Planting millions more trees might not be the way to tackle Ethiopia’s environmental problems

Many, many plants.
Many, many plants.
Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ethiopia is hoping to tackle the effects of climate change by planting more trees, but in doing so, it might inadvertently be creating new environmental problems.

This week, prime minister Abiy Ahmed joined Ethiopians from northern Tigray to the Southern Nations to plant 200 million trees in one day. Schools and government offices were closed to allow students and civil servants to take part in the initiative, and by day’s end, officials announced the country had surpassed its goal and planted over 353 million trees in 12 hours. The previous Guinness World record for tree planting was held by India, where in 2017, volunteers in the country’s Uttar Pradesh planted nearly 50 million trees in one day.

The call to plant more trees is part of Ethiopia’s national “Green Legacy” initiative, which according to the prime minister’s office, aims to tackle deforestation and the effects of climate change by educating Ethiopians on the environment, and planting different “eco-friendly seedlings”. Perhaps more than other countries, severe droughts, food shortages, and flash floods responsible for mass displacements of people has made the effects of climate change especially felt in the East African country.

Planting trees has also been a generally well-regarded method of combating carbon emissions in the environment for some time now. Just last year, a UN climate report suggested planting another billion hectares of forests to help combat climate change worldwide, and by setting out to plant a total of 4 billion seedlings as part of their own green initiative, Ethiopia seems to be following this approach.

The only problem is planting trees across the country might have an opposite effect, and can even threaten some of the country’s ecosystems.

For the initiative to work, trees planted in the country’s different ecological environments need to be tailor made for their location. If the right trees are not planted in the environments for which they are a fit, the “Green Legacy” might be doing more harm than good.

The reason for the concern is that Ethiopia has faced this problem before. Historical afforestation efforts have introduced damaging non-native plant species including the eucalyptus which had a destructive impact on land, caused soil acidity, and destroyed nearby plants because of their speedy growth. Although well-intentioned in their approach, the country’s tree planting efforts seem to overlook previous afforestation issues by encouraging mass plantings to meet a national quota.

In certain grassy ecosystems across the country, planting trees might in fact damage, and push out plant and animal species that prefer open and sunny environments. Researchers in other African nations have found introducing trees to these tropical grassy biomes can cause loss in biodiversity, alter how these ecosystems work, and reduce water supplies in local streams and rivers.

Politically, the Initiative seems to be a net positive for Abiy Ahmed as he faces ongoing struggles in governing the multi-ethnic country. It “increases the political legacy of Abiy as a conservationist government and adds to the positive image he has around the national community,” said Temesgen Deressa, a climate change and development economics lecturer at the George Washington University.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox