Phantom Forests: Why We Should Be Skeptical About Planting Trees

Many companies and government bodies over time have said something like: “As part of our climate change initiative, we’ll be planting X number of trees!” Forests are an incredibly efficient way to capture carbon from the atmosphere. But how well do these tree planting initiatives actually work?

a dead seedling in dry soil

Why do organizations plant trees?

Tree planting campaigns are often included in climate change goals. For climate change goals, planting trees requires the lowest investment expenses and preserves the greatest profits. Other ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include:

  • Divesting from fossil fuels
  • Increasing fuel efficiency in machines
  • Allowing forests to grow
  • Holding corporations financially accountable for their contributions to climate change

Money heavily influences American politics. This means that rich corporations can keep legislation from passing.

Planting trees is easy, vague, and it sounds good. It allows organizations to claim to care about the climate. But they don’t need to make significant changes to their business models. Planting trees is nonpartisan and unobjectionable because it isn’t significant. Tree planting is like a one-time payment to get the media and public off your back about your emissions.

Why tree planting isn’t the answer

There are several reasons why tree planting should not be a pillar of sustainability:

  • This strategy can be greenwashing
  • It isn’t ecologically sound
  • It can actually contribute to the problem of climate change
a man plants a pine seedling

Is this greenwashing?

Planting trees isn’t inherently greenwashing. The claims that groups planting trees make, however, often are greenwashing. Corporations and governments use tree planting initiatives as climate intervention. But they aren’t transparent about the results. Groups will say: “We’re planting 30,000 trees”, but they don’t tell the public the survival rate of the saplings. If half saplings are expected to survive, only 15,000 trees will have been added to the environment. And research shows that even THAT many surviving is unrealistic.

These groups also don’t usually explain what kinds of trees they’re planting and where. To save money, groups often choose cheap and available trees. These trees might not be the best suited to the environment. This decreases investment but also decreases survival, so even fewer trees survive to adulthood. Saplings that die release CO2 and further contribute to climate change.

When the saplings die, it creates a discrepancy. On paper, the organization planted 30,000 trees, but when you go look in person, there isn’t a forest. These are known as phantom forests – forests on paper but not in reality. Phantom forests are another case of greenwashing. Governments and corporations claim the forests are helping the environment when they aren’t even real.

Ecological Issues with Phantom Forests

Even when the trees survive, they aren’t as beneficial to the environment as people may think. Saplings are planted by themselves on degraded land as a plantation. These plantations do absorb some CO2, but they aren’t as good as healthy, native forests.

Planting trees does not make a forest. Forests are made up of complicated interactions between plants, animals, and environmental factors. Healthy, native forests benefit humans and the environment in many ways. Forests can:

  • clean the air and water
  • trap carbon
  • provide recreation and aesthetic enjoyment
  • act as a habitat for wildlife

Forests are home to 70% of terrestrial biodiversity. They support 1.6 billion people around the world.

Tree plantations don’t provide wildlife habitat and often aren’t useful for recreation. Plantations are also less effective at cleaning air and water than diverse forests. They’re less resilient to disease or pests. Tree plantations also require human support to survive and cannot support populations of people.

How planting trees can backfire

Tree plantations aren’t creating good habitats or viable forests. But the argument for plantations is that they act as a carbon sink. Living trees take in CO2 from the atmosphere. They then release oxygen and use the carbon to build their trunks and leaves.

Because trees USE carbon dioxide, they remove it from the atmosphere. This means that trees can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This will slow climate change.

Trees only store carbon dioxide when they’re alive, though. The majority of saplings planted in plantations die. This means that the carbon dioxide they were storing is released back into the atmosphere.

Additionally, these tree planters buy the saplings from nurseries. Nurseries use resources like water and energy to grow these plants. Spending resources on saplings that are left to die is wasteful. Ultimately, it just increases global emissions.

a foggy swamp

There is evidence that trees planted in other countries as part of these projects have been cut down. The BBC found evidence that eucalyptus plantations in Mozambique were being harvested. Clearcutting trees releases a lot of emissions and is harmful to the environment. This is another example of the lack of transparency in these initiatives.

But the larger problem is that these tree plantations are a mirage. From a distance, they look beneficial to the environment, but it’s not real. The forests aren’t real and neither are the promised environmental benefits. Promoting plantation projects prevents us from pursuing meaningful and lasting change. Instead of band-aid solutions for climate change, we need to attack the root of the problem.

What should we do instead?

Organizations should instead invest in true restoration, reforestation, and proforestation (protection of existing forests). In other words, groups and governments should invest in methods that actually work.

Science based restoration work

Groups should give money to knowledgeable organizations that do science-backed restoration work. This would reach goals of increasing forest cover while investing in natural climate solutions.

Funding sustainable management

Groups and governments could also fund sustainable community forest projects like agroforestry.

Demand transparency

We need transparency in environmental projects. When governments or corporations launch these projects, they get a lot of good press. But we rarely get follow-ups or specific details on the projects.

Organizations should be explicit about:

  • what species they’re planting and where
  • how much tree cover increased
  • their use of natural resources in the project

To ensure these projects are doing what they claim, all this information should be released and accessible. And if it’s not, governments and organizations should take their money elsewhere.

Focus on large-scale changes

Finally, we should prioritize large-scale change. We need to embrace more sustainable practices. We need to embrace truly renewable energy. Then we’ll have a much greater impact on the climate. These are more difficult changes, but they’ll target the cause of the problem.

solar panels in a green field

Take Action!

Dogwood Alliance is working to protect diverse and threatened forests across the South. Join our fight to save Southern forests and urge President Biden to pass real and lasting forest protection!


michelle thompson 2022 intern

Michelle Thompson is a 2022 Forests & Climate Research Stanback Fellow through Duke University. Michelle has been interested in nature and conservation since growing up in upstate South Carolina. She is a masters student at Duke studying ecosystem science and conservation. Michelle is honored to continue her work in environmentalism at Dogwood over the summer and is excited by the opportunity to work with her community. In her free time, Michelle enjoys crafting, reading, and hanging out with her 2 cats.

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