Trying to Plant a Trillion Trees Won’t Solve Anything

The same thing is happening with the Terraton Initiative. The company behind it, Indigo, is a startup trying to promulgate regenerative agriculture—methods like relying on perennials instead of annually replanted species, or cover crops to reduce the need for tilling. “We’re encouraging farmers to use less fertilizer, fewer chemicals, and data science and microbiology to improve yield, and get paid a premium for growing things more sustainably,” says David Perry, Indigo’s CEO. Terraton launched last June; sign up, and you get $15 for every ton of carbon sequestered, measured through regular tests of soil health. (Hey, wait, doesn’t that mean the startup would need to pony up $15 trillion? The cash, the company says, will come from Indigo’s venture money, and eventually from a carbon market that’ll sell offsets or use government subsidies, should such a thing ever exist.) Perry says they expected to have 3 million acres signed up in the first year, and instead they have 10 million acres in the first 100 days. World: saved!

Except, well, math. One 2017 study of 150,000 sample points all over Earth said there was only ever about 133 billion tons of carbon in the ground—max. “There’s a community of scientists who’ve been working on these issues for the better part of 20 years and who’ve published numerous papers showing what the soil potential of the planet would be, and Indigo chose to ignore those,” says Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist and executive director of the climate change-fighting group Project Drawdown. “I just have to scratch my head and ask why they’re doing that.”

Indigo disagrees, of course. “His argument is based on two premises, neither of which we know to be true. The first is that you can accurately estimate how much carbon has been lost from the soil, and that’s really hard,” Perry says. “The second piece is, his premise is that you can’t put more carbon back into the soil than was there to begin with, and I think we can say with a lot of confidence that’s not true. There’s no reason to think that nature was looking to maximize carbon in the soil.”

It’s possible to imagine agriculture as a kind of geoengineering, of improving on nature’s yields and productivity. If it could also improve on nature’s ability to put carbon in the ground, that would be transformative. But there’s no evidence yet people can do it at a scale that it can by itself save the planet. Implying otherwise might even be its own kind of moral hazard, encouraging people to keep on coughing carbon into the atmosphere if they figure trees and cover crops will save us. Fixing climate change is going to take systematic, nation-scale work; these kind of solutions let countries and transnational corporations get away with business-as-usual.

“If a single company could offset a billion tons of CO2, they should win the Nobel Peace Prize. But a teraton? You’d need four planet Earths to do it,” Foley says. “It seems like a Silicon Valley hype cycle. Let’s overhype the numbers, overpromise, and then in five years it’ll crash.” That could erode confidence in the whole idea of fighting climate change, he says.

Using land as a carbon sink is a great idea. Even the land knows it; it already absorbs 30 percent of all carbon. A recent UN report said that for a mere $300 billion, Earth could return deforested or abandoned land to pasture and sequester enough carbon to stave off the worst effects of climate change for 20 years. That’s less than half the US’ annual defense budget, the cost of firing 300 WeWork CEOs. And reforestation and regenerative agriculture are great climate-fighting measures to sell to the developing world, because they actually help other problems rather than inhibit industrialization.

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