What reforestation means for Australians

trillion trees, the venture magazineThe smile or the sneer—that’s the Janus-face that greets new action on climate change. As we try to wrap our broad, collective consciousness around something that’s broader still, whatever is proposed seems both brightly welcome and misguidedly inadequate. The fires have raged across Australia and will rage again. What can be done about it that’s truly enough? In the wake of a much-talked-about report last year, there’s been a new call to put trees front and center in the fight against climate change—a trillion trees, to be exact. The science seemed encouraging: According to the study, large-scale reforestation had the potential to capture some 25% of the atmospheric carbon pool. That would be a big step toward reduction targets.

More encouraging still, it was quickly recognised that tree-planting could command the kind of support other initiatives couldn’t—most critically, from the business community. After all, it wasn’t the kind of nagging plea to reduce emissions that moneyed interests were used to resisting; it was a call to plant more trees in a world that was watching them burn. Trees are popular.

That it was cheap and easy to promote didn’t hurt. More even, it gibed with the gut instincts of both sides. For those who take environmental threats to heart and always have, trees are a potent symbol of hope and renewal—to the point that such people were long slurred as “tree huggers.” But there was also fodder for climate denialists like US President Donald Trump, who insist that much of the wildfire problems stem from poor forest management. In fact, after addressing this year’s climate change-themed Davos summit in a speech that condemned “apocalyptic thinking” around the issue, he announced his support for reforestation efforts.

With broad political support and the financial backing of billionaire Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, an initiative to plant 1 trillion trees is now off to the races, with global coordination through the website portal 1t.org. Smiles all around.

The sneers, unfortunately and as always, have their place. To begin with, the underlying science is disputed, and has faced fundamental challenges from other experts in the field. Critics say that such an approach doesn’t take into account the reality on the ground for both people and ecosystems. Planting trees where they don’t belong can actually exacerbate the problem, making wildfires worse, harming ecosystems, and displacing the more effective reforestation efforts of local communities. And for whole cloth activists such as Greta Thunberg, it’s not the kind of initiative that addresses the scope of the change that’s required of us.

Taken as a whole, the idea and its path through the culture seem like an interactive map of the miasma that has so often gripped us through the climate crisis. We’re not quite sure what to do and not quite sure how to do it. Yet there is something about the way this has unfolded that does, however jaggedly, point the way to the future.

In the wake of the bushfires, Australians are more conscious than ever of what’s at stake, and of what happens to the air we breathe when trees burn away from the earth. However complex the reality may be on the global stage, the line between us and the wild is close enough for us to draw it. This far, and no further. Planting a trillion trees, at the least, means planting your feet.

Tree Planting by Drone

trillion trees, the venture magazineSome are hailing drone innovation as a game-changer for reforestation efforts. The rapidly developing technology would see drones equipped with seed pods—a package containing seeds, fertiliser, and other growth accelerants—using a manual firing mechanism to get trees into the ground and growing as fast as possible. In one test, a Canadian company was able to plant 165 trees in 3 minutes.

Scaling the technology would mean that trees could be planted 10 times faster—and for 20% less—than conventional methods.

Critics point out that the making of the drones themselves would mean destroying existing forests, since manufacturing materials are often exclusively found in old growth areas. They also suggest that such a method sends the wrong message, prioritising a top-down, technocratic approach over community-based, on-the-ground action.

For now, it’s too early to tell how much of a game-changer the technology will really be.