Is the U.S. Really Planting a Billion Trees, as Trump Said?

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron plant a tree on the South lawn of the White House.Proof that Donald Trump has in fact planted one tree, with French president Emmanuel Macron in 2018. (It died.) | AFP via Getty Images

Or maybe a trillion? Either way, it isn’t happening, and it won’t work.

“We are planting a billion trees, a billion-tree project, and it’s very exciting for a lot of people.” During the climate portion of tonight’s presidential debate — if you could call it a debate — President Donald Trump made this curious claim, one that left knowledgeable people saying “huh?” Is the U.S. really planting a billion trees? And will that do anything to slow the warming climate?

During his State of the Union speech in February, Trump also mentioned something about trees, only the number he mentioned was a trillion, not a billion. “To protect the environment, days ago, I announced that the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and the private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world,” he said. Yet there’s no evidence that the U.S. has launched a concerted federal effort since then, even though Environmental Protection Agency director Andrew Wheeler confirmed a few days later that it was, in fact, happening.

The Trillion Trees Initiative is a real thing named which was announced at this year’s World Economic Forum and sponsored by the United Nations, aiming to plant forests via a global coalition. (Many countries, including Pakistan and New Zealand, have also made their own pledges.) Trees, of course, naturally sequester carbon by drawing in carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Certainly it is good to have more of them, particularly in urbanized or industrial areas, to replace those lost to development and deforestation. They can lower the temperature by several degrees, increase biodiversity, clean the air, and mitigate droughts, and (needless to say) they look nice. But what Trump is talking about is called “afforestation,” which means planting a large number of trees, often of a single species, sometimes in places trees have not grown before, as a climate-change solution. These tree fields are often pulp or lumber plantations more than they are actual forests. And when that is assessed as an overarching silver-bullet climate solution, the science just isn’t there.

After a 2019 study went viral, claiming that planting one trillion — not billion, trillion — trees globally could capture one-third of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, tree-planting-as-emissions-offset became a trendy environmental pledge. But climate scientists quickly refuted the study — the carbon math does not quite pencil out, there aren’t nearly enough acres suitable for reforesting, and doing so does not reproduce the ecologies of naturally occurring forests, which take centuries to grow and include much more than trees. (A better solution, one study proposed, would be to return deforested lands back to the indigenous people who have managed them for centuries. Don’t wait up for this to happen.) But more critically, scientists say that “just planting trees” is more performance than solution — it gives climate-change-denying leaders like Trump a way to look like they’re acting without doing nearly as much actual emissions-reduction work as they appear to (which is why Republicans introduced a “carbon-capture” bill that included planting trees without any other climate action). It’s as cockamamie as his claim that better “forest management”— basically raking leaves, the way he claims the Finnish president told him to — will single-handedly stop wildfires. None of this will do what Trump says it will do.

Trees will be key to helping the world adapt to the global warming that decades of failing to act has already locked in. But if the United States did, hypothetically, want to slow and reverse climate change, it should reduce the emissions that cause that climate change. Which is something that Trump’s opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, plans to do.