Climate Change

Bill Gates is not entirely wrong about trees. He’s not entirely right either

The billionaire recently claimed planting trees would have little effect on climate change

By Pranay Lal
Published: Friday 06 October 2023
BIll Gates has invested in capturing carbon from the air using colossal vacuum pumps, a process called direct air capture. The carbon is then dissolved in alkali and injected deep into volcanic rocks. Photo: @LowyInstitute / X (previously known as Twitter) __

In early September, social media buzzed with controversy over Bill Gates’ views on trees and climate change. Claims circulated that a climate start-up backed by Gates planned to cut down California pine trees for carbon capture. 

Debates had settled until September 23 when, in a live event with newspaper The New York Times, Gates reaffirmed his position: “I don't plant trees” and brushed it aside as “complete nonsense.” An exasperated Gates added, “Are we the science people or idiots? Which do we want to be?”

Gates’ scepticism has merit. Extracting and burying trees from dense stands to capture carbon is viable. He backs a company doing just that. This approach outperforms afforestation. 

Read more: Why we must ponder on carbon capture technology to reduce GHG emissions

Optimising forestry boosts productivity and biodiversity and reduces the chances of fire in pine forests. We need to replace monocultures with native trees, shrubs, and grasses. Once this balance is established, burying biomass becomes a practical carbon capture method.

Nature carries out its own ecological thinning. Each day, leaves, twigs and other biomass decompose to form organic acids, which trickle through soils and are carried by groundwater. Often, entire forests get swept by flash floods down into the depths of seas.

This is how coal and oil — the nemesis of our climate problem — got formed over millions of years in the geological past. Biomass burial potentially stores carbon in forest soils for hundreds of years. Thousands and perhaps even millions, if done under the right geological conditions. 

Biomass burial is cost-effective and technologically uncomplicated. It allows rigorous scientific monitoring and is adjusted for local climate variations. This approach can revitalise landscapes, rekindling our passion for restoring forests, ponds, and rivers. Can we not expedite this burial process, which nature otherwise achieves slowly? 

Regrettably, the pace and efficiency of this process have been thwarted. We have altered rivers, overworked soils and obliterated landscapes. We have drained ponds and lakes and girdled them with cement and tarmac.

Most nature-based solutions relying on tree-planting have a drawback. Plantations leave biomass on the surface and when trees die, they quickly decompose, releasing captured carbon into the atmosphere. Wildfires exacerbate this issue, releasing carbon stored in soils and roots. 

Read more: Relying on forests to achieve net zero targets not a good idea, and scientists agree

Even planting a trillion new trees would capture only six per cent of carbon by 2050 and will stave off only 0.15 degrees Celsius by 2100. Single-species afforestation aimed for carbon capture threaten tropical biodiversity and offer minimal climate gains

What is refreshing is that the past decade has witnessed growing biodiversity conservation through rewilding and grassland restoration in the United Kingdom, Europe and India. When well-protected and managed, these practices can serve as effective carbon sinks.

Despite their limitations, nature-based solutions are an improvement over current practices. The singular focus on tree planting is inadequate without burial. Binding biomass to minerals and deep burial in soils, rocks, salt flats or deep seas can extend their interment for longer time. Companies must stop paying for climate solutions with assurances for less than 10,000 years.

Unbeknownst to Gates, this aligns with his vision. Gates has invested in capturing carbon from the air using colossal vacuum pumps, a process called direct air capture. The carbon is then dissolved in alkali and injected deep into volcanic rocks. 

Indeed, trees take their time to mature, but nature possesses myriad mechanisms to expedite this pace. As of yet, nature’s processes still capture more carbon than any human-made technology and this may remain so for some time. 

Conserving plants, microbes, coral and seashells to capture greenhouse gases is far more cost-effective, with added benefits like cleaning our water, mitigating heat island effect and regulating nutrient cycles.

As Gates commenced his interview at The New York Times event, he was fundamentally correct that we must not forsake other vital interventions that lead us on the path of progress. Investing in the eradication of diseases such as measles, malaria, and polio, and addressing malnutrition, as Gates aptly exemplifies, is indispensable to our collective quest for global progress. 

Read more: Putting carbon back in the land is just a smokescreen for real climate action

Gates must apply this rationale to climate change as well. His neglect, bordering on disdain for nature and its profound lessons, would be a grave misstep.

We must tread lightly and with utmost humility, acknowledging that our survival rests not on a single technological breakthrough but on a convergence of human interventions and nature’s innovations. 

Amid this intricate tapestry, trees stand as bulwark, silently beseeching us to heed their wisdom. For they are not mere spectators; they, like every life form, are architects of our shared destiny.

Pranay Lal is a biochemist, a public health specialist and a natural history writer. He is passionate about ecological restoration and reversing climate change

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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