mentioned the initiative, Republican legislators have started drafting a bill to fund it and the founder of Salesforce launched a slick platform to manage the project all as part trying to position themselves as searching for climate solutions. That’s nice and all, but President Trump and Congressional Republicans’ other actions to-date show they don’t give a shit about trees or the climate crisis, really.
The administration has gone hard after conservation rules protecting forests. Last winter, Trump proposed opening the Tongass, America’s largest national forest and one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, to logging, mining, and development. If the administration succeeds in rolling back protections, some 9.5 millions of acres of Alaskan forest land could be lost.
Before that, Trump floated a policy proposal which would open 90 per cent of Utah’s national forests—that’s 4 million acres of trees—to deforestation. The administration quietly issued an executive order ahead of last year’s government shutdown to expand the logging on public lands, arguing that increased timber harvesting would help reduce wildfire risk.
All this doesn’t even get into Trump’s mangled understanding of forest management and the impact of climate change. And let’s not even start on how his regulatory rollbacks are making climate change worse, which in turn is weakening forests around the world and increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Since the One Trillion Trees initiative aims to plant, restore, or conserve a trillion trees, you’d think he’d start with just taking back some of his proposed rollbacks and putting policies in place to reduce carbon emissions. But I’m sure he won’t.
The Trump administration hasn’t been a friend to trees abroad, either. As the Brazilian Amazon burned last year due to widespread deforestation, Trump defended Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro. His administration made it possible for the logging, mining, and industrial agriculture industries to chop down far more trees and burn the forest. So Trump’s record on trees is pretty damn dismal.
But say he’s trying to turn all that around. Maybe Trump has seen the light on environmental policy! The world is losing some 10 billion trees a year to human activities, and everyone likes trees, so it seems this project sounds kind of great.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of even more bad news, but this project is still not the real deal. As Greta Thunberg said at Davos, “planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed, and it cannot replace real mitigation, and rewilding nature.”
And as the New York Times pointed out, using trees to absorb all the carbon the U.S. emitted in 2019 alone would require planting 371 million acres of forest, or an area roughly four times the size of California. It would almost certainly require turning over land for agriculture to land for carbon sequestration. For context, the entire Tongass National Forest is just 16.7 million acres.
Even if Trump found a place to plant a bunch of new trees outside the U.S., the results could be awful. One World Bank and United Nations carbon offsetting program was complicit in land grabs in Kenya and Brazil, where governments forced thousands indigenous people from their ancestral homes.
To be clear, trees are dope and important. They help regulate the climate by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, protect soil from erosion during heavy rains, and provide nutrients, shelter and shade to countless species. Plus, they are beautiful and majestic and wonderful. And yes, there are just ways to plant trees and not screw people over.
But reforestation is no replacement for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Trees take decades to grow tall enough to sequester any real amount of carbon, and can get killed by floods, droughts, or disease before they even grow enough to do so. Greenhouse gas emissions won’t just sit around and wait for trees to grow before they wreak havoc on the atmosphere.
That’s why we have to make corporations stop emitting them in the first place. And Trump has no plans to do that, as he once again showed during the State of the Union. When he wasn’t talking about this trees program, the president bragged about his U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement—which will facilitate massive natural gas expansion and pollution—and his “bold regulatory reduction campaign”—which has helped the oil and gas industry expand.
“The United States has become the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world, by far,” he said. “With the tremendous progress we have made over the past three years, America is now energy independent, and energy jobs, like so many elements of our country, are at a record high.”
(Side note: that last part is actually very not true).
All those fossil fuels are driving catastrophic climate change (which he didn’t mention in his State of the Union address), perpetuate environmental injustice (which he also didn’t mention), and threatening access to clean air (do I even have to say it) and clean water (you already know). In the face of all that, touting the trillion trees program is a joke.
It’s no surprise that Trump is embracing the trillion trees initiative, because it doesn’t actually require the industries responsible for fuelling the climate crisis, like the oil, gas, and logging industries, to change their business models. That’s exactly what makes it a false solution.