By Nuru Ahmed
Though planting trees has quickly emerged as a seemingly simple way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, billions of seedlings are needed so as to fight climate change not only in Africa but in the whole world.
Prof. Shem Wandiga, former Acting Director Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation (ICCA) during a press briefing by Africa Science Media Centre noted that there was a pressing need to increase production of seedlings in Africa sooner rather than later.
Nurseries in African countries are currently producing 1.3 billion seedlings per year, which are mostly going to replace existing trees harvested by timber companies or burnt for charcoal or fossil fuels.
To expand forests to an additional 64 million acres for reforestation and carbon storage, it would take another 1.7 billion seedlings a year. That brings the total needed from nurseries to three billion a year, more than a 130 percent increase.
Ramping up seedling production that much, and making sure they live long enough to trap enough carbon emissions, will cost tens of billions of dollars.
“It will require training specialized seed collectors and investing in new infrastructure, as well as bolstering long-term monitoring to ensure forests survive in the face of pests, diseases, drought, and wildfires. These threats are all on the rise because of climate change,” noted Prof Wandiga.
“These trees will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the atmosphere which is mostly caused by human and industrial activities.”
The land sector which includes everything from tree planting and avoiding deforestation to increasing the amount of carbon stored in soils accounted for a small portion to reduce emissions by up to 28 percent under the Paris Agreement.
If afforestation takes place early in Africa and the whole world, it would represent roughly 7.5 percent of the emission reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement commitments.
The current rate of reforestation, however, can’t even keep up with the amount of land that has been destroyed in most African countries in recent years.
“Climate change is only expected to make persistence in hot weather which will result into droughts, scarcity of food, change in water quality and quantity, low levels of agriculture for the African continent and it will be an impact to the vulnerable people like children, women and the elderly,” noted Prof Wandiga.
“Climate change is going to be a big impact to all of us if we don’t encourage afforestation all over the African continent and the world.”
He noted that they are just now recognizing the increasing destruction of forests in most African countries that need to be planted that aren’t being met yet.
Planting more trees to offset carbon emissions will further increase demand for seedlings. The good news, is that only a third of public and private nurseries surveyed are currently operating at full capacity. That means there’s a big opportunity to expand.
“It’s not just about expanding and improving what we have,” Prof Wandiga said, “but actually adding new nurseries to meet this goal.”
If all nurseries, both public and private, operated at maximum capacity, an additional 400 million more seedlings could be grown each year to tackle this climate crisis.
Researchers also expect a further 1.1 billion seedlings could be produced annually if the majority of nurseries expanded beyond their current capacity, which most of them are willing to do. Add all of this to the 1.3 billion currently being grown, and production would be nearly at three billion per year minimum.
Boosting seedling production and planting them means increasing support and investment across the entire process.
“Seed collectors need to understand everything from predicting when certain species will release their seeds making them available to gather and how to safely clean the seeds,” noted Prof Wandiga.
“Staff then need to be trained on how to test the seeds’ quality and store them so they stay viable over the years. It’s a perishable product; it needs to be treated carefully,” he added, noting that the number of people specializing in this work continues to dwindle.
It can be difficult to attract these workers, though, due to the remote locations of many nurseries, as well as competition from other agricultural jobs.
Not only are seeds and labor in short supply, but the infrastructure is old, said Prof Wandiga.
And while adding or improving greenhouses can be a great way to expand capacity and grow more seedlings more quickly than in the field, he said, it has to be planned years ahead of when the seedlings are needed.
Noting that the upfront financial cost for nurseries can be a big risk, he said that they are trying to predict what’s the market going to be like in two years.
In the nursery business you have to spend all of your money today, for site prep, fertilizer, and everything else that goes into the ground and you won’t get that money back for two years, Prof Wandiga said.
A tree-planting campaign with stable, long-term funding whether federal or private could provide nurseries the certainty they need to ramp up production in Africa.
Planting trees is the main way to meet reforestation goals, said Prof Wandiga. “Protecting existing forests, as well as encouraging natural regeneration, shouldn’t be forgotten,” he noted.
And even a tree-planting campaign can be doomed by a “misplaced emphasis on how many trees are planted rather than how many survive,” the professor said.
He noted that there was need to develop guidelines on what seeds will thrive in different environments, especially as climate change shifts plant species to new regions.
“It’s not just about planting a tree. It needs to be done thoughtfully and well, because you can’t just stick a tree in the ground and come back in 100 years and have a forest,” said Prof Wandiga.
It takes an immense amount of money, labor and patience to turn a seed into a tree.
“We don’t want to just waste our time sticking a seedling in the ground that will die,” noted Prof Wandiga.
The African continent can do a lot to end the carbon dioxide emissions like using cleaner energy, solar, geothermal, use of methane instead of fossil fuels as well as afforestation.