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When Tree Planting Actually Damages Ecosystems

Tree planting has been widely promoted as a solution to climate change because plants absorb the climate-warming gases from Earth’s atmosphere as they grow. World leaders have already committed to restoring 350m hectares of forest by 2030 and a recent report suggested that reforesting a billion hectares of land could store a massive 205 gigatonnes of carbon – two thirds of all the carbon released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Many of those trees could be planted in tropical grassy biomes according to the report. These are the savannas and grasslands that cover large swathes of the globe and have a grassy ground layer and variable tree cover. Like forests, these ecosystems play a major role in the global carbon balance. Studies have estimated that grasslands store up to 30% of the world’s carbon that’s tied up in the soil. Covering 20% of Earth’s land surface, they contain huge reserves of biodiversity, comparable in areas to tropical forest. These are the landscapes with lions, elephants and vast herds of wildebeest.

Savannas and grasslands are home to nearly one billion people, many of whom raise livestock and grow crops. Tropical grassy biomes were the cradle of humankind – where modern humans first evolved – and they are where important food crops such as millet and sorghum originated, which millions eat today. And, yet among the usual threats of climate change and wildlife habitat loss, these ecosystems face a new threat – tree planting.

It might sound like a good idea, but planting trees here would be damaging. Unlike forests, ecosystems in the tropics that are dominated by grass can be degraded not only by losing trees but by gaining them too.

Where more trees isn’t the answer

Increasing the tree cover in savanna and grassland can mean plant and animal species which prefer open, well-lit environments are pushed out. Studies from South AfricaAustralia and Brazil indicate that unique biodiversity is lost as tree cover increases.

This is because adding trees can alter how these grassy ecosystems function. More trees mean fires are less likely, but regular fire removes vegetation that shades ground-layer plants. Not only do herbivores like zebra and antelope that feed on grass have less to eat, but more trees may also increase their risk of being eaten as predators have more cover.

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