According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2020 report on “The state of the World’s forests”, the planet has lost 178 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2020; an area about the size of Libya. Forest loss is primarily the consequence of agricultural expansion, unsustainable industrial timber extraction and fires often associated to infrastructure and logging site development. Trees are composed of about a quarter carbon dioxide that is causing global warming. When they fall down or burn, they release about four times their weight in carbon.
Forestry and agriculture account together for 24% of Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions making deforestation an important contributor to climate change. At the current rate of destruction, the world’s rainforest could completely disappear within 100 years. The effects of deforestation are serious but not irreversible. Resolutions such as managing forest resources or agroforestry are already being made to tackle deforestation’s environmental impacts. We are dedicating this article to explain why these efforts are such an important factor in the fight against climate change.
Reforestation: a real cause for hope in the climate fight
The act of reforestation is the process by which an area that has suffered the removal of trees and vegetation has its native trees restored. Currently, this is understood as being one of the most cost-effective ways of fighting climate change, as trees are natural carbon “sinks”.
For all the above reasons, reforestation is crucial in order to protect biodiversity, manage water or alleviate poverty in low-income regions. If half a trillion of trees were planted, we could capture about 205 gigatons of carbons and decrease atmospheric carbon by about 25%. The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that boosting the total area of the world’s forests, woodlands and woody savannahs could store around ¼ of the atmospheric carbon necessary to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Currently, global forests and trees absorb around 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide, but the rate of deforestation is increasing around the globe, with 18 million acres lost every year. Many degraded lands are good candidate for reforestation and could provide cleaner water, cleaner air, flood control, and more fertile soils. The Atlas of Forest Landscape Restoration Opportunities registered every zone on the planet worthy for forest restoration. Reforestation can either be inexpensive and as simple as abstaining from burning grazing land to allow forests to regenerate naturally or can require planting trees and long-term care as they grow. Different methods and techniques are adopted around the world to replenish forests:
Reforestation and its downside effects
While there is a prominent potential for using reforestation, agroforestry and afforestation as mitigation tools, several important factors need to be considered. Forests are complex ecosystems and adapted to the land they grow on. In contrast, their management is often simple and counterproductive, handled by economic systems and bureaucrats. Successful forest restoration requires much greater involvement and care. If badly managed, reforestation can result in outright environment consequences. From there, two situations must be considered: deforestation has to stop, and restoration program should primarily focus on turning degraded lands into natural forests.
Many countries engaged to the International Bonn Challenge have been backing monoculture farms and counting trees that will be logged within years for wood, product or fuel. On the total planted trees, only 34% were part of the “natural forest”. Nations are following three main approaches to improve the tree cover of the planet. One of them is converted marginal agricultural lands into plantations of valuable trees like Eucalyptusfor paper or Hevea braziliensis for rubber. This is the most popular restoration plan and 45% of commitments involve planting tree monocultures that are economically profitable.
The reforestation program “Grain for Green” also illustrates the lack of knowledge and anticipation. Launched by China in 1999 in response to flooding along the Yangtze River, 99% of all trees planted ended up being monoculture plantations.
A research led by Princeton University has found that the program has failed to restore biodiversity from native forests’ levels. The researchers highlighted the necessity of planting native trees and mixed forests to provide a better outcome for the biodiversity.
Sadly, such forests are an issue because they fail to provide the same benefit in terms of carbon sequestration and biodiversity than natural forests. The different shapes and sizes of trees composing native forests capture more efficiently sunlight.
Scientists explain that monoculture plantations are not useless, but should be in addition to the 1.35 million square miles of restored natural forests that the Bonn Challenge is aiming, not instead of them. Policies must acknowledge both the type of tree that needs to be planted and how the tree bonds with the larger health of the forest.
Poor land management
In order to meet global climate commitment, forest-restoration schemes must increase their carbon sequestration potential. According to Nature, there are four ways to attain it:
- Countries should increase the proportion of land that needs to be regenerated to natural forests.
- Prioritize natural regeneration in the humid tropics which all support very high biomass forest compared with drier regions.
- Build on existing carbon stocks. Target degraded forests and partly wooded areas for natural regeneration; focus plantations and agroforestry systems on treeless regions.
- Once natural forest is restored, protect it by expanding protected areas; giving title rights to Indigenous peoples who protect forested land; changing the legal definition of how land may be used so it cannot be converted to agriculture or encouraging commodities companies to commit to not clearing restored natural forests.
Solutions at every level
The full picture is not black and white. A wide variety of promising opportunities for forest restoration exist around the world and many countries, organisations and companies are already committed to restore and protect natural forests.
- UN declared 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The goal is to reverse centuries of damage forests, wetlands and other ecosystems. The UN calls countries, the international community, civil society, businesses, and others for strong commitments in order to achieve ecosystem restoration. All ecosystems are concerned, including forests, grasslands, croplands, wetlands, savannahs, inland water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and even urban environments. The resolutions range from showcase successful government-led and private initiative to halt ecosystem degradation to connect initiatives working in the same landscape or topic to increase efficiency and impact.
- WWF has called for the planting and protection of 1 trillion trees worldwide by 2050. They connect funders with forest conservation ventures and inspire society to protect and restore forests.
Ethiopia has made progress during the last 20 years with the land restoration campaign launched by the government in 1991. Farmers stopped using damaged land for grazing to allow trees to regenerate naturally. More than one million hectares of lands and forests have been restored (2015) in the East and Central province of Tigray alone. A 2016 report by the UN Food and Agriculture organization found that community forestry is a powerful means of keeping resilient forests.
Nepal has seen a remarkable development of community forests. By helping communities to manage forests they depend on the national forest cover has risen of around 20% in the past three decades. This positive initiative has greatly impacted both communities’ livelihoods and the state of the forests.
Niger government agricultural advisors have advice farmers to nurture rather than remove trees on their lands. Farmers discovered that they got better grain yields if they let trees grow. As we have explained earlier, trees help stabilise the soil, retain nitrogen and dropped leaves that maintain soil moisture. In 20 years, farmers across the country have re-greened around 5 million hectares of degraded farmland. By doing that, they significantly improved their livelihood, just as the Nepal communities.
Ecosia: not-for-profit web browser that uses advertising revenue to plant trees around the globe, has reportedly planted 100,000,000 trees. Posts their financial reports each month.
Ecologi: start-up platform that allows you to subscribe monthly and support climate friendly projects, notably tree planting/reforestation projects.
Eden Projects: International not-for-profit company that partners with other organisations whose ‘mission is to provide fair wage employment to impoverished villagers as agents of global forest restoration. We hire the poorest of the poor to grow, plant, and guard to maturity native species forest on a massive scale.’
Treeapp: phone app that asks its users to answer 2/3 questions per day that are sponsored by environmentally friendly companies, using this sponsorship to fund tree planting around the globe.
Trillion tree campaign: Campaign where people/countries can donate trees contributing towards the objective of planting one trillion trees.