OPINION: Is the climate crisis solution in your backyard?

Protesters demand action on climate change. Postmedia file photo

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New research suggests the single-most effective way to ease the climate crisis is literally staring us in the face.
In the race against time to confront the climate crisis, new research suggests a simple, powerful — and perhaps even obvious — solution has been under our noses all along.
In an article published earlier this month in the journal Science, environmental researchers from ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, revealed that increasing the planet’s tree canopy by 25 per cent — or adding 1.6 billion hectares of forest to the 2.8 billion hectares that already exist — could eventually absorb as much as two-thirds of the carbon that has been spewed into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
While it’s practically common knowledge that forests help clean the air and cool the planet, the unprecedented international co-operation, use of satellite imagery and computer modelling in this research marks the first time scientists have been able to quantify the full potential of trees to mitigate the climate emergency.
The data “not only confirms the efficacy of the age-old concept of tree restoration, but places it as the No. 1 solution available,” writes Thomas Crowther, assistant professor of global ecosystem ecology and a co-author of the study.
The findings are in the process of being confirmed by other researchers, but they are so promising that they could demand a massive shifting of priorities in the battle against climate change.
It almost seems too good to be true.
As the desperate bid to stave off the dire and not-so-distant future predicted by the International Panel for Climate Change meets with resistance from political and business interests heavily invested in the status quo, tree planting on a massive scale seems like a less controversial measure we can all rally behind.
And in the elusive quest to find technological solutions to climate change, it is almost poetic that humans are discovering Mother Nature’s own genius cannot be outdone. Still, this positive news for the planet — the first in a while — comes with several caveats.
The first is that governments must act quickly. The more global warming progresses, the less the planet will be able to support more forest cover.
The threat of deforestation — in the Amazon, in Asia or indeed in our own boreal forests — also risks countering the work of countries like Iceland and Pakistan, which are each planting billions of trees, or the joint project of 11 sub-Saharan African nations to create a giant greenbelt.
And though the effectiveness of reforestation is greater than the impact of capturing emissions from refrigerants or reducing meat consumption, researchers warn it is not a substitute for the hard work needed to transition away from fossil fuels and toward more sustainable practices. At best, it will buy more time for a rapidly warming planet, Crowther has said.
Reaching the goals outlined in the study will require a massive reforestation campaign by governments around the world. The research also calculated that 900 million hectares of the new tree cover required (an area about the size of the United States) is available outside of inhabited areas, so cities, agricultural lands and other important ecosystems like grasslands would not be displaced by expanding forests.
Nevertheless reforestation will also be needed in urban, suburban and rural environments, which has profound implications for local governments.
It certainly makes the work of scientists like Alain Paquette at l’Université du Québec à Montréal all the more urgent. As The Gazette reported last week, the biologist just received a grant to study the role and importance of urban forests. Keeping trees robust in cities is evermore crucial — in Montreal and beyond.
Cities such as Montreal must move swiftly to protect the precious trees we have, whether on Mount Royal, pocket parks, citizens’ backyards or undeveloped tracts of land. But we should be more ambitious, given that cities like Paris and London are planting huge new forests.
Tree species must be diversified to defend against invasive pests. No longer should tree massacres be tolerated, like the one to make way for a concert venue at Parc Jean-Drapeau. Leafy Outremont is laudably using new revenue from the expanded sale of parking permits to preserve and replace its aging tree canopy. But boroughs with less greenery must step up their planting efforts.
The Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal representing 82 municipalities in the region, must bolster and enforce zoning laws to protect remaining woodlands from encroachment by developments.
Citizens, too, can contribute to reforestation by planting new trees and caring for those already working miracles in their own backyards.
These living, breathing, beloved and ubiquitous organisms could be the key to the planet’s salvation. So in the fight for survival, every tree counts.