We are hitting the point of no return when it comes to climate change.

Some specialists would even claim that we’ve crossed the threshold - That we are pretty much screwed now. And what if I told you that even our most dedicated efforts are backfiring and acting to our disadvantage?

Here’s what most people think

Can you tell me which picture reflects the most environmentally friendly area?

Tress and bog

Most people would choose picture number 1, a dense, gorgeous forest. But, as you probably noticed, things aren’t that simple.

Planting a tree is most likely the second most overused political stunt - right after kissing a baby. And that seems to make sense since trees can suck up carbon from the atmosphere, so they should be a quite straightforward solution to our greenhouse emissions problem.

From Purpose-driven companies to huge private conglomerates - We told ourselves a story that if we could plant just so many trees - We’ll fix our planet. And it’s for sure a noble effort, but it’s far from being that straightforward. When ScienceMag published the global tree restoration potential mainstream media just went bonkers.

The unintended consequences

In the 1980s the UK government encouraged tree planting through tax breaks to private companies - Which was rapidly adopted. When investors started to look for a perfect place to plant such trees, they found the scrappy-looking underdeveloped flow country - A wet, mossy, cold, damp, smelly bog - As brilliantly put by Roman Mars in this piece here.

Badanloch Bogs Badanloch Bogs - Flow Country. Photo via Richard Lindsay

Badanloch Bogs - Flow Country. Photo via Richard Lindsay However, what looked like a wasteland, was actually a thriving ecosystem - Full of peat - partially decayed organic matter. And it turns out that peatlands are fantastic carbon sinks, much more effective than the coniferous trees that were planted there.

The area was completely covered by evergreen forests, which was terrible for the native wildlife and actually releasing most of the carbon that was stored underground by the peatlands. Which was a very negative unintended consequence, that led to ecological disaster.

The bottom-line

We are by no means close to our environmental goals - There is so much we can do, both on a personal and on a societal level. However, we have to tackle this issue from a complex system perspective. Complex problems such as climate change required holistic solutions - And reducing its level of complexity will only yield more negative unintended consequences - And soon will be too late.

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