Schools closed, government employees got the day off, and foreign workers pitched in. Together, a broad swath of people in Ethiopia focused on one simple but effective way to counteract climate change: planting trees. By the end of that Monday in July, more than 350 million seedlings had been planted.
With so many bleak headlines about the effects of planet-warming carbon pollution, including wildfires, drought and extreme weather, the event in Ethiopia signals hope for action on a massive scale. Some 23 million people—more than a fifth of the country's entire population—participated in the effort, one official told the BBC. While some questioned the exact numbers, the effort was undoubtedly significant, drawing support from the UN Environment Programme and other international organizations.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Green Legacy Initiative aimed to plant 200 million trees at 1,000 sites across the country. The July 29 effort exceeded that goal, according to a government website. Overall, the country is aiming for 4 billion trees total.
Like many other countries, Ethiopia has grappled with widespread deforestation as trees are cleared for farmland, grazing and other purposes. Forest covered just 12.5 percent of the nation's land in 2016, compared with at least a third in the early 20th century. Church properties have served as some of the last remaining vestiges for forests.
Restoring forests—and protecting the ones that remain—is a critical hedge against the worst effects of climate change. The world has room for at least a trillion trees, one recent study found, and those trees could absorb and store hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide: That's "at least 10 years of anthropogenic emissions completely wiped out," said study author Thomas Crowther of Swiss university ETH Zurich.
Ethiopia isn't alone in recognizing this potential. Just days later, India planted a reported 220 million trees. Soon after, Ireland committed to planting 440 million by 2040 as part of a climate action plan. Iceland, which lost its forests to settlers hundreds of years ago, has also been engaged in a decades-long effort to afforest its land, at least doubling the amount of forest area since 1950.
Standing forests don't just absorb carbon. They also offer shade, conserve water, prevent soil erosion and provide economic boosts in the form of tourism and wood products. Iceland began its effort to reforest not because of climate change, but because it wanted to maintain its own commercial forests for homegrown paper and lumber.