A drawing of forested hills


Tree-planting gained President Trump’s support this week as a tool to fight climate change. But done wrong, it could hurt people and the environment

Published: 30 January 2020


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The concept of nature-based solutions broadly refers to working with and enhancing nature to address major challenges, from climate change to biodiversity loss and poverty alleviation.

Over the past 12 months, nature-based solutions have gained huge traction in international policy, not least because of their potential to reduce trade-offs and promote synergies between environmental and societal concerns and among the Sustainable Development Goals.

Tree planting, whether through ecosystem restoration, reforestation or afforestation (planting a new area) is an example of a nature-based solution because trees help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by removing and storing carbon dioxide from the air.

But, as the paper highlights, this reliance on forests has major practical and ethical concerns, from questions over the effectiveness of plantations to the opportunity for land grabs.

“With careful and equitable implementation, nature-based solutions can benefit both people and nature in a rapidly warming world,” explains Professor Nathalie Seddon, director of Oxford’s Nature-Based Solutions Initiative and lead author. “But it’s vital to get the message right about what good nature-based solutions look like.”

“At the moment, there is a lot of excitement about planting trees to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. But tree plantations can threaten natural habitats and often use only a single non-native species, and so have low biodiversity value and low resilience to any future shocks. They won’t provide the same benefits as allowing natural ecosystems to thrive. Good nature-based solutions are those that involve protecting the ecosystems we’ve still got, restoring those we’ve lost or damaged, and planting trees very carefully, making sure we plant the right species in the right places,”

“To get tree planting right, it’s crucial that policies and incentives are grounded in good science, work with – not against – the local ecosystem, and don’t compromise local or indigenous land rights,” added Dr Cecile Girardin one of the paper co-author’s at the Environmental Change Institute.

An aerial view of a vast palm plantation

The biodiversity of this palm plantation in East Asia will not be large. It may also have replaced more valuable rainforest, and it is only being grown with a view to it being harvested, and as such is a purely commercial venture.


The paper, produced by researchers from Oxford’s Department of Zoology and Environmental Change Institute, provides a new framework to group nature-based solutions by their socioeconomic impacts: reducing exposure to the impacts of climate change such as flooding or heatwaves, reducing sensitivity to climate shocks through the diversification of landscapes, and supporting the capacity of communities to adapt.

It highlights examples of nature-based solutions beyond tree-planting including the establishment of wetlands to manage storm-water and flooding, and the restoration of mangrove forests and oyster reefs to protect coastal communities, agriculture and infrastructure from the impacts of storm surges and sea-level rise.

Yet major challenges and barriers remain to the implementation of nature-based solutions across the globe. Crucially, despite being recognised as a strategic priority for the United Nations, and many national governments including the UK, nature-based solutions are critically underfunded.

The authors stress that while nature-based solutions offer a complementary and synergistic approach to other climate change strategies, including engineered and technological approaches, they must not curtail or distract from the need for systemic change and decarbonization of the economy. Tree-planting, or any nature-based solution, must not become a way for companies or governments to keep burning fossil fuels.

The paper referenced in the article is: Seddon N, Chausson A, Berry P, Girardin CAJ, Smith A, Turner B. 2019 Understanding the value and limits of nature-based solutions to climate change and other global challenges. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 20190120.

  • The Nature-based Solutions Initiative is an international, multi-lingual and interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists based in the Department of Zoology and the School of Geography and Environment. Our mission is to understand the potential of Nature-based Solutions to address global challenges and support their sustainable implementation through the application of good evidence from science and practice. We collaborate with economists, engineers, governance and finance experts from across the University of Oxford and work in partnership with international and local NGOs from the conservation and development sectors as well as advise decision makers in business, government and the United Nations.
  • The Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford was established in 1991. Its aim is to organize and promote interdisciplinary research on the nature, causes and impact of environmental change and to contribute to the development of management strategies for coping with future environmental change.