Trump’s Plan to Plant Trees Disregards Mature Forests’ Role in Carbon Sequestration

Though Trump recently pledged to join the WEF’s Trillion Trees initiative, his attempts to lift protections on U.S. forests undermine the initiative's goal of climate change mitigation.

In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC. The report warns that to avoid global warming of 1.5 ºC and the disastrous consequences that would accompany it, cutting emissions will not be sufficient, and carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere. While many carbon removal technologies have been proposed, most are not economically feasible, so natural options, including the conservation and revitalization of forests, remain extremely important.  

In the United States, forests cover approximately one third of our land area.  Mature forests are complex and intertwined systems of trees, animals, fungi, water, air, and much else. These systems provide numerous ecosystem services including carbon sequestration. Collectively, forests in the U.S. suck enough carbon out of the air to reduce the country’s annual net emissions by 11% and in 2008, 75% of the net CO2 sequestration of U.S. land happened within forests.

In his remarks at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) conference in late January, President Trump announced that the U.S. would join the WEF’s initiative, a global enterprise that “exists to connect, empower and mobilize a global reforestation community of millions… to ensure the conservation and restoration of one trillion trees within this decade.” 

President Trump also addressed the initiative in his State of the Union speech a few days later, saying, “to protect the environment… the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and around the world.” President Trump’s description of only mentioned tree planting, yet the program places equal importance on the conservation of trees and forests. Furthermore, the WEF website specifically states that the initiative does not aim to plant one trillion trees.

In his speech at the WEF, President Trump claimed that the U.S. shows “strong leadership” in forest management, yet President Trump’s legacy thus far has been one of deregulation and increased logging. Each year, timber harvesting accounts for 85% of carbon lost from U.S. forests, yet President Trump has supported the introduction of logging as well as mining, drilling, and other environmentally harmful practices in the old-growth Tongass National Forest in Alaska (our largest national forest), in Superior National Forest in Minnesota, and on many other federal lands. These actions serve to degrade U.S. forests and continue the processes of deforestation that aims to stop.

In neither of his speeches mentioning did President Trump use the words “carbon” or “climate change.” In stark contrast, the WEF stresses climate change mitigation as a main goal of the initiative. The Trump administration’s environmentally-degrading forest management practices, which have shown no signs of slowing, demonstrate complete disregard for the WEF’s goals and indeed are in opposition to them.

In his speeches, President Trump waters-down and misrepresents in a disingenuous attempt to appear environmentally friendly, however behind President Trump’s newfound façade of environmentalism exists the enormous amount of environmental protections that his administration has been gutting for years, including those that protect existing forests and could have meaningful impacts on climate change. He fails to recognize and acknowledge that planting new trees is not enough.  In other words, it appears that, quite literally, President Trump cannot see the forest for the trees.

Rachel Zaff

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Rachel Zaff is an undergraduate student studying political science and environmental science in the College of Arts and Sciences. Zaff was also a 2020 Undergraduate Student Fellow.