Why you should get involved in tree planting

11 Aug 2020

Environment & Ethics

Getting involved in tree planting is much easier than you think – we look at why you should take part in National Tree Week.

We may think that trees line our streets and abound in our parks – but did you know that before humans arrived in large numbers to the UK, 60% of the land area was covered by trees? Now tree coverage is only around 10%, but this is still a significant improvement from the 5% of forest and woodland in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century.

This increase in trees is due to forestry commissions and tree-planting programmes in conjunction with the government, but why is it so important to maintain woodland?

What is the purpose of planting trees?

Back in the early 20th century, a tree-planting drive took over the country, but not because of environmental concerns. Although an increasing population had caused massive deforestation for centuries, by the late 19th century demand for wood was in decline. This was because coal had largely replaced wood as fuel and imported timber became cheaper than domestically-grown wood.

However, the First World War put a great strain on the country to use its own timber, as its international timber imports (which at the time made up 90% of all wood used by the UK) were widely prevented. In 1919 the Forestry Commission was set up to reforest 716,000 hectares of land to ensure the country had its own supply of timber in case of another war.

Today, it’s a very different story. Individuals, companies and charities are planting trees worldwide to help combat climate change. But how can trees help?

Air quality

A city park with lots of trees

An increased number of trees in urban areas can reduce air pollution significantly. They do this by providing a large surface area for the small pollutant particles to settle on; they take in pollutants through their leaves, removing them from the air we breathe.

This includes one of air pollution’s worst offenders; particulate matter (PM). These are tiny particles of organic chemicals, acids, metals and dust released when fossil fuels are burned. Incredibly tiny, PM can easily be breathed into your respiratory system, causing lung diseases or worsening existing respiratory illnesses.

Trees also actively reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. Trees require CO2 to help them survive, processing them in their leaves through photosynthesis and then releasing oxygen as a byproduct. In this way, one ten-year-old tree can absorb over 21kg of CO2 a year, and forests act as a carbon sink, alleviating the greenhouse effect.

Although all trees have these properties, some species of tree are more adept at some functions than others. Trees with rougher, hairier leaves (like conifers) are better suited for capturing and filtering PM, but other trees like the horse chestnut or the oak tree photosynthesise at faster rates, helping to reduce the amount of CO2 in the air.

Land sustainability

Desert and eroded soil with no trees

Trees are a great way to reduce flooding and land erosion, and they do this through their root network and foliage cover.

Trees reduce flooding because they make it easier for the soil to absorb water. This is because their roots create a network of channels – water flowing through these absorbs much faster. The tree cover also slows down how much water hits the ground at once, making it easier for the water to absorb completely.

The root network also keeps soil together and reduces land erosion, especially during heavy rain. Without trees, water will not absorb into the ground fast enough, and will instead run directly into rivers and streams, taking loose soil, stones and other particles with it, causing land erosion and flooding.

Reforesting river areas in Pickering, North Yorkshire, (which suffered four serious floods in just 10 years) caused rivers to have 15-20% less flow after heavy rain. It did this by slowing the flow of rainwater into the rivers and spreading it over a larger area, directing it into restored heather moorland which absorbed large quantities of water.

Trees also reduce droughts as their roots retain water throughout dry periods. These roots spread horizontally underground and can feed water into streams and rivers that are close by.

Conserving wildlife

Wood with endangered deer in it

Trees are a fantastic way to conserve wildlife all over the world. In the UK they provide cover, habitation and food for a vast array of animals, and as they age they also provide hollows for other species such as bats, tawny owls and woodpeckers. According to the Royal Parks, one mature oak tree can act as the home for over 500 species.

Many animals have evolved to only live in wooded areas, which is why mass deforestation all over the world is causing thousands of species to become endangered. The deforestation occurring in the Amazon rainforest is a huge issue for conservationists, as the region is home to thousands of plant, animal, bird and insect species found nowhere else on earth.

Reforesting gives endangered species a chance to thrive, from pine martens in the UK to Jaguars in the Amazon.

What are the main causes of deforestation?

aerial view of mass agriculture field

Although many countries are starting to reforest their land, other countries are home to mass deforestation efforts – both legal and illegal – which is cause for global concern. The major reasons behind this are mass agriculture, mining (both legal and illegal), unsustainable forest management and international infrastructure projects, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Deforestation has been a fact of life for thousands of years, ever since nomadic tribes settled down and started to rely on agriculture to feed themselves. Now, however, the majority of deforestation is happening in developing countries, and at much faster rates than before.

This is because, unlike Western countries, developing countries aren’t just cutting down trees to meet local or national needs. Instead, they have the pressure of the global population demand for wood, meat and crops bearing down on them.

For example, just three countries – the US, Brazil and Argentina – make up 80% of the world’s soy production (which requires huge swathes of land), the majority of which will go towards animal feed across the world.

Global beef production is also a leading cause of deforestation, with the Rainforest Alliance stating that 65-70% of all deforestation in the Amazon is a result of clearing land to raise cattle.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, forests are cut down to make way for palm oil production, which is found in thousands of everyday consumer products, from ice cream to shampoo. These three drivers of deforestation – soy production, cattle ranching and palm oil – accounted for 40% of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010.

In a more indirect way, climate change caused by human activity has led to increasingly dry weather, causing an uptick in forest fires across the world. Most recently, huge fires caused irreversible deforestation and damage to both the Amazon, Bolivia’s Pantanal region and in Australia.

What are the effects of deforestation?

Deforested area surrounded by wood

As trees reduce floods, droughts and land erosion, deforestation causes a general degradation of soil – but that’s just the start.

People rely on forests

According to the United Nations FAO, of all the people living in extreme poverty worldwide, over 90% are dependent on forests for at least part of their livelihoods. Indigenous peoples, especially those in the Amazon, manage some of the most ecologically intact forests in the world, retaining their delicate biosphere.

Deforestation destroys their land and removes their ability to support themselves, and outsiders deforesting remote areas of indigenous land bring illnesses that the population has no immunity to, which can decimate entire tribes. The recent Coronavirus outbreak has hit indigenous people in Brazil lack immunological defenses to illnesses brought in by outsiders. This makes them even more susceptible to respiratory diseases such as COVID-19; data reported by National Geographic put the death rate of the disease at 9.1% for indigenous people, nearly double that of the general Brazilian population.

Affects regional climates

As we previously mentioned, large forests can act as a climate sink, but areas like the Amazon are so large that they also create their own climate and ensure access to clean water.

This is because trees transpire (release water through their leaves), adding to the local humidity levels. This moisture is evaporated into the atmosphere, forming clouds and falling as rain upon the same forest, filling rivers and providing a freshwater resource for everyone downstream.

As trees are cut down, the humidity levels are reduced, and there is less rainfall. Mass deforestation in Madagascar has changed the landscape and the climate, and the island is now a largely treeless, desertified area.

A reduction in the water supply can have drastic social, political and economic consequences for countries and leads to tensions between regions that share water sources or are suffering droughts due to another country’s actions.

Reduces soil health

Deforestation for high-intensity agriculture strips the soil of nutrients. This means that more fertiliser has to be used, and runoff from this enters the water supply, poisoning species living in rivers and streams and endangering those who rely on them. Soon, the land is too nutrient-poor to support this kind of agriculture, and so more trees will have to be cut down to keep growing the crops.

Is tree planting an effective solution?

Group of people planting trees

Tree planting has multiple environmental benefits. New trees increase land fertility, stabilise coastlines, act as a carbon sink, and can reduce both droughts and flooding. In March 2019, the UN announced a Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and has set a target to reforest 350m hectares – an area bigger than India – by 2030.

Tree planting on such a large scale can restore habitats and ecosystems, combat climate change and create jobs. If managed sustainably, forests can also be an economic resource, providing fuel, medicines and fruit, increasing agricultural productivity in poverty-stricken areas.

It is important to recognise that tree planting has to be done responsibly; planting thousands of just one type of tree isn’t an effective solution. One species of tree won’t bring back the same diversity of species as before, as different animals will prefer different trees. Using just one species of tree leaves entire forests susceptible to being wiped out by disease, and decreases an area’s overall resistance to the impacts of climate change.

This is why a general rule of thumb for many reforestation and tree planting initiatives is to plant according to the 10-20-30 rule. This means you cannot plant more than 10% of a single species, 20% of a single genus, or 30% of a single family.

The UN’s tree-planting initiative will have a huge positive impact worldwide, but it isn’t enough to get us out of climate change. Over the last five years, the rate of deforestation has been estimated at 10 million hectares a year, down from 16 million hectares a year in the 1990s. As trees are cut down, and burned or allowed to rot, they release all their stored carbon into the atmosphere as CO2, adding to the effects of climate change.

Although tree planting on a huge scale can create forests to act as carbon sinks, it isn’t enough. Tree planting must go hand in hand with working to decrease the amount of deforestation occurring globally.

How can I get involved in tree planting?

Child planting a tree

It’s easier than you think! Get in touch with your local Tree Council to see if they have any upcoming events. National Tree Week is the UK’s largest annual tree celebration and is held from November 28 to December 6 – the start of the tree-planting season.

Over National Tree Week, the Tree Council organises fun and accessible events for schools and communities to support tree planting across the country, getting over a quarter of a million people involved every year.

The Woodland Trust also organises grants and support for people looking to plant trees and hedges in the country, as well as giving away hundreds of thousands of trees to schools and communities to plant.

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty but still want to get involved, consider donating to a tree-planting charity.

Organisations like The National Forest allow you to pay a one-off fee to dedicate a tree or a grove, or Trees for Life that work to expand the Caledonian forest in Scotland. If you want to support further afield, Cool Earth helps to plant trees in rainforests and support the local communities there.

How else can I help combat deforestation?

Supermarket shelves to help you shop sustainably

Global deforestation may seem like an unstoppable beast, but there are various things you can do to help as well as supporting tree planting. The first – and easiest – way is to make a few lifestyle changes regarding the way you shop.

Check the labels of the products you buy, and do some research on where the supermarket sources their products – look for items approved by the Rainforest Alliance or the Forest Stewardship Council.

Many fast-food restaurants and well-known supermarkets sell beef products that are a product of deforestation – identify them, boycott them and raise awareness about it through social media channels. Write to your MP and lobby for legislative changes to ban the import of unsustainably-grown produce.

Try and eat seasonally whenever you can – there’s no need to buy produce that has been imported by air when you can find the same product grown in the UK. At Hotel Chocolat, we import all our cocoa beans by boat, which has a much smaller carbon footprint than shipping it in by air.

Hotel Chocolat’s commitment to the planet

forest full of trees aerial view

Our brand is committed to minimising our environmental impact as much as possible. This is because we care about our planet, and we want to leave it in a better state than we found it.

To do this, we use recyclable or reusable packaging, reduce our food miles as much as possible, and have cut food and water waste drastically.

To reduce the amount of CO2 we release into the atmosphere, we made sure that all the electricity we use comes from renewable sources. We also invested in state-of-the-art air compressors to operate our manufacturing equipment – this saves us 50 tonnes of CO2 a year. That’s the equivalent to the amount of CO2 absorbed by 2,381 trees!

Tree planting is a fantastic way to help reduce the effects of climate change, but it is also important for large companies to be aware of, and reduce, the impact we have on the environment. That’s why our Planet Pledge is such an intrinsic part of our business.

We believe that being ethical is about doing the right thing, not just saying it. So, this National Tree Planting week, why not get involved, or dedicate a tree to a loved one? Every little helps, and by planting trees, or donating to a charity that does, you can be responsible for improving air quality, helping support wildlife, and creating a more sustainable future.