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Since 1990, 420 million hectares of forest have been lost to agriculture. Photo: Vera Kratochvi / Public Domain Picture.

Can the Internet really help tackle deforestation?

Digital platforms are planting trees to save the planet from climate change and deforestation, while resignifying environmental activism
Digital platforms are planting trees to save the planet from climate change and deforestation, while resignifying environmental activism

Grab your laptop, download the extension, keep browsing as usual. Have you ever thought that planting a tree could take this little?

Online services committed to tackling deforestation are growing in popularity. From apps to review plant-based products or avoid phone addiction to green research engines, all you need is your digital device and an internet connection.

Forests matter, yet they keep disappearing

Forest regulate ecosystems, host 80% of the world’s biodiversity and provide a livelihood to 1.6 billion people around the world. Forests also absorb twice the greenhouse emissions they emit each year, while deforestation and forest degradation account for around 12% of global greenhouse emissions. 

Healthy forests are necessary to tackle climate change. Every attack on these ecosystems furthers the climate crisis.

The rate of forest loss has been declining since the 1990s. However, in the same timespan, forest land almost equivalent to that of  Sweden was lost to agriculture, according to FAO. 

The worst affected areas are the tropical regions, such as Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Indonesia among others. Nevertheless, the roots of deforestation originate in the Western world.

The EU is considered an example of forestry management. In the Union, the regrowth of a new forest follows the cutting of trees, as explained by Guido Ceccherini. Cecceherini is a researcher at the European Commission Joint Research Centre.

However, the old continent is one the biggest importers of many deforestation-driven commodities. This accounts for 36% of all deforestation embodied in crop and livestock till 2008.

“Halting deforestation, rethinking our consumption habits and taking better care of the existing forests is crucial for tackling the climate emergency,” comments Davide Pettenella, Professor of Forest Economics at the University of Padova. The UN-supported framework REDD+ is an example of some of these efforts. REDD+ is however not free from accusations of neocolonialism.

Planting trees is one of the solutions to climate change. Photo: Anaya Katlego / Unsplash.

How green digital media set out to save the trees

One of the most popular counter-actions to deforestation, however, is planting new trees.

The involvement of digital media in environmental campaigns is essential, given the ever-growing prominence of the digital world in people’s lives.

However, planting trees alone is not enough. Particularly, trees are not sufficient if there is no long term plan of how to take care of the whole forest ecosystem. This is especially so if the people who depend on it are not listened to and empowered. 

One option is Ecosia, an alternative research engine born in 2009. Ecosia is a social business that invests its profits into ecological conservation projects. Since then it has planted 120 million trees (around 45 searches plants one tree) and has 15 million active users.

“We are the most privacy-friendly search engine in the world and we have always been open and transparent about our business by publishing our financial reports,” says Susy Peddie from Ecosia. “People can see the positive impact their searches have and they trust us,” she continues

According to Pedro Palos Sánchez, professor of Finance at Seville University, “as long as the data is collected in compliance with data protection legislation, I believe that an ethical and environmentally responsible user should support these initiatives over unsustainable ones.”

Is it really that easy though?

Pettenella believes that planting trees is a moral license to pollute. “This is not a viable way to tackle the climate crisis, as 10 trees absorb about 0,02 tonnes of Co2 per year, while a single person emits 5-6 tons in the same time,” Pettenella remarks.

Seeing the limits of a “just planting trees” approach, Trees for the Future, one of Ecosia’s partner working on the ground, whose mission is to plant trees with an intersectional outlook by putting people first.

“We help people in the developing world through agroforestry by giving them trees, seedlings, vegetable and fruit seeds, and the training they need” explains Lindsay Cobb from Trees for the Future. 

According to Cobb, “thirty-two years ago, we were giving people seeds. Today, Trees for the Future is a four-year Forest Garden Approach program, through which we train local staff to apply agroforestry” to revitalise their degraded soil, end food insecurity and enhance biodiversity.

According to Nils-Holger Schmidt, the first researcher studying Ecosia, “sustainability is a nice-sounding story companies tell when they need to cut costs”. Nils-Hoger Schmidt now works at BOSCH.

However, Palos Sánchez’ study on the effects of internet search on afforestation confirms that ecological marketing is an appropriate marketing strategy for the future. 

Any auditable service will be able to contribute transparently to the effects of deforestation or any other ecological problem related to climate change. This is the line that private actors should take. Otherwise, consumers and users can always think that they are helping the environment as a matter of image and that this is the only reason behind these campaigns,” highlights Palos Sánchez.

“We need to create a relationship with the forest ecosystem, not with single trees” – Davide Pettenella. Photo: Valiphotos / Pixabay

The need for new environmental care among online users-activists

On the side of the users, the promotion of different digital consumptions – be it online shopping, apps, games or e-donations – shapes the kind of relations users have with trees, argues Shruti Desai, PhD holder at Goldsmith, University of London. “Much of the digital campaigns are strongly consumeristic,” Desai adds. 

“Life is impossibly intertwined with digital technologies and screens today, making digital information a vital touchstone in what people pay attention to and care for,” explains Desai. “Digital media are key mediators of how we think and feel about environmental issues and impact how we literally build our habitats,” the researcher explains.

Acknowledging the real constraints on people’s time and money, Desai argues that “the only ‘true’ form of [environmental] activism is the one that inspires the activist into action”, even if it’s just online. 

Forests are essential to the balance of the ecosystem and to tackle the climate crisis. Planting new trees is necessary, but also meaningless without a holistic vision that encompasses abiding maintenance and conservation plans and a shift in energy and food production.

Harmonised efforts by individuals, governments and private businesses can have a positive impact on deforestation and forest degradation. But what is needed first, as Shruti Desai put it, is a “digitally connected world foregrounding ways of living that value the more-than-human community that is the Earth”.