Scientists, corporations, mystics, and movie stars have convinced policymakers around the world that a massive campaign to plant trees
should be an essential element of global climate policy. Public dialogue
has emphasized potential benefits of tree planting while downplaying
pitfalls and limitations that are well established by social and ecological
research. We argue that if natural climate solutions are to succeed while
economies decarbonize (Griscom et al. 2017), policymakers must recognize and avoid the expense, risk, and damage that poorly designed and hastily implemented tree plantings impose on ecosystems and people.
We propose that people-centered climate policies should be developed
that support the social, economic, and political conditions that are compatible with the conservation of Earth’s diversity of terrestrial ecosystems. Such a shift in focus, away from tree planting and toward people and ecosystems, must be rooted in the understanding that natural climate solutions can only be effective if they respond to the needs of the rural and indigenous people who manage ecosystems for their livelihoods.
To motivate this shift in focus, we highlight ten pitfalls and misperceptions that arise when large-scale tree planting campaigns fail to acknowledge the social and ecological complexities of the landscapes they aim to transform. We then describe more ecologically effective and socially just strategies to improve climate mitigation efforts.