Climate Change Silver Bullet From Massively Improved Tree Planting

Carbon Brief has estimates of how much carbon could be stored using various methods from now to 2100. The potential of reforestation had an economic estimated limit of 76 billion tons of CO2 but a total potential of 253 billion tons.

However, optimizing the species of trees selected could boost this by 10 to 100 times.
Optimizing the planting technique with drones could increase the planting speed by 150 times and cost by 10 times.
Fast growth trees would allow for lumber harvesting to repeat the sequestration every 10-30 years.
China already has tree-planting programs at scale. Optimizing these solutions would boost the potential of trees to offset all of human climate change emissions.

100 million hectares planted every year and harvested every ten years.
250 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.
This would be 25 billion tons of CO2 per year.

If the Empress Splendor and other fast-growth trees could be modified to reach maturity in five years then this would offset 50 billion tons per year.

If the land set aside over ten years was increased to 2 billion hectares then 200 million hectares could be planted every and harvested every ten years. This would offset 50 billion tons per year.

We would only get more land for the carbon tree offsetting program after fully planting and managing the 1 billion hectares of new forests. Then we would ramp up from 100 million to 200 million hectares per year. There are currently 3 trillion trees and cover 31 percent of the world’s land surface. This is just over 4 billion hectares. Another billion hectares of less productive forests could then be converted to the tree carbon offset program.

Empress splendor trees will not grow in every suitable location so we will need to breed or GMO more productive trees or plants for carbon sequestration.

Farming could also be made more productive. China has 4 million acres of greenhouses and greenhouses can be up to 30 times more productive than open farming. 100 million hectares of greenhouses could replace 3 billion hectares of regular farmland. This could free up 1 billion hectares for the tree carbon offset program.

The cost of the tree program would be the land, the planting, the maintenance and the harvesting. It would have cost offsets from lumber. However, abundant lumber would drive the cost of lumber lower.

10 to 100 Times Better With the Right Species of Trees

The Carbon Brief estimate of afforestation and reforestation assumes trees can sequester CO2 at a rate of 3.7 tonnes per hectare per year, and comes with an associated cost of $20-100 per tonne.

Satellite analysis finds that 1 billion hectares of land are available for tree planting.

A mix of trees species could double the Carbon Brief estimate of new forest sequestration to 149 tons per hectare.

While each acre of most tree species can capture and store 1.1 to 9.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, an acre of empress trees can absorb 103 tons per year. Each hectare is 2.47 acres. A hectare of empress trees could absorb 254 tones of CO2 per hectare.

Rapid growth of Empress Splendor trees means that trees could be cut down and the wood used and stored. New trees could be planted. This would mean you could constantly sequester more carbon at the maximum 10-30 year rates of the tree species.

The wide growth rings of an empress tree stump at maturity. An empress can grow 10 to 20 feet tall in its first year, which helps it store carbon more efficiently than other tree species.PHOTOGRAPHER: CHUCK HEMARD FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Drone Planting 150 times Faster and 10 Times Cheaper than Current Methods

Part of the economic limitation is based upon the cost of tree planting. The Carbon Brief did not consider the new tree planting with Biocarbon Engineering drone planting.

Currently, tree planting is mostly done by direct hand-planting, which is accurate but extremely time-consuming. Aerial planting via helicopters is effective over large areas but results in much lower survival rates. BioCarbon Engineering’s drone-enabled technology fills the gap, planting seeds with both speed and accuracy across diverse landscapes.

The BCE system uses satellite and drone-collected data to determine the best location to plant each tree. The planting drones fire a biodegradable seedpod into the ground with pressurized air at each predetermined position at 120 seedpods per minute. The seedpods are filled with a germinated seed, nutrients, and other vital components. These penetrate the earth, and, activated by moisture, grow into healthy trees.

Two operators equipped with 10 drones can plant 400,000 trees per day. Just 400 teams could plant 10 billion trees each year, with the capability to scale to tens of billions of trees annually. The fully automated and highly scalable BCE solution plants 150 times faster and 4-10 times cheaper than current methods.

BioCarbon Engineering (BCE), a UK company with the ambition to plant 500 billion trees by 2060 through the use of drones. Every year, 15 billion trees are destroyed from natural and anthropogenic causes. Despite US$50 billion a year spent on replanting, there remains an annual net loss of 6 billion trees. Governments have made commitments to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land—equivalent to an area the size of India, which could accommodate around 300 billion trees—by 2030.

In the past decade alone, China invested more than US$ 100 billion into six key forestry programs. The aims of these programs are to reduce environmental degradation, to create green spaces, to supply the enormous demand for forest products and to conserve biodiversity. Their scale is globally unique. The ‘Three-North’ Shelterbelt Program alone resulted in the planting of approximately 50 billion trees. Its aim is to build a 4500 km long wall of trees through the Gobi desert by 2050 to reduce sand storms. The Grain for Green Program aims to convert crops to forests on steep slopes to reduce erosion and to increase the provision of forest products. With a total planned investment of US$ 40 billion and 40–60 million target households, it is regarded as the world’s largest payment for ecosystem services scheme. The focus of China is thus on large-scale landscape manipulation and afforestation—often with single and sometimes exotic species, which may not always be adapted to local conditions

Where to plant the trees according to a satellite analysis by Tom Crowther.

China’s key forestry programs
China’s six key forestry programs cover 97% of China’s counties and have a combined afforestation aim of 760,000 km2. Their scale is globally and historically unparalleled.

The Key Shelterbelt Development Programs (1978 – 2050) comprise several sub-programs including the Three North Shelterbelt Program (TNSP), the Shelterbelt Development along the Middle and Upper Reaches of the Yangtze River, the Coastal Shelterbelt Development Program, and the Farmland Shelterbelt Network in the Plains Areas. The TNSP covers 42% of the Chinese territory across 13 provinces in China’s NW, N and NE regions. Its main aim is to reduce and control desertification and erosion in N China by planting shelterbelt forests around farmlands and pastures, and afforesting barren land. Between 2001 and 2010 275,000 km2 have been afforested and tree coverage in the region has reportedly increased from 5% to >10%. This has included a large citizen participation component with citizens planting a total of 66 billion trees since 1978. The total planned afforestation by 2050 is 356,000 km2. Investments between 2002 and 2006 have totaled RMB 60 billion. The shelterbelts are between ~250-550 m wide, with a fence along the perimeter, and the vegetation is planted in a chessboard pattern.

The Grain for Green Program (2000 – 2020 with previous pilot phase) aims to convert croplands and barren land to forests in environmentally fragile areas (e.g. steep slopes) to reduce erosion, control flooding and provide forest resources in 25 provinces in central and western China. The converted lands are generally located in environmentally marginal areas (e.g. on sandy soils) where yields are low. The program resulted in total afforestation of 248,600 km2 between 1999 and 2012 and targeted 32 million households. Investments (grain and cash subsidies paid to farmers) totaled RMB 180.54 billion between 2000 and 2009. In 2007 a decision was made to increase the total investment into the program to RMB 430 billion.

The Natural Forest Protection Program (2000 – 2020) aims to protect and rehabilitate natural forests and to increase forest resources. The program covers 17 provinces along the Upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, in China’s NE and in Inner Mongolia. Between 2001 and 2010 44,000 km2 of new forest was established; 120,000 km2 of land was set aside for natural regeneration; over 1 Mio km2 of forest was taken into management and protection; and over 600,000 displaced forester workers have been re-settled. Commercial logging in natural forests has been banned within key state forest areas, and timber harvesting has consequently been reduced from 18.24 Mio m3 in 1997 to 10.99 Mio m3 in NE China and Inner Mongolia [5]. Total investments between 2000 and 2010 were RMB 118.6 billion, and another RMB 244 billion has been allocated for the 2nd program phase between 2010 and 2020.

The Sandification Control Program in Beijing and Tianjin Vicinity (2001 – 2023) aims to reduce desertification and dust storms in Beijing and surrounding areas through various means, including 52,000 km2 of afforestation and 20,000 km2 of grass establishment between 2001 and 20102, with a total investment of RMB 21.84 billion. The program covers five provinces.

The Wildlife Protection and Nature Reserve Development Program (2001 – 2050) implemented in 32 provinces aims to conserve endangered species and habitats through the expansion of China’s nature reserves network to a coverage of 1.55 Mio km2, or ~16% of China’s total land area. Investments totaled RMB 1.57 billion between 2001 and 2004.

The Fast-Growing and High-Yielding Timber Base Construction Program in Key Areas (2001 – 2015) aims to reduce the timber supply shortage. It covers 18 provinces in the east of China (with total annual rainfall of ≥400 mm). The target is to plant 130,000 km2 of fast-growing and high-yielding timber to provide 133 Mio m3 timber annually – equivalent to 36% of China’s commercial timber consumption and almost sufficient to balance the current demand-supply gap of c. 150 Mio m3. Until 2007 49,000 km2 had already been established. While all other key forestry programs are government-led and mainly government-financed, major financing for this program comes from the commercial sector. Total investments in 2004 were RMB 205.6 million.

SOURCES- Biocarbon Engineering, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences – China’s fight to halt tree cover loss, Journal Science, Carbon Brief, Mongo Bay, PNAS, Natural Conference of Legislatures – The Role of Forests in Carbon Sequestration and Storage, NPR – You May Be Surprised To Learn Which 2 Countries Are Making The Globe A Lot Greener, Bloomberg
Written By Brian Wang,

43 thoughts on “Climate Change Silver Bullet From Massively Improved Tree Planting”

  1. All technological advances go thru a learning curve. Initially the cost will be high but as we learn the cost decreases. So focusing on today’s cost isn’t the right thing to do. Graph the learning curve. Is cost going down. If yes, continue. By the way, what is the worth of a baby?

  2. It’s easy to confidently bet against your fantasies, the reality is a little more difficult.

    Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018

    Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate


  3. I got your best ‘tree’ species right here: hemp. Fast growing, great CO2 uptake, and it yields food, fuel, fiber, and biodegradable plastics.

  4. I’m really sorry, but there is no problem with… the climate…
    We are having climate trends. We have for tens of millions of years. All this blather is about control, not saving a planet that’s greener than ever before. The polar bears and caribou are fine! The air is great!! And I will take bets from anyone, for any amount, that Miami will be here (and be thriving) ten years from now. Any takers? We can do this in bitcoin. Come on! 10K says Miami is above sea level in ten years…

  5. So forests are a problem for the future generations that would much prefer to be left a world of parking lots and deserts?

    An interesting position. I have no idea where to place it on the political compass but it’s innovative, I’ll give it that.

  6. Nuclear waste is mostly Uranium 238 which can be used as fuel in molten salt and other nuclear reactors. Breed it with fast neutrons into Plutonium 239 which can be fissioned

  7. …Correct me if wrong, but pollution is a dispersal kinda thing. I take offense to categorizing aerobic respiration a polluting action…

    It feels natural doesn’t it, but no need to be in doubt



    The presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects.

  8. What is this, stone age?

    Yes we have mechanical processes to load batches of things.

    Do we consider the fact that these two guys also build the drones from branches and rocks they find?

    No one builds a bullet one by one to load a machine gun either, you can *gasp* automate the process.

  9. neither of those things are pollutants; the nuclear waste isn’t distributed (with the exception of two disaster sites). Correct me if wrong, but pollution is a dispersal kinda thing. I take offense to categorizing aerobic respiration a polluting action. May I use the appeal to Nature fallacy for a moment? Breathing is natural and God invented it.

  10. When I read this article I didn’t think about just how cool this system must be, that is, if they have done the development. They must think about the pattern to plant the pods, the refueling of the drones, the transportation of the seedlings, the factory-like manufacturing of seedling cartridges, the visual recognition SW to allow automatic reloading and refueling of drones. They should also plan how to grow the seedlings in an automated fashion and how to get them to the planting site… And so on.

    A lot of fun problems to solve. I they do all this, then I’m impressed. Also, to solve all of these problems, they need quite a budget. At least a few hundred million USD?

  11. The truck is loaded at the factory by a crane that lifts several hundred cartridges in one go. Alternatively, at the truck terminal. The multi-cartridge is a sort of mega cartridge by itself.

    Guys, we don’t work with shovels any more….

  12. Confusing CO2 sequestration with climate change is a common mistake, and a certain sign of profound confusion. Plant all the trees you like, but a natural warming cycle will release more CO2 from warmer oceans until momentary equilibrium. Then the new trees will grow less and less well as there is less CO2 for each plantation over time. Ice age follows to great famines and gnashing of teeth. Political consensus ineffectual in stopping age old rhythms.

  13. Great another Brian plea to store our pollution. Weather it’s CO2 or nuclear waste, let’s leave the problem for future generations instead of stopping the pollution.

  14. “We” as in the US. The US uses 30-40% more energy in production than Europe. The US could reduce this even more than Europe without impacting our economy. Trees are not the only solution but it is one of many. Molten salt reactors is a technology that could cut green house gases significantly. Here is a very interesting presentation on TED about bringing back grazing lands from desert lands.

  15. I’m not familiar with how various wood products are normally processed, only aware that lumber is usually dried to some extent before processing. Wood pulp and other wood based intermediary products obviously exist, but how much preprocessing is involved?

  16. Have you ever worked with raw wood before? It’s all incredibly soggy. Drying ovens for lumber are the norm.

    Since we’re on the subject of ecology, I should point out that solar drying ovens do exist, but usually aren’t used by large commercial operations.

  17. If scavengers eat your body then you’ll be back on the ground in 24 to 48 hours, in a form that is even better fertilizer.

  18. At say 50 g per seed pod that’s 50 kg per cartridge (plus actual cartridge itself). Load a 70 kg cartridge in 2 minutes? I guess that’s feasible. Especially if the drone can pick on the cartridge on the back of the truck.

  19. I like the way you are thinking. And please add truly huge “air roots” the protude from the water.

    This would be an awesom setting for countless sci fi flicks. Large swamp thing. Man escapes opressive society to hide in giant mangrove tree in endless forest. Kung fu master trains desciple in swamp….

    The increased movie revenues would finance the plantation by itself…

  20. You keep the cartridges stacked on top of each other on the flatbed of a large truck. The drones pick up the cartridges from one truck and deposit empty cartriges on an empty flatbeds. All the operators have to do is to make sure that the cartridges dont get entangeled on the return truck.

    This is obvious. I am the only engineer reading this article?

  21. Isn’t it obvious? The seedlings are in catridges containing, say, one thousand seedlings. The operators have to load 400 cartridges per day, i.e. 25 per hour and person. Doable.

  22. Ahh… Mangrove trees. That makes a lot of sense.

    • Planted on large saltwater mudflats, the ground is level, fairly homogenous, and there are little to no other plants to content with (because most plants will die in salt water)
    • So you can just spray the mudflat with the seeds in a regular pattern and they can grow from there.

    And mangrove solves the big issue with planting millions of hectares of trees. Namely, if the area has enough water and good soil to grow trees quickly, it is also valuable farmland.

    But mangrove grows in salt water. Useless for farming. And you don’t need to worry about running out of seawater.

    So what we need is genetically engineered mangrove trees. My wishlist would be

    • Super fast growing (derr…)
    • Huge straight trunks suitable for timber
    • Just generally huge, people like enormous trees. Let’s try for 200m tall! And something like a scaled up Sequoia would take literally centuries to decay even if it wasn’t especially rot resistant.
    • Make it especially rot resistant too. Huon pine logs can lie in swamps for centuries and still be perfectly good timber.
    • Being extra large, it should be able to push out (vegetatively) into deeper water. Most mangrove forests that I am familiar with have heaps of room to expand to the seaward side, but the water reaches a depth where the plants can reach the bottom as it were.
    • Cold weather tolerant. There is tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of km of suitable shallow coastline in colder climates
  23. It seems the Empress Splendor tree is a “wet” lightweight hardwood, which suggests it’s quite soggy and may require extensive drying before use in wood products?

  24. In the southeastern US, forest growth is limited by fixed nitrogen availability. Planting trees that are legumes, such as honey, or black locust are a good strategy for increasing forest growth.
    Not only do the locust trees grow quickly, they increase the growth of the trees around them by fertilizing the forest when their leaves drop in the fall. Locust are deep rooted, bring up nutrients from deep below the surface, are drought tolerant, make good browse, and drop fruit in the fall for wildlife. You can also make beer from the fruit.

  25. Here is a youtube vid in action: watch?v=hBDreQtM7Ts
    Trigger warning: Mentions climate change as if it’s real

    Or Search: “These tree-planting drones are firing seed missiles”

  26. The drones are operating in Myanmar, it doesn’t say anything on survival rates.

    I recall seeing an ancient video on early logging, clear cutting and then a cursory attempt at replanting. Stab the ground with a tool, drop a seed near the opening and step one it to get it under some dirt and move on. That unmanaged approach yielded poor results.

  27. As long as there is no immediate profit, this isn’t going to happen without regulation or tax payer dollars. A non-starter with the current US government.

  28. Given that the policy emphasis of the ‘green’ lobby doesn’t match the most efficient, politically feasible and least economically damaging paths to achieving their affirmed goals, I lean towards ‘essentially correct’ to all of what you stated.

    Also, bullocks to ‘climate justice’: I support environmental stewardship. ‘Justice’ is for moral crimes against moral agents. We eat nature, modify it, nurture it or let it be, but you can’t put ‘nature’ on the witness stand. 😀

  29. Destroy what? We use less energy now to produce more. Getting rid of waste is good for the economy since it lowers the cost of production.

  30. While I do love trees and think we should plant as many as we can, I still believe we shouldn’t be burning garbage and polluting our air and water.

  31. They seem pretty clear about it:

    The planting drones fire a biodegradable seedpod into the ground with pressurized air at each predetermined position at 120 seedpods per minute. The seedpods are filled with a germinated seed, nutrients, and other vital components. These penetrate the earth, and, activated by moisture, grow into healthy trees.

    So this is like a machine gun. I guess you could fit “a germinated seed, nutrients, and other vital components” into something the size of say a shotgun solid slug. You would still have to load the drones like loading the machineguns of a fighter plane.

    And I would NOT want one of those drones doing a flyover anywhere near me. It’s clearly able to kill a human by shooting you full of seed pods. Though at least the corpse would provide fertilizer for the growing seeds.

  32. Two operators equipped with 10 drones can plant 400,000 trees per day.

    Nah, I’m extremely dubious of this claim. Two operators couldn’t even load 400,000 seedling-air-to-ground-missiles into those drones in one day.

    That’s 200,000 missiles per person per day. That’s more than 2 per second, assuming you work for 24 hours per day.

    At the absolute best it might be “Two operators, plus a hundred ground support staff to do the manual labour.”

    Even then it’s only 7 seconds per missile assuming an 8 hour working day. And the drones would be firing seedling missiles at the ground like a machine gun.

    A suspicious person would start to think that this is an elaborate cover to develop semi-autonomous drones that incorporate scanners, AI recognition tech, and air-to-ground machineguns.

  33. doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0577-1

    …Our results demonstrate that, on the basis of a single model, in the absence of carbon capture and storage the additional climate benefits of sustainable forest management will be modest and local rather than global. Hence, we suggest that the primary role of forest management in Europe in the coming decades is not to protect the climate, but to adapt the forest cover to future climate in order to sustain the provision of wood and eco-logical, social and cultural services, while avoiding positive climate feed-backs from fire, wind, pests and drought disturbance…


    doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00122-z

    Many scientists applaud the push for expanding forests, but some urge caution. They argue that forests have many more-complex and uncertain climate impacts than policymakers, environmentalists and even some scientists acknowledge. Although trees cool the globe by taking up carbon through photosynthesis, they also emit a complex potpourri of chemicals, some of which warm the planet. The dark leaves of trees can also raise temperatures by absorbing sunlight. Several analyses in the past few years suggest that these warming effects from forests could partially or fully offset their cooling ability…

    Details that might tarnish that silver a little.

  34. <snark>But if the powerful (e.g. America) can avoid the consequences of their selfish behavior by just planting a lot of trees then climate justice would be avoided. And the whole purpose of the climate change movement is to achieve climate justice, not actually solve the problem.</snark>

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