Fort Report: A Trillion Trees

Jan 24, 2020

On the northern tip of Africa are the bordering countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea. They have been long-time enemies, leaving 100,000 persons dead and a million more displaced over the last few decades. When he assumed office recently, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed decided to call his Eritrean counterpart. He asked a simple question: “I forgive you; will you forgive me?" Deeply touched, the Eritrean President responded, Will you come see me?

Things changed. The conflict was halted, political prisoners were released, diplomatic relations resumed. This past October, Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Prime Minister quickly undertook another bold initiative: a countrywide effort to plant 200 million trees. He wanted to restore Ethiopia’s landscape, which had been ravaged by deforestation. Why am I telling you these seemingly unrelated stories? Both actions reflect something higher––a values proposition of being a good steward of relationship, of a nation, of the natural world.

We’ve also had a decades-old stalemate here in America over environmental security. Differences in rhetoric, framing, and tone engendered explosive disagreements between friends, families, and policymakers. Whether we call the problem “climate change,” “global warming,” or my preference of “climate volatility,” the bottom line is that Congress has finally stopped talking about how to define the problem and more about how to solve it.

One area of potential consensus––trees. While expanded carbon capture technology, conservation, mass transit, bikes, scooters, electric cars, wind, solar, biofuels, and even nuclear energy will play significant roles in reducing carbon emissions, trees are nature’s best way of cleaning out excess carbon pollution from the atmosphere. Trees can capture a metric ton of carbon at $20 or less a ton. Existing carbon capture technology captures at best $250 a ton. Trees create jobs, water quality, and improved soil.

Research out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology shows that global reforestation is the fastest, cheapest, most sustainable, effective and scalable way to lower atmospheric carbon. Imagine this: A trillion-tree initiative in Congress. That’s music to our Nebraska ears. We are, after all, the home of Arbor Day, whose foundation helps communities around the globe in planting, preserving, and celebrating trees.

According to the Zurich researchers, to meet the trillion-tree goal, a lot of the tree-planting will have to occur in Asia and Africa, especially in the tropics, where trees grow quickly and suck up the most carbon. Still, the six nations with the most room for new trees are Russia, Canada, Australia, Brazil, China, and the U.S. The Mississippi Delta, the "Amazon of America," used to have 25 million trees. It now has five million trees. On marginal land in Nebraska, we can use conservation easements for forest cover––unleashing new income potential through hunting and recreation sustained by biodiversity.

In urban areas, a concept called nutrient banking is taking hold. Commercial developers receive offsets in exchange for planting trees elsewhere. A forthcoming initiative out of Congress would establish a target for increasing wood growth in domestic forests and increase the innovative use of wood in building materials.

As part of these and other efforts to increase urban green space and infrastructure, I recently signed onto The Residential Energy and Economic Savings (TREES) Act. According to research by the Department of Energy, shade trees strategically planted around a home capture carbon, reduce temperatures, improve air quality, reduce the risk of flooding by absorbing stormwater runoff, and increase property values by improving residential aesthetics.

Naturally, we can't just randomly plant trees or plant the wrong trees for a bioregion. The effort has to be sustainable and involve proper forest management. Current legislation developing in Congress ensures that. After fossil fuel use and extraction, deforestation is the second leading contributor to excess carbon in the atmosphere. According to the Swiss climate ecologists, we can plant a trillion trees without impinging on farmland, cities, or persons.

Through reduced emissions and tree-planting, we are going to solve the problem of excess atmospheric carbon without throwing the world into another Great Depression or massively expanding state power. We will do so by calmly focusing on what works. That’s the Arbor Day Way. That’s the Nebraska Way. That’s the right way.