A spectre is haunting England—the spectre of two billion more trees by 2040. All the powers of old England have entered into a holy alliance to drive off this looming threat: The BBC, Guido Fawkes, the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats and Turning Point UK, British Reactionaries and wealthy Youtubers.
If elected, the Labour Party announced their intention to plant two billion trees across England by 2040; They plan to invest £2.5 billion in order to plant these trees, and believe the initiative will create over 20,000 new ‘green’ jobs in forestry and the timber trade. A sinister-sounding proposal. Chris Mason, one of the BBC’s political correspondents, crunched the numbers:
Mason claims he just meant to make the numbers “more understandable.” I have no interest in discussing the BBC’s supposed impartiality here, but even taken at face value, the idea that two billion is a meaningless number—while 300,000 per day is an intelligible one—is absurd. These numbers have been repeated ad infinitum across social media, in blog posts, on television and in the newspapers; a chorus of derision, universally mocking the thought of 300,000 trees being planted in one day. These critics appear to believe that Jeremy Corbyn intends to plant the trees himself, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Emily Maitlis, a BBC newsreader and documentary maker echoed her colleague:
Here Maitlis conflates the Labour Party’s promise of two billion more trees over 20 years to the Conservatives’ promise of 50,000 more nurses for the National Health Service, which number apparently includes the retention of almost 20,000 nurses who already work for the NHS. These aren’t comparable campaign promises, and it is unacceptable to portray a vitally necessary and demonstrably achievable policy like Labour’s tree-planting plan so irresponsibly.
In 2017, 887,000 trees were planted in England. 887,000. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It isn’t. 887,000 is so few trees that if we were to assume the lower end of the estimate of how many trees a person can plant in a single day—around 1,000—just three people working full time with an extra day’s work here and there could have done it. There is no definitive, agreed-upon number of trees that a person can plant per day, but the estimates range from about 1,000-3,000 for an inexperienced but physically fit tree planter, with planting machines helping to reach the upper end of that scale. If we err on the side of caution – with a little optimism – and assume 2,000 a day for trained professionals, the 300,000 planted per day that would be necessary to reach two billion by 2040 would require only a humble crew of 150 people.
Mass tree planting schemes are nothing new; under Franklin D. Roosevelt, three billion were planted in the USA in the 1930s and 40s. India recently planted 66 million in just 12 hours, smashing its previous 2016 Guinness world record of 50 million. Although the claims are met with some scepticism, Ethiopia are believed to have planted over 300 million in a single day. It is not a pipe dream; Labour have proposed to set an ambitious but achievable goal.
The Committee on Climate Change has suggested that the UK needs to plant around one and a half billion trees in order to help reach the target of net zero carbon emissions. Their suggestions are for the UK as a whole, and would require a somewhat modest increase in forest cover from 13% to 17% – a figure that pales in comparison with the current EU average of 35%. While Labour’s proposal is only for England at the moment, these figures help to provide some perspective of just how attainable 17% forest cover actually is, especially when considering that England’s forest coverage is just 10%, while 2% of the country is dedicated to golf courses.
I’m not saying “abolish golf courses to make room for trees,” but I’m not not saying it, either.
Let me ask one final question to the people who still believe it is impossible and foolish to try and plant two billion trees by 2040: what is the worst that can happen? If we aim high and fall short, planting one or one and a half billion, will we really turn to each other and say “my god, what an embarrassment, I wish we’d been sensible and aimed for something like 500 million.”
We should all be ready to “jump in front of a bus to stop this shit,” as a friend of Amy Westervelt’s said recently. In fact, though, planting two billion trees in twenty years is a demonstrably achievable goal.