Janelle Lugge/shutterstock
Janelle Lugge/shutterstock

Jonas Philanthropies was founded by a couple—one a social worker, the other a retail executive—concerned about America’s shortage of professional nurses, and most of its giving has gone to address the nation’s healthcare system. But when the New York-based grantmaker put $200,000 toward a $1 million initiative to grow 10 million new trees by 2025, it got us thinking about all the tree-related news and campaigns that have landed in our inboxes at Inside Philanthropy in 2020.

With nontraditional allies like Jonas taking up the cause, President Donald Trump showing dubious support for an international effort to plant 1 trillion trees within a decade, and debate over its viability as a real climate solution, tree planting has loomed large. The old environmental admonition to “plant a tree” has somehow come back in fashion. We’ve done a quick scan to see who’s giving, what scientists and advocates think of the effort, and the possibilities for philanthropy in this space.

One thing that’s clear is that trees hold up a big tent. Jonas, for instance, is not the first health funder that’s gone down this path. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for instance, has funded grantees to plant trees in diverse, low-income communities.

The world’s biggest—and newest—climate funder is also on board. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave $5 million to Eden Reforestation Projects to plant 35 million trees in Kenya, Madagascar and Mozambique in his first round of grants from the $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund. Some of the tech billionaire’s other funding could also boost carbon offset markets for trees and efforts to keep existing forests intact.

And of course, some unlikely, high-profile allies have also endorsed tree planting, thanks in part to one prominent donor. Salesforce founder and philanthropist Marc Benioff launched a multi-channel effort to convince Trump, including enlisting his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to support a trillion-tree campaign. Trump ultimately committed during a World Economic Forum event—and later signed an executive order creating a related council.

The outgoing president’s record as an environmental arsonist—gutting protections, rejecting science, making inane public comments—makes the whole effort seem like a distracting sideshow. And whether it leads to anything significant remains to be seen. A Trillion Trees Act, pushed by Republicans, earned opposition from most major environmental groups, but a new version has earned some qualified endorsements.

Backing from Trump and the GOP only fueled criticism of tree planting as a “false solution,” an attempt to avoid the difficult work of emissions reductions under the cover of a feel-good environmental campaign. Using trees as a carbon offset has also come under fire—the Climate Justice Alliance just slammed Bezos’s focus on “nature-based solutions,” and a recent Bloomberg investigation blasted The Nature Conservancy’s “meaningless carbon offsets.”

Another clear trend in this space, which may not come as a surprise, given these criticisms, is that corporations, far more than institutional philanthropy, are the biggest backers of this push. The campaign Benioff lobbied for, which goes by 1t.org, brings together pledges from fellow tech companies like Microsoft and LinkedIn, retailers like REI and Timberland, and financial firms like Bank of America and Mastercard. There are also members from other sectors, including municipalities like Dallas and Boise, and a wide range of forestry nonprofits.

The partners in Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees campaign, for instance, are nearly all corporations, from Oracle and T-Mobile to Nature Valley and Irish Spring. A Climate Week NYC panel on trees seemed to exemplify that trend, bringing together representatives from some of the country’s largest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, PepsiCo, and HP.

Some corporate philanthropies have been in this space a long time. We’ve previously documented the UPS Foundation’s passion for trees, which dates to at least 2011 and shows no signs of fading. The grantmaker announced this year it was setting a new goal of planting 50 million trees by 2030.

The arena is also loaded with nonprofits committed to planting trees, such as the Arbor Day Foundation—which plans to plant 100 million trees by 2022—and the Congress-created National Forest Foundation. Both solicit donations, recruit volunteers and run public education campaigns. And both have long lists of corporate partners. Some regional organizations, like the Texas Trees Foundation, take a similar approach.

So with all this heightened attention, is tree planting worthy of the spotlight it’s getting, and does it make sense for philanthropy to get behind it? It’s complicated.

Science both tells us that trees are a uniquely powerful carbon sink and suggests plenty of caution. Project Drawdown ranks tree planting as one its top 15 solutions, but specifies efforts must focus on degraded lands, which not all campaigns consider. Some of the offset claims, particularly a finding that 1 trillion trees would remove one-quarter of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, are heavily disputed. There is even the risk that trees, being darker than other elements, will absorb more heat in the short term in certain ecosystems.

A fall turned amber with forest fires adds another level of uncertainty. As the climate changes, even boreal forests that were once largely immune from wildfires are at new and rising risk. There is always the chance that, no matter how quickly they are planted, new trees could go up in smoke even faster.

Climate experts generally agree that there are a lot of things that are more important than planting trees—actually cutting emissions. Increasing clean energy production. Even protecting existing forests. Few skeptics are against more trees, but one word does come up a lot: distraction. They caution that trees should not be treated as a solution, or even a focus, of responses to climate change. We need the oxygen they produce, but we’re in trouble if they take up the oxygen in the debate, if you will.

It’s also notable that pledges in this area tend to be phrased in the “plant X trees” format. A few, such as Jonas, modify this to “grow.” It’s an important distinction. As anyone who has attempted to grow a tree can tell you, planting is just one step. Perhaps the most satisfying one. But not the most important. Trees must be nurtured to full health. Some experts say only 60% of planted saplings survive. And it takes time—often decades of growth—to achieve the claimed carbon capture.

All of which is to say, as with so many philanthropic solutions, the devil lies in the details. Tree planting could serve as a distraction from the urgent need to stop burning fossil fuels, and at its worst, a form of greenwashing for corporations deeply invested in the old economy. At the same time, reforestation, rewilding, reversing our paving and mono-cropping of the planet—these things do need to be part of the equation, and could be a beneficial outlet for donors. In other words, it doesn’t need to be an either-or.

There are also multiple reasons for planting trees. One particular avenue that could offer opportunity for funders is the idea of tree equity. Many health experts have advocated for planting trees in cities, particularly lower-income neighborhoods where investment has rarely flowed and urban trees tend to be sparse. In dense neighborhoods filled with concrete and metal, trees can mitigate high temperatures—known as urban heat islands—and improve air quality.

In what feels like the Year of the Tree, there has also been work on this front, of course. A coalition of conservation advocates launched a Tree Equity Score last month to measure both where trees aren’t present, but also where there are consequent health and economic risk factors. It initially focused on the greater Phoenix region in Arizona, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the state of Rhode Island, but will cover 70% of the country by 2022.

Finally, maybe the biggest strength of tree campaigns is their ability to cultivate bipartisan support—and funding from controversy-averse corporate partners. If these campaigns become the only focus—the beginning and end of engagement—it could do real harm. But if these efforts can bring about deeper and wider involvement by those parties on climate, we might have a chance at making the changes needed over the next decade.