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Planting trees makes climate change worse. Yup, you read that right.

Today's art for The Phoenix was created by Laila Arêde

For years we've been told to offset the carbon emitted from our daily activities by planting trees — more specifically, by paying someone else to plant trees on our behalf.

Now obviously, I don't have anything against planting trees. I love trees. I've hugged trees. But I'm more convinced than ever that planting trees is not the answer to the climate emergency.

Of course there is no one single answer to the climate emergency. But the thing that might come the closest isn't planting trees (our engrained mental default eco-action), it's saving the forests that are already here. And that's a much, much harder thing to do for a lot of reasons.

On Tuesday, I'll be hosting climate journalist Ketan Joshi in our next weekly Twitter Spaces chat to discuss trees, carbon offsets, and why you might need to unlearn everything you know.

Here's a few facts as a warmup for our chat:

  1. There isn't enough land for all the trees we'd need to plant to fully offset our emissions.

  2. Planting non-native trees (which most offset companies do because they grow quicker) actually accelerates the release of carbon back into the atmosphere.

  3. Carbon offset schemes often happen in the Global South, because that's where land is cheapest. Offset companies force people off their land, ruining their livelihoods, and then pay them a meager wage to protect large tree plantations for decades. The result is one of the worst examples of climate colonialism.

This is a huge deal, because there isn't a single IPCC scenario that gets us to the 1.5°C goal without including carbon removal and carbon offsets. So if these technologies are going to exist, they're going to have to be regulated so they're not actually making the problem worse.

Right now, though, offsets are enabling the status quo — and keeping fossil fuel companies in business.

 “Some in this debate think net zero means zero. It doesn’t. Net zero is not zero. It is not zero emissions"

"Carbon offsets to help coal, gas survive"

I love how they just say the quiet part out loud. Makes my life a lot easier. https://t.co/21HMyfnJNf— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) October 10, 2021 

At best, planting trees is a symbolic action that will bring fuel and food in a few years if people care for them continuously until then.

At worst, planting trees a harmful indoctrination of greenwashing to distract us from systemic change that needs to happen immediately. Case in point: Twice-impeached ex-President Trump's Trillion Trees campaign.

Sum it all up and carbon offsets are often worse than doing nothing. That's exactly what a recent study from northern India found.

Instead, the best thing that all of us tree-huggers can do is to support Indigenous People, the most effective forest guardians alive today.

As the science pours in that preserving standing forests can sequester far more carbon than newly planted trees, deforestation in the Amazon continues to worsen as the Bolsonaro regime continues to crack down on Indigenous rights. People who have been part of the problem are starting to get it and change tack, but they need all the support we can give them.