Climate change: What do trees have to do with climate?

Cutting down trees contributes to climate change because it depletes forests, which absorb CO2. If that doesn't happen, scientists say that the gas contributes to global warming.

 TREES IN Ramat Gan’s little forest next to its national park. (photo credit: JODIE COHEN)
TREES IN Ramat Gan’s little forest next to its national park.
(photo credit: JODIE COHEN)

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (or COP26 as it is more commonly known) has now concluded. The event aimed to bring together world leaders to help tackle the climate crisis.

Highlights included keynote speeches by Queen Elizabeth and celebrated natural world filmmaker, David Attenborough. Pacific Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe memorably addressed delegates knee-deep in the ocean to illustrate what rising temperatures mean in practice for small island nations. Some strong images certainly came out of the conference.

Perhaps not so strong were the progress reports and policy pledges, with criticism focused on the 400 private jets flown into Glasgow for the gathering, and the watered-down pledge to “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of coal.

However, one major announcement to come out of the event was the commitment to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Experts welcomed the agreement while warning that a previous deal in 2014 had “failed to slow deforestation at all,” and urging world leaders to deliver on their promises this time around.

But what do trees have to do with climate?

Cutting down trees contributes to climate change because it depletes forests. One of the “jobs” of forests is to absorb carbon dioxide (chemical formula CO2) on a large scale. And if CO2 isn’t absorbed, scientists say that the gas contributes to global warming. Deforestation is thought to be responsible for around 10% of all global warming emissions.

Forests are complex, connected ecosystems, home to numerous plants and animals, which impact soil quality and help the soil to absorb even more CO2. So carbon sequestration as it’s known – drawing down carbon from the atmosphere – is even further impacted by the loss of trees.

In addition, more than 1.6 billion people around the world depend on forests for their livelihoods. And forests are also beautiful, helping to connect people with nature.

The Bible gives very clear direction on what we need to be doing to reverse decades of deforestation.

“... I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the acacia tree” (Isaiah 41:19)

This is what Israel has done, showing that the world can change the course of desertification and literally make the desert bloom. The State of Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has more trees today than it did a century ago. And only 3% of trees in Israel are threatened with extinction, compared with 30% across the globe.

This is largely due to an organization called Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. They have been developing the land for a sustainable future and preserving the country’s natural and cultural heritage for over 100 years. The organization is probably best known for its forestry work.

In 1901 – the year KKL-JNF was established – Israel had only 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres) of forests. By 2019, it had planted more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of forests. And today, the organization has planted more than 240 million trees.

They also manage and maintain more than 160,000 hectares (400,000 acres) of forests and woodlands, working to combat desertification, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create green lungs around and within communities, and enhance biodiversity.

KKL-JNF’s “afforestation” methods involve planting single trees or clusters of trees and using advanced water-harvesting techniques to help them thrive in an otherwise arid environment. Their staff is on guard day and night, helping to prevent fires in forests and woodlands. And when forests in Israel are damaged by missiles, arson, or wildfires, KKL-JNF works to rehabilitate them.

KKL-JNF is credited with meeting the challenge of combating desertification in Israel. In fact, it’s considered one of the leading bodies in this field and shares its expertise with others. The organization established the International Arid Land Consortium in 1990 with the US, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to advance research and support projects to prevent desertification in developing countries. KKL-JNF also participates in afforestation and soil conservation projects of the Middle East Research Cooperation, which is part of the US State Department.

In addition, Israel’s international development agency, MASHAV, works with partners around the world to tackle deforestation. For example, in cooperation with relevant UN agencies, they conduct capacity-building programs on combating desertification for professionals from the developing world. And their work is also carried out at a community level. In Angola, for instance, to mark the 60th anniversary of MASHAV, the Israeli Embassy organized an event with 500 children planting 1,000 trees in the Namib Desert.

Climate change often seems like such a vast topic, and we are so small that it often feels like there isn’t much we can do as individuals to help. But if even half of the world’s population planted just one tree, there would be over 3.8 billion extra trees, breathing the CO2 out of the air for us – using nature to fix nature – it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? 

The writer is a TV news presenter and Middle East Correspondent for India’s WION (World Is One). The author of Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19, she has helped numerous multinationals report on their contributions to tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The views expressed are those of the author.