It has taken a century and a half — ironically about as long as it can take to grow an oak to harvest — and a climate crisis to make policymakers and landowners take Darwin’s idea seriously and apply it to trees.
Forests are the best technology for taking up atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it. Darwin’s idea of growing lots of different plants together to increase the overall yield is now being explored by leading academics, who research forests and climate change.
Scientists and policymakers from Australia and Canada, Germany. Italy. Nigeria. Pakistan. Sweden. Switzerland. The UK. came together recently to discuss if Darwin’s idea provides a way to plant new forests that absorb and store carbon securely.
Why should we plant more forests?
Although planting more forests is a powerful tool in addressing the climate crisis it can also be dangerous. Forests are complex machines with millions upon parts. Poor tree planting practices can cause ecological damage, especially if they are not committed to diversity. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees — and trees of various ages.
This model promises forests to be more productive. grow two to fourfold more stronglyOptimizing carbon capture also maximizing resilienceto rapid climate change, extreme weather, and disease outbreaks.
Mixed forests allow each species to access different nutrients from the other, resulting in higher yields. The stems with thicker stems are mainly made of carbon.
Mixed forests are more resistant to disease than other types of forest. They can also be diluted with pathogens and pests that can cause disease.
Darwin’s prescient observation is tucked away in chapter four of his 1859 famous book On the Origin of the Species. Studies of this “Darwin effect” have spawned vast ecological literature. It is still a fringe concept in forestry, and there has been little funding to support its use.
Darwin also famously described evolution as natural selection, which is a process where genes adapt to their environment. Human-induced environmental change is a grave threat to the planet. outstripsThe evolution of genes that allow for larger organisms to reproduce more slowly, such as trees.
Modern gene-editing techniques — direct DNA surgery — can help speed things up once careful laboratory work identifies the key genes. But only the evolution of human practice — that is, changing what we do — is fast and far-reaching enough to rebalance the carbon cycleBring us back in safe planetary limits.
More carbon is captured by trees that are healthier
At our meeting we discussed a study of Norbury Park estate in central England, which describes how — using the Darwin effect and other climate-sensitive measures — the estate now captures over 5,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, making it quite possibly the most carbon-negative land in the UK. Such impressive statistics don’t happen by accident or by sticking some trees in the ground and hoping; care and ecological nous are needed.
Trees of different ages provide timber that can be harvested and are therefore more stable than other methods of forestry where large areas must be cleared and felled at the same.
Like other governments, the UK government has established requirementsResponsible large-scale tree planting. These requirements are constantly being revised and improved. There are still vital questions about which trees we should plant, where we should plant them, and what to do with them once they’ve grown.
It is not possible to plant a tree, but it should be possible for a plantation to grow into a forest that can be enjoyed by future generations. Forests are necessary to provide a practical, reliable, and just solution to climate and biodiversity crises. Darwin has shown this to us.