A peat bog forms over thousands of years as plants decay into a dense, dark, soggy soil that traps their carbon content within. Peatlands are the world’s most efficient carbon sink, storing twice as much planet-warming carbon dioxide as forests.
So when, at the end of last year, the U.K. government approved a tree-planting project on 100 acres of peat bog in northern England, conservationists raised the alarm.
Contractors dug long trenches to drain the water and planted rows of conifer trees that “act like straws,” sucking up water and drying out the soil, explained Joshua Styles, botanist and founder of the North-West Rare Plant Initiative. As the soil dried out, thousands of years worth of carbon started to be released. The Forestry Commission halted the project and apologized, saying it had failed to properly assess the location.
The mistake is just one example of how tree-planting efforts to tackle climate change can wildly miss the mark. “If you don’t want to do any harm to the environment,” Styles told HuffPost, “it needs to be properly thought out.”
As governments and corporations set ambitious climate goals, planting trees has emerged as a favorite way to offset greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon absorbed by new trees is intended to make up for what is being released. But this seemingly simple climate solution isn’t as easy as plopping seedlings in the soil.
Getting tree planting right, experts explain, means accounting for which trees to plant where, how long those trees will live and how local communities will benefit. Many tree-planting schemes are plagued by poor planning and a lack of foresight that could mean they won’t actually make up for the emissions they’re meant to offset and may even do more harm than good.