On Monday, July 29, people left offices in Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian cities to head outside and take place in the world’s largest tree-planting campaign. In 12 hours, according to a government official, the country managed to plant 353,633,660 trees.
In an ambitious campaign called Green Legacy, the country aims to plant 4 billion indigenous trees this summer, more than 40 seedlings per citizen. Yesterday’s effort crushed the world record for the number of trees planted in a single day: 50 million trees were planted in one day in India in 2016.
“I think Ethiopia is one of only a few countries [that] are very invested in getting trees back in the landscape,” says Fred Stolle, deputy director of forests at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. “They’ve gotten to a very bad place. And so they really see the value.” The country is already seeing the negative effects of climate change, including severe droughts and flash floods that have forced people in some areas to move and caused food shortages.
At an even more massive scale, if billions of trees are planted globally, it could have a significant impact on the climate: One recent study mapped out all of the places where trees could be planted, and calculated that reforesting those areas could capture as much as two-thirds of the carbon that humans have emitted since the Industrial Revolution.
Other areas, from China to other parts of Africa, are also pursuing mass tree-planting campaigns. Planting the trees isn’t the final solution; after seedlings go in the ground, they also have to stay alive. “Nurturing is absolutely critical, especially for the first year or two,” says Tesfay Woldemariam, a research associate at World Resources Institute who is originally from Ethiopia. The country’s work to plant trees this summer is meant to take advantage of the rainy season—assuming that rains come—but that doesn’t guarantee that trees will survive, especially in more degraded areas. Strategically picking species by working with local communities can help. If trees bear edible fruit, for example, people living nearby have more incentive to care for the seedlings. “It is good to plant trees, but it’s even better if those are trees that people really like and want to have, because then they will themselves take care of them,” says Stolle.
Stolle says that tree plantations might make sense in more populated areas if they can help avoid deforestation elsewhere, though some other mass tree planting campaigns have been criticized for focusing on single species. The biggest climate benefits, and benefits for local wildlife, come from restoring diverse forests that are similar to the forests that once existed. In Ethiopia, a third of the country was covered in forests 100 years ago. By the 2000s, that number had shrunk to 4%.
World Resources Institute is now working on research that the Ethiopian government can use to plant more strategically, mapping out in detail where trees can grow and what kinds of trees make the most sense for certain areas based on the soil, rainfall, altitude, community priorities, and other conditions. “The intention is ultimately to provide them with the tools for all regions,” says Stolle.