Many stories about the future are formed by imagining worst-case scenarios, then extracting lessons from them about what we should try to avoid. Much of the best science fiction takes this angle, and it makes for good reading (or watching or listening). But there can be as much value—if not more—in the opposite approach; what if we imagine a world where our efforts to fix today’s biggest problems have paid off, and both humanity and the planet are flourishing? Then we can take steps towards making that vision a reality.
In a discussion at South by Southwest this week titled Life on a Reforested Planet, the panelists took such a future retrospective point of view. What, they asked, will the world look like decades from now if we succeed in cleaning up the environment, bringing carbon emissions down, and restoring degraded forests? What opportunities are there around these scenarios? And how will we get there?
The discussion was led by Yee Lee, the VP of growth at a company called Terraformation whose mission is to accelerate natural carbon capture by resolving bottlenecks to forest restoration. Lee spoke with Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the US; Clara Rowe, CEO of a global network of restoration and conservation sites called Restor; and Josh Parrish, VP of carbon origination at Pachama, which uses remote sensing and AI to protect and restore natural carbon sinks.
There are about three trillion trees on Earth today. That’s more trees than there are stars in the Milky Way, but it’s only about half as many as there were at the dawn of human civilization. Scientists have estimated we can bring back one trillion trees on degraded lands we aren’t using for agriculture. If those trillion trees were to be planted all together, they’d cover the entire continental US—but every continent except Antarctica has reforestable lands. Furthermore, if we restore one trillion trees, they’d be able to sequester around 30 percent of the carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.
Planting a trillion trees is obviously no small task. It requires the right kind of seeds, well-trained forestry professionals, collaboration with local and national governments, and multiple levels of in-depth research and planning—not to mention a lot of time, space, and hard work. In outlining what the world will look like if we make it happen, the panelists highlighted current challenges that would be resolved as well as opportunities we’d encounter along the way. Here are a few of the changes we’ll see in our lives and the environment if we can make this vision a reality.
We think of nature and trees as having blanket benefits across society: they’re beautiful, they clean the air, they provide shade and habitats for wildlife. But the unfortunate reality we’re living in has an unequal distribution of access to nature across populations. “Tree equity isn’t about trees, it’s about people,” Daley said. “In neighborhoods with a lot of trees, people are healthier—including mental health benefits—and there’s less crime. People relate to each other differently.” This isn’t because trees cause prosperity, but because prosperous communities are more likely to invest in landscaping and tree cover, and to have the funds to do so.
The opposite side of the coin shows the drawbacks that non-green areas experience, all of which are only slated to worsen in coming years. “Today in America, extreme heat kills more than 12,000 people per year,” Daley said. Research projects that number could rise to 110,000 people per year by the end of this century, with the hardest-hit being those who don’t have air conditioning, don’t have good healthcare—and don’t have trees in their neighborhoods.
“Trees have incredible cooling power and every neighborhood needs that, but especially places where people are already most at risk,” Daley said. He pointed out that tree distribution maps are often also maps of income and race, with the lowest-income neighborhoods having 40 percent less tree coverage than the wealthiest neighborhoods.
In a future where we’ve succeeded in planting a trillion trees, cities will have equitable tree cover. There are already steps in this direction: the US Congress invested $1.5 billion in tree cover for cities as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
Incentives Align With the Needs of the Natural World
Capitalism likely won’t be replaced by another economic system anytime soon, but non-financial incentives will take on a larger role in influencing business and consumer decisions, and regulators will likely step in and change financial incentives too. Carbon credits are one early example of this (though there’s a lot of debate about their effectiveness), as are the subsidies around electric vehicles and solar and wind energy.
Could we implement similar subsidies or other means of incentive around reforestation? Some countries have already done so. Costa Rica, Rowe said, has been paying farmers to conserve and restore forests on their land for decades, making Costa Rica the first tropical country to reverse deforestation. “People are getting paid to do something that’s good for the Earth, and it has changed the relationship that a lot of the country has to nature,” she said. “So then it’s not just about the money; because we’ve created an economy that allows us to benefit from nature, we can love nature in a different way.”
A Shift in Consumerist Culture
Manufacturing—of everything from cars to cell phones to clothing—not only uses energy and creates emissions, it creates a lot of waste. When the newest iPhone comes out, millions of people tuck their old phone into the back of a drawer and go out and buy the new one, even though the old one still worked perfectly. We give old clothes to Goodwill (or throw them away) and buy new ones long before the old clothes are unwearable or out of style. We trade in our 10-year-old cars for the new model, even though the car has 10 more years of drivability in it.
Having the newest things is a status symbol and a way to introduce some occasional novelty into our lives and routines. But what if we flipped that on its head, reversing what’s “cool” and high-status to align with the needs of the environment? What if we bragged about having an old car or phone or bike, and thereby not having contributed to the continuous manufacture and disposal of still-useful goods?
A shift to conscious consumerism has already begun, with people paying attention to the business practices of companies they buy from and seeking out brands that are more Earth-friendly. But this movement will need to grow far beyond its current state and include a much broader chunk of the population to really make a difference.
Rowe believes that in the not-too-distant future, products will have labeling with information about their supply chain and their impact on the local environment. “There are ways to weave forests into the daily fabric of our lives, and one of those is understanding what we consume,” she said. “Think about the cereal you had for breakfast. In 2050 the label will have information about the species of trees restored in the place where the wheat is grown, and the tons of carbon that were sequestered by the regenerative agriculture in this area.”
She envisions us gaining a completely new perspective on what we’re a part of and how we’re having impact. “We’re touching nature in every part of our lives, but we aren’t empowered to know it,” she added. “We don’t have the tools to take the action that we really want to take. In 2050, when we’ve reforested our planet, the way we have impact will be visible.”
Job Growth in Forestry and Related Industries
Planting a trillion trees—and making sure they’re healthy and growing—will require a massive mobilization of funds and people, and will spur creation of all sorts of jobs. Not to mention, reforestation will enable new industries to sprout where before there could be none. One example Lee gave was if you restore a mangrove, a shrimping industry can then be built there. “When we’re fostering a new forestry team, the lightbulb moment isn’t just about forests and trees,” he said. “There’s a whole economic livelihood that’s created. The blocker is often, how do we skill new communities and train them to have an entrepreneurial mindset?”
Parrish envisions the creation of “superhighways for nature,” an undertaking that would entail significant job creation in itself. “As the climate changes, as we get warmer, nature needs the ability to adapt and migrate and move around,” he said. “We need to create a network of connections with forests that provide for that and have a diverse ecological framework.” This would apply not only to primary forests, he said, but to suburban and even urban green spaces too.
Daley mentioned that his organization is seeing job creation on the front end of the reforestation pipeline, with one example being people who are employed to collect the seeds that’ll be used to plant trees. “We partner with the state of California and an organization called the Cone Core,” he said. “People collect cones to collect seeds they’ll use to reforest the burned acres in California.”
A Reforested World
Will these visions become reality? We’re a long way from it right now, but planting a trillion trees isn’t impossible. In Daley’s opinion, the two variables that will most help the cause are innovation and mobilization, and both awareness and buy-in around reforestation are steadily growing. As more people feel empowered to take part, they’ll also find new ways to make a difference. “Hope comes from agency,” Daley said. To engage with a problem, “you need to feel like you can do something about it.”