Planting a trillion trees really can help us fight climate change

Dr. Thomas Crowther

Daniel Auf der Mauer/i3 Photo

TWO years ago, British ecologist Tom Crowther set up a lab at ETH Zurich in Switzerland with the aim of doing high-impact science to show how and where we can restore the planet. His 30-strong team is already making waves. Crowther’s lab typically starts by counting things – from trees to nematodes – before bringing the numbers together to see global trends and quantify the effects of potential interventions.

Last July, his team made headlines around the world for claiming we have space to plant a trillion trees in areas of new forest amounting almost to the size of the US, and that doing so would be one of the most effective ways to address climate change.

The media loved it, but pushback from Crowther’s fellow academics was huge. Some grassland ecologists feared that the “tree counter” wanted to plant over their savannahs. Others said his proposed forests could end up having a warming effect by altering how sunlight is reflected, or that he had got his carbon numbers wrong. Crowther recognises these concerns, and is working to address them with ambitious new research.


Fred Pearce: Where did the trillion trees idea come from?

Tom Crowther: A friend of mine was working for an organisation that wanted to plant a billion trees to save the climate. But they didn’t know if that was a lot or a little. So we started collecting data on tree density around the world. In 2015, we published the first ever attempt to answer a seemingly obvious question. We found there were …

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Planting a trillion trees really can help us fight climate change