In December 2004 Kenyan professor, Wangari Maathai, set off for Norway from her home in Nairobi. Upon arrival in Oslo she headed to the capital’s City Hall. There the Kenyan activist was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize – the first African woman to be honoured by the committee in its 103-year history. Maathai was recognised as being the driving force behind the planting of some 30 million trees across Kenya.
Her acceptance speech was an ode to the tree. Trees promote the kind of uncomplicated human kindness that inspire us to put our differences aside. They are an aide to conflict resolution, planted as a symbol of peace in societies riven by conflict. They nourish soils, alleviate poverty, and give wildlife a place to flourish. Trees, the Nobel Laureate said, bring joy.
But some 15 years after Maathai’s cri de cœur, mankind is still failing to discover the true potential of planting trees. This summer, research led by experts at ETH Zürich revealed 1.7 billion hectares of treeless land across the world on which more than one trillion native tree saplings would naturally grow. If planted those trees would successfully offset two-thirds of all carbon emissions from human activities.
Despite some glimpses of progress, mankind has got a long way to go to repair its broken relationship with the tree. According to the World Bank, in the 26 years up to 2016 more than a million square kilometres of forest was wiped from the Earth. The journal Nature reported in 2015 that humans have felled more than 40 per cent of trees grown on the planet. And between January and September this year the world lost an area of lush tropical rainforest equivalent to ten times the size of New York City.
Last year, WWF declared 2020 a ‘super year’ for nature. It’s right. Next year sees countries across the globe adopt a new global framework for biodiversity. If all goes to plan this will be agreed at a special UN conference in China in October next year. In November 2020, the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow will see member states set out in more detail how they are to slash carbon emissions to keep global temperature rises this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
These landmark moments are hugely important but humanity will collectively achieve little for the environment in 2020 unless together we deliver a surge in tree planting. This means countries in the West following the example set by Ethiopia which, in July this year, planted 350 million trees in a single day. It means throwing our weight behind organisations such as The Eden Reforestation Project that has planted more than 265 million trees across the developing world. Or it might be doing something as simple as planting a single tree in your back garden.
Wangari Maathai knew the power of the tree to break down social barriers and breathe new life into our most precious ecosystems. As we embark on the 2020 ‘super year’ for nature we could do a lot worse than follow her shining example. Let’s get planting.
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