Why we need trees

Trees, those towering giants and humble saplings alike, are Earth’s natural guardians against the relentless surge of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. In the intricate dance of our country and planet’s delicate ecosystems, trees stand as silent giants, wielding an extraordinary power that often goes unnoticed: they are nature’s carbon sinks.

As Kenya recovers from the effects of the worst drought in a-half-a-century, the perils of climate change are forcing the government to embark on an ambitious target, planting 15 billion trees by 2032. The exercise, which has seen the country declare a public holiday today, 13th November 2023, comes just months after world leaders gathered in Nairobi for the inaugural Africa Climate Summit 2023.

“The government has declared a special holiday on Monday 13 November 2023, during which the public across the country shall be expected to plant trees as a patriotic contribution to the national efforts to save our country from the devastating effects of climate change,” noted Interior Cabinet Secretary Prof Kithure Kindiki in a gazette notice.

Presently, Kenya’s forest cover hovers around seven percent. However, the government has allocated about Kes12 billion in the 2023/24 financial year as a proactive measure to elevate this coverage to surpass 10 percent.

“We want the tree planting to speak to the food security need of the country. We want tree planting to speak to the job creation needs of this country. If we plan trees and grow them, we will address in the long run the cyclic droughts and floods, that should be the business of everybody,” Environment Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya told Citizen TV ahead of the green holiday.

Understanding and harnessing the carbon-absorbing power of forests and trees is vital for Kenya, and a greener future. For humanity, the sobering reality is that: if we cut and burn trees, we release carbon into the atmosphere; but if we let them grow, they squirrel carbon away.

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Trees as carbon sinks

Through a process as intricate as it is elegant, trees absorb greenhouse gases during photosynthesis, turning it into life-sustaining oxygen while storing carbon within their woody fibers. This act of capturing carbon is not merely a biological function; it is a lifeline for our country and planet. By locking away carbon within their structure, trees help mitigate the dire consequences of global warming, acting as a buffer against the rising tide of climate change-induced disasters such as floods, droughts, and cyclones among others.

Since taking office as president in September 2022, President William Ruto has prioritized the national landscape and ecosystem restoration program. His commitment to this initiative earned commendation from King Charles III, who visited Kenya recently in his first official trip to an African nation since ascending the throne last year.

Expressing admiration at a state banquet, King Charles III remarked, “Having been planting trees for most of my life, I thought I was doing rather well, but your ambition for planting 15 billion trees makes me admire your efforts.”

During his visit to the country, King Charles III participated in the tree-planting initiative. He planted a tree at the State House in Nairobi and another at the Karura forest, a site associated with the late environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai.

In his opening speech at the summit, Dr Ruto, who was the chairperson of the African Climate Summit 2023, termed the continent’s natural carbon sinks an untapped economic goldmine.

However, this silent partnership between trees and our planet is at risk here in Kenya. Rampant deforestation in Mau Water tower, driven by agricultural expansion, logging, and urbanization, threatens to upend this delicate balance.

Covering 455,000 hectares Mau Forest Complex Water Tower is the most vital Water catchment in Kenya supporting millions of livelihoods nationally, and globally. Comprising 22 forest blocks across Kericho, Nakuru, Baringo, Bomet, Narok and Uasin Gishu counties, Mau Forest Water Tower is a major catchment for 14 major rivers including the mighty Nile that flows through Uganda, Sudan and ends in the Mediterranean in Egypt.

It is also the source of water for lakes Baringo, Nakuru, Natron, Turkana and Victoria. Mau Forest Complex Water Tower breathes life into the Masai Mara and Serengeti National Reserves, key cogs of Kenya’s tourism industry.

When we cut down trees and burn them, we release the very carbon they had diligently sequestered. It’s a double whammy for our climate: we lose a vital carbon sink, and we inject more carbon into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis. It’s a dangerous cycle that we must break if we are to address the urgent challenges of climate change.

Regulating global temperatures

Since 1950, annual CO2 emissions have skyrocketed, surging from six billion tonnes to over 34 billion tonnes in 2020—a fivefold jump globally.

When factoring in other greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as methane and nitrous oxide, annual emissions reach an estimated 50 billion tonnes in 2020. Among these gases, CO2 is particularly significant due to its pronounced role in regulating global temperatures.

A single hectare of forest can serve as a substantial carbon sink, removing anywhere from 4.5 to 40.7 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere annually. This range in carbon sequestration is influenced by various factors, including the type of trees, their maturity, and the health of the ecosystem.

Mature trees thriving in healthy soil are particularly great at sequestering CO2. Further, carbon banking extends beyond what meets the eye, with significant carbon storage occurring below ground, encompassing the soil, the root systems, and other organic matter.

Overall, trees act as vital guardians of the atmosphere, effectively trapping CO2 and other greenhouse gases like ozone, thereby helping to combat climate change.

A single tree can absorb between 10 to 22 kilograms of CO2 per year. However, this rate of absorption varies depending on the tree’s species and its stage of maturity.

Mature trees, with their extensive root and branches, are the most efficient at sequestering CO2. Trees are most active in their carbon-capturing role when the climate is sunny, warm, and moist, highlighting the interconnected relationship between forests, weather patterns, and climate stability.

Kenya’s tree planting initiative

To counter the loss of forests, Dr Ruto launched the National Tree Planting Initiative last year, seeking to plant a total of 15 billion trees by 2032. At the moment, Kenya’s forest cover stands at 12 percent and the country targets 28 percent forest cover by 2030. This translates to the planting of approximately 1.5 billion trees each year or t 4.1 million trees each day.

With increasing challenges of climate change-induced catastrophes such as the worst drought to ever grip Kenya in about 40 years, Dr Ruto told delegates at the Climate Summit that forests can make Africa unique.

He envisions a harmonious coexistence between agriculture and the preservation and expansion of Africa’s natural carbon sinks. In doing so, not only will the continent have the ability to absorb millions of tonnes of CO2 annually, but it will also translate into billions of dollars, improved livelihoods, and countless opportunities for Africa’s 1.3 billion population. All of this can be achieved while safeguarding the invaluable biodiversity that makes the continent unique.

Kenya’s tree planting programme could emerge as a shining example of how a diverse array of stakeholders, including the private sector, educational institutions, defense units, youth organizations, and international entities, can rally together to nurture a greener and more sustainable future.

Banking giants such as KCB Group (KCBLindaMiti), ABSA Bank Kenya, Equity Group and NCBA Group (NCBAChangeTheStory) as well as telco Safaricom are running ambitious tree-planting campaigns.

Delegates following proceedings at the inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi where President William Ruto called for investment in renewable energy, green industrialization, climate-smart agriculture, and conservation of nature.

Kenya’s transition to green cover

These efforts not only demonstrate corporate responsibility but also a growing awareness and commitment within the private sector to support Kenya’s transition to attain good forest cover and a green economy, too.

All these campaigns serve as indicators of how businesses are aligning their operations with Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals, while participating in Kenya’s quest to increase its forest cover.

The Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) has donated thousands of seedlings, while, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) has engaged its students in the cause, mobilizing young minds to actively participate in tree planting.

The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines a forest as land with trees higher than 5 meters, a tree canopy cover exceeding 10 percent, over a minimum area of 0.5 hectares, excluding agricultural and urban land.

Deforestation, a term intimately tied to these criteria, is the depletion of tree cover to less than 10 percent. In recent decades, deforestation has emerged as a significant issue with profound consequences for regional ecosystems, local economies, and climate globally.

About 10,000 years ago, forests covered a staggering 57 percent of the world’s habitable land, equivalent to 6 billion hectares. Today, only a mere 4 billion hectares remain.

Annual rate of deforestation is staggering

This stark reduction means that one-third of global forests have been lost, an area twice the size of the US. The annual deforestation rate is equally staggering, equivalent to the size of Turkana and Isiolo counties or approximately 10 million hectares.

Deforestation is not uniform across the globe, with specific regions facing severe challenges. Boasting the world’s largest forest area, mostly comprising boreal forests, Russia has witnessed alarming rates of logging, threatening its unique ecosystems.

Brazil, which is home to over half of the Amazon rainforest, has the second-largest forest area but is plagued by extensive forest loss, contributing significantly to global deforestation rates.

On our part, Africa is facing the highest rate of forest loss compared to other regions, exacerbating environmental and socio-economic challenges. In West Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, lost 80 per cent of her forests between 1900 and 2021, as the country sought to become the largest cocoa producer in the world. Neighbouring Ghana followed a similar path to self-destruction.

Forests and the ecosystems they support offer a set of benefits, with one of the most crucial being their role in reversing desertification. In Kenya, a country whose 80 percent of landmass is arid and semi-arid, forests can generate a wealth of environmental benefits.

Forests serve as vital habitats for a diverse array of wildlife, playing a crucial role in preserving biodiversity. The unique ecosystems within forests house numerous plant and animal species, many of which are specially adapted to the harsh conditions of arid and semi-arid regions.

Forests counter wind and soil erosion

Moreover, Kenya’s forests act as a shield against desertification and the destructive forces of wind and water erosion. Their extensive root systems help stabilize soil, preventing it from being carried away by wind or heavy rains such as the looming El Nino.

This function is instrumental in maintaining the structure and fertility of the soil, which is vital for sustaining agriculture in these challenging environments. Furthermore, these forests assist in water infiltration, helping to recharge groundwater and ensure a consistent supply of water for both animals and plants.

Additionally, the shade provided by forest trees offer respite from the scorching sun for animals, people, and dryland crops like sorghum, millet, and legumes. This shading effect can significantly improve crop yields and provide comfort to both residents and livestock in these often harsh landscapes.

The benefits of trees and forests in arid and semi-arid regions like Kenya extend far beyond their aesthetic and ecological value. They serve as essential guardians against desertification, erosion, and loss of soil fertility.

Their contribution to biodiversity conservation and the well-being of local communities cannot be overstated, making their preservation and sustainable management of paramount importance for a sustainable and resilient Kenya.

As humanity grapples with challenges posed by climate change, the protection and sustainable management of forests must be at the forefront of our efforts.

Recognizing the invaluable role of forests as carbon sinks underscores the urgent need to address deforestation, promote reforestation, and embrace sustainable forestry practices to safeguard our planet’s climate and secure a sustainable future for generations to come.

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