Report from the Land Trust: More trees and less carbon to fight climate change

This essay was previously published in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

By Cliff Chapman, president, Central Indiana Land Trust

Imagine a leaky pipe is sending water into your basement. Unfortunately, the leak is behind a wall, and the shut-off valve is faulty. Stopping the leak is going to take time.

So in an effort to mitigate the problem until you get the valve and pipe fixed, you buy a bunch of sponges and pile them against the wall where water is seeping in. Initially, that helps, but, predictably, water eventually overwhelms the sponges. You need a more lasting solution.

That’s where we are with climate change.

The leaky basement is a silly and inadequate metaphor for our planetary peril, but I hope it helps to define a worldwide challenge we face.

A study published in November 2023 in the journal Nature underscored the challenge before us. It was a follow-up to a 2019 study that, on the one hand, was hailed as a positive force in that it inspired the global goal of planting one trillion trees. That movement resulted in national, regional, and local efforts to plant trees around the globe. Indiana got on board by launching a program for planting one million trees.

The problem is that the 2019 study gave some countries and companies the impression that it’s OK to continue to produce record levels of carbon as long as they planted trees. Adding insult to injury, many of the planting efforts put the wrong trees in the wrong places, resulting in the equivalent of sponges in that leaky basement: a superficial fix.

The new study sharpens the language and makes two things clear: 1) We must complement tree planting with reductions in carbon production, and 2) we will be most effective if we protect and expand existing forests with native, long-lived trees.

Indiana is perfect for such a planting program. With its rich soils, adequate moisture, and moderate temperatures, the Hoosier state is great for growing carbon-capturing trees. The oak, hickory, walnut, poplar, and cypress trees native to Indiana live a long time. They resist fire, drought, and floods. And in winter, they allow snow to linger and reflect light, helping to cool the planet.

On the other hand, the monoculture evergreen forests so commonly planted as carbon offsets absorb heat in winter, and they’re susceptible to fires that release the carbon they’ve captured. In fact, one writer who planted such trees in reforestation programs recently lamented that she had unwittingly participated in the planting of “blowtorches.”

Protecting and enhancing Indiana’s forested land fights climate change. That’s why we advocate so strongly for protecting existing forests and expanding them wherever possible. Not only do these efforts conserve our natural heritage and provide areas for recreation and the appreciation of nature, but they also meaningfully address climate change.

Still, even the smartest reforestation efforts can only do so much if humans don’t reduce carbon production. After all, in our metaphor of the leaky basement, no number of sponges will save your home if you don’t stop the water at its source. Sooner or later, you’ve got to find a better way to remove the water while you also address its source.

Similarly, sooner rather than later, we must reduce our carbon production as we work to plant the right trees in the right places. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a planet that, like a house with a flooded basement, is uninhabitable.

Headquartered on The Old Northside, the Central Indiana Land Trust is committed to planting a million trees in the coming years. For more information, visit conservingindiana.org.

PHOTO ABOVE: Meltzer Woods in Shelby County is a key Land Trust resource.