The One Trillion Trees Initiative

Deforestation has resulted in a significant loss of tree cover in Pakistan.

Shahid Javed Burki February 17, 2020
A Reuters file photo of the Bialowieza forest in Europe.

It was a politically costless way to sound reasonable and progressive. In his State of the Union address delivered the day he was acquitted by the United States Senate, President Donald Trump inserted a line that brought a smile to the faces of those who worried about the destruction of the planet on which they live through global warming. The line was about commitment to plant a trillion trees across the globe. This was the pledge the world community had made at the 2020 Davos meeting the American President had attended. Trump decided to partner with the rest of the world to do something to preserve the global environment. This promise by the American President was a departure from the wrecking ball he had used to destroy all that was done by his predecessors to save the earth from warming.

Trump had been particularly severe with the initiatives taken by Barack Obama when the latter occupied the White House. The White House was now the Trump residence and there is an even chance that it may remain so for another five years. Most of what Obama had done to keep the globe from warming to the point at which civilisation as we know it won’t survive, was reversed by Trump. Included in the programme he had adopted was the decision by the United States to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord Obama had negotiated in 2015.

The Paris Agreement was not a commitment by the global community to the targets that were to be achieved over a specified period of time. Some of what the world leaders in their meeting at the French capital agreed to aim for was an attempt to keep the rise in global temperature to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This was a more ambitious aim than the 2 degrees Celsius understanding towards which the international community was working as the leaders headed to Paris for the 2015 summit. The lower aim was adopted under pressure from the small island countries many of which would go under the sea if the Earth warmed up by 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

The countries that signed the Paris Accord agreed to prepare national plans of actions and submit them for review by the United Nations. It was this part of the commitment which Trump and his administration was unhappy about. They did not wish any of what they did or planned to do to be subject to international review.  The “America first” approach for the making of public policy meant totally ignoring the impact on the world of what Washington was doing or planned to do. The One Trillion Trees Initiative is a brilliant arrow in the quiver of climate-change policy. Margret Renkl, the author of the book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, stresses that leaves absorb carbon, wood sequesters carbon and roots stabilise soil so that carbon already trapped there stays there. Moreover, some 80% of terrestrial biodiversity occurs in forests. Protecting trees is a way of protecting much of what makes life on earth possible. Overtime scientists had come to believe that one way of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere was by increasing the world’s forest cover. That would help reduce the rate of increase in the amount of carbon that was being added to the atmosphere by human activity.

To give operational meaning to the Trillion Tree Initiative, the World Economic Forum launched the “1t.org project” to unite governments, non-governmental organisations, businesses and individuals, in a “mass-scale nature preservation” operation. Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF, said after the Davos 2020 endorsed the initiative, “the next decade must see unprecedented levels of collaboration if we are to meet global climate, biodiversity and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 1t.org presents an important example of how stakeholders from all walks of life can work to achieve a single, globally significant goal.”

The WEF recognised the work of existing reforestation schemes such as “American Forests” and the “Trillion Trees Initiative” and said 1t.org was “an opportunity to help join-up these initiatives in a unifying platform” and help mobilise funds and political support. “Nature based solutions — locking up carbon in the world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands — can provide up to one-third of the initiative emissions reductions required by 2023 to meet the Paris Agreement targets.” Naturalist Jane Goodall gave full support to WEF’s move. 1t.org offers innovative technologies which will serve to connect tens of thousands of people across the globe. The initiative was also welcomed by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement. “It’s little things people do. That’s what will make difference. My little thing is planting trees,” she said.

Pakistan had begun to move in that direction some years ago. What Prime Minister Imran Khan called the “Billion Trees Tsunami” was launched in 2014 by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf when, after the elections of 2013, it took over the reins of power in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It was aimed at restoring 350,000 hectares of forests and degraded land to surpass its Bonn Challenge commitment. The project aimed at improving the ecosystems of classified forests as well as privately owned waste and farmlands. The project was designed for the provincial government to work in close collaboration with concerned communities and stakeholders to ensure their participation by taking responsibility for preserving the planted trees. Getting the communities directly involved ensured that the trees that were put in the soil would get protected.

Deforestation has resulted in a significant loss of tree cover in Pakistan. Government data estimates the loss at 3%, lowering further the area under forests. The most critically affected areas are the Juniper forests of northern Balochistan which have been heavily harvested for timber and fuel wood. Ecological changes in the Indus River riparian zone have drastically reduced the riverine forests. Large tracts have been cleared for agriculture. The Himalayan temperate forests are also under severe logging pressure. Would Pakistan’s quick adoption of the WEF’s One Trillion Trees Initiative and Imran Khan’s expansion to all of Pakistan of the “Billion Trees Tsunami” help to reverse deforestation in the country? There is no doubt of the PTI’s government’s commitment to increasing the country’s forestry cover. According to Malik Amin Aslam who drafted the PTI’s climate change section, his party is “the one party that has taken a bold initiative on the green platform”. After assuming office, Prime Minister Imran Khan adopted the target of 10 billion trees to be planted during his first five-year term in office. The success of this plan would depend upon a number of factors including the government to get organised and have the people and the communities in which they live and work to plant trees and protect what they put in the ground.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 17th, 2020.

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