Irish Times view: trees and global warming – yearning for the quick fix

Fast-cycle harvesting and replanting of conifer plantations releases large quantities of carbon

There is no silver bullet for the climate crisis. Photograph: iStock

There is no silver bullet for the climate crisis. Photograph: iStock

 

The sharpening public focus on climate change has clarified a painfully inconvenient truth: effective measures to alleviate this crisis will challenge many cherished preferences of our contemporary lifestyles, from eating beef to cheap holiday flights.

We still yearn for quick fixes. But there is no silver bullet for the climate crisis. We must act on two broad fronts: reducing activities that emit greenhouse gases, and increasing activities that draw gases, already emitted, out of the atmosphere.

Hope lies at the point of convergence between these two complementary strategies. One won’t work without the other. That is the context in which we need to view recent reports advocating rapidly increasing afforestation as a “solution” to climate change. Trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere and, ultimately, store it in soil.

New global-scale research has led Tom Crowther, author of a significant current Science article, to claim that forest restoration is both cheaper and “overwhelmingly more powerful than all of the other climate change solutions proposed”. Crowther acknowledges, however, that such restoration is no substitute for cutting our emissions.

Planting trees has been used too often in this country in mitigation of our continuing national policy of increasing emissions through expanding our beef and diary herds. We need to be much more nuanced in how we account for the costs, as well as the benefits, of afforestation per se, and all environmental policies.

The fast-cycle harvesting and replanting of conifer plantations releases large quantities of carbon from the soil. Such monocultural afforestation also impoverishes native biodiversity and has negative social impacts, as protests in Leitrim demonstrate.

The Native Woodland Scheme offers an alternative strategy, fostering multiple climate, agricultural, biodiversity and social benefits.

But it remains chronically under-funded and under-promoted, by a Government which has once again shown, by killing off the Climate Emergency Bill, that it still speaks out of both sides of its mouth on key environmental issues.

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