At last week’s Climate Forward event, I asked Bill Gates how he offsets his own substantial carbon footprint. Gates mentioned paying for direct air capture, funding heat pumps and installing solar panels. He also told me what he wasn’t doing.
“I don’t use some of the less proven approaches,” he said. “I don’t plant trees.”
Following up, I asked Gates what he thought about the voguish notion that planting enough trees might somehow solve climate change.
“That’s complete nonsense,” he replied. “Are we the science people or are we the idiots? Which one do we want to be?”
Gates was taking direct aim at one of the most hyped-up climate solutions in recent years: planting lots and lots of trees. The approach burst onto the scene in Davos in 2020, when Marc Benioff, the co-founder of Salesforce, announced that he was going to work with the Trump administration to plant a trillion trees.
Since then, the movement has garnered momentum. The Biden administration is spending $1 billion to plant trees. Republicans like Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, have proposed a trillion new trees as an effective way to combat climate change, even as they push for more planet-warming oil and gas production.
But scientists are still debating just how much planting new trees can actually help. As my colleague Catrin Einhorn has reported, there is simply not enough land on Earth to tackle climate change by planting trees alone.
Critics also say that focusing on trees also risks distracting from the biggest challenge of climate change: How to dramatically reduce the amount of planet-warming emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
Speaking for the trees
After Gates lobbed his rhetorical grenade, Benioff called me from his home in Hawaii to defend his plan.
“I couldn’t really understand why he was going on this tirade,” Benioff said. “Number one, we all have to go net zero. And number two, we have to plant a trillion trees.”
Benioff pointed out that he and Gates were both investors in Pachama, a company that is selling carbon credits for preserving nature. But he also took pains to differentiate his own approach.
“I’m pro-tree and I’m pro-ocean,” Benioff said. “And that’s where I’m putting my philanthropic dollars.”
This isn’t just about two tech billionaires with a difference of opinion. Even among people who see climate change as an urgent and existential threat, there are deep and bitter splits about how to tackle the crisis.
People like Benioff prioritize the natural world as a key part of the solution and are determined to protect biodiversity, which is collapsing worldwide.
Jad Daley is the chief executive of American Forests, a nonprofit organization that enthusiastically promotes trees. He works with Benioff on his trillion tree initiative, and was among many who called out Gates for his remarks on trees last week.
But Daley was the first to acknowledge that even a trillion trees wouldn’t be able to absorb the titanic amounts of planet warming emissions humans continue pumping into the atmosphere.
“Forests alone cannot solve climate change. Not by a long shot,” Daley told me. “The conversation has become cartoonishly oversimplified. It doesn’t need to be that dualistic.”
Gates, by contrast, seems to fit in best with the techno-optimist camp with the climate movement. This group tends to be more concerned with humans than they are with coral reefs and rainforests, and seems to believe that human ingenuity — especially new technologies like carbon capture, modular nuclear and fusion — holds the key to solving the climate crisis.
At the Climate Forward event, Gates argued for a pragmatic, technology-driven approach to fighting climate change. But he was also surprisingly dismissive of the damage that humans and a rapidly warming atmosphere are already doing to fragile ecosystems around the globe.
“There are effects on humanity,” he said, assessing the overall threats posed by climate change. “The planet, less so. It’s a fairly resilient thing.”
Food in a hotter world
The global food system accounts for a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and major food companies are under pressure to set ambitious climate-related goals to move the needle.
But my colleague Julie Creswell reports that many companies, such as McDonald’s and PepsiCo, have either not made any progress, or are going in the wrong direction. The problem is largely in the supply chain: the carbon footprint of the cows used to make burgers and milk, for example, and the wheat in bread and cereal.
Companies are improving their practices and becoming more efficient. But they are struggling to square their commitments to reduce emissions with delivering the continued growth investors expect.
Starbucks, for example, reported a 12 percent increase in its total emissions in 2022, compared with 2019. During that period, the company added more than 5,000 new stores.
Some are doing better than others. Mars, the privately held candy and pet food giant, said it had reduced its total emissions by 8 percent from 2015 levels, while also increasing its revenue by 60 percent.
Companies and scientists are also working to deliver on the adaptation front, as my colleague Kim Severson reported. Researchers are breeding hot-weather cherries, drought-resistant melons and carrots that can handle salty soil. Of course, they all have to taste good too. One expert told Kim: “You can use these technical solves to find climate solutions, but they won’t be useful if it’s not what people want to eat.” — Manuela Andreoni
Thirsty ‘monster fracks’
The insatiable search for oil and gas has become the latest threat to the country’s endangered aquifers, according to a Times investigation.
Our colleagues Hiroko Tabuchi and Blacki Migliozzi report that fracking wells have increased their water usage sevenfold since 2011, using up nearly 1.5 trillion gallons of water, as operators have adopted new techniques. These hydraulic fracturing mega-projects, called “monster fracks,” have become the industry norm.
Fracking has transformed America into the world’s largest oil and gas producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia. Read more here.
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