Forest News #11

On the July issue, we look into the recently calculated global tree restoration potential (900 million ha!) and some of the challenges that come with it. We follow with a critical look into the difficulties and failures in reducing deforestation in supply chain and finish with a suggested online course on managing terrestrial ecosystems. We'll be back in September, after the holidays!

It’s in the news everywhere! 900 million ha of forest landscape are available for restoration – today – and can be a major tool to reduce excess CO2 in the air. But where does this number come from and why does it matter? Listen to the scientists behind the research, in a not “typically boring” science video.

New members

  • We are happy to welcome another new member in our project list: SEEDS Trust from India. Together with Tamil Nadu villages, they restore habitat for the endangered Loris, green farmland and introduce natural methods to create new opportunities for better livelihoods.

The global tree restoration potential: how many trees can be planted in our planet, and where?

  • With all the ongoing initiatives and efforts to restore forests around the world (check our short overview here), these are important questions. A network of scientists led by the Crowther Lab at the ETH Zurich has, once again, helped to bring a global perspective into this question and shown the value of large-scale collaboration and science. Their research on the global tree restoration potential has just been published in Science and became a major news item (almost) all around the world for the last 2 weeks. This amount of visibility will – hopefully – help to push social and political change forward. A nice overview of the study and media coverage is available at the Crowther Lab’s research page.
  • Their study shows that at least 900 million hectares of forest can be restored now, without affecting agricultural or urban areas, and point where it can be done. They estimate this could capture about 205 gigatonnes of carbon, about two-thirds of the total atmospheric emissions produced by man, making it one of the most cost-effective solutions to fight climate change. Adding agrofrestry (trees with pasture land or other crops) and urban greening could increase this number further. Cuts to current emissions are still a must, as they detail in their Q&A blog article, since CO2-capture would happen over several decades, as trees grow and sequester carbon into biomass and the soil.
  • Back in 2015, they were also in the news when they calculated the current number of trees in the world: about 3 trillion trees (3’000’000’000’000) or 430 trees for each person in the world. This was 1 trillion more than generally assumed, which was great news! The bad news was that, they estimated, the global number of trees had been nearly halved by humankind since we started changing ecosystems. The work, published in Nature (also available in the Lab’s page), was a great example of an international scientific effort that nicely combined extensive satellite and ground-based measurements to create a global picture.1 trillion trees became a nice round goal for global initiatives such as the Trillion Tree Campaign, which counts several ongoing efforts.
  • Such a large effort will take time to unfold but other valuable and much needed benefits would come in a few years already. As highlighted in this letter, in the same issue of Science, restoration efforts have positive impacts in nature and people which cannot be replaced by short-term fixes. But how to plant all these trees? Read on.
  • But it’s important to remember that restoring forests is more than fighting climate change and fighting climate change is more than just planting trees, despite all the media attention and passions involved:
    • Forests fulfill other vital functions, which we need to ensure, and young forests (or tree plantations) are not the same as stable, mature forests.
    • Climate change is not driven only by C02 emissions but also by other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide (which have a “stronger” effect for the same amount).
    • The oceans absorb around 30% of human CO2 emissions, more than all land systems combined, and other ecosystems such as grasslands also play an important role as carbon sinks, keepers of biodiversity and source of human benefits.
    • Finally, to reduce the huge excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we need to absorb what is there AND cut human emissions to lower the continuous input we make and – hopefully – use our planet in a smarter way.

Land use issues and landscape restoration approaches

  • Forest landscape restoration (FLR), the focus of all this discussion, is defined as a process to regain ecological functionality and enhance human well-being from degraded lands. This approach is becoming increasingly popular and is one of the best nature-based solutions to help us achieve 11 of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as shown in a recent publication by IUCN.
  • But can all restoration projects lead to a self-sustaining ecosystem and contribute to our well-being in the long term? In tropical regions, seeds of most native species are not available in nurseries. As a result, plant material is not adapted to the site and does not contain sufficient genetic diversity to adapt to future conditions. Through the ‘Trees for Seeds’ initiative, Biodiversity International’s researchers are assessing tree diversity and developing tools and capacity for resilient restoration.
  • Similarly, some afforestation and restoration projects have shown that tree-planting programs can do more harm than good, when they fail to address what kind of trees are planted, how they affect the health of the forest, the amount of water available, or the needs of local people. Wrong planting techniques and species selection have led to massive fires and groundwater decline worldwide.
  • This article in Nature provides a good overview of these different questions: how-to ensure genetic diversity and climate resilience, balance restoration with human needs for mutual benefits, and – very important! – avoid repeating past mistakes?

Production & Industry: Plantations, commodities & supply-chain issues

  • In 2010, members of the Consumer Goods Forum, including some of the world’s biggest consumer brands, pledged to eliminate deforestation by 2020, through the sustainable sourcing soya, palm oil, paper and pulp, and cattle, the four commodities most linked to forest destruction. Since then, an estimated 50m hectares (123m acres) of forest are likely to have been destroyed in the growing demand for and consumption of agricultural products, according to a recent report by Greenpeace, “Countdown to Extinction”. Although the area planted with soya in Brazil has increased by 45% in the last 10 years, no single company assessed in the report was able to demonstrate that it was tracking the amount of soya consumed as animal feed in its supply chain. Overall, the report supports the growing concern that many companies with zero-deforestation commitments aren’t reporting their progress.
  • Tracing deforestation in agricultural supply chains is not an easy task, however, as major commodities companies source their raw materials from thousands of farms. Global Forest Watch (GFW) has launched a new forest monitoring tool called GFW Pro. Using tree cover change information from GFW’s interactive maps accessed via a new website, food retailers and producers can monitor deforestation and fires throughout their supply chains in real time. So far, more than 80 commodities companies and organizations are using the website.Their youtube video gives a quick overview.
  • A recent example of how the paper and pulp industry is contributing to deforestation is toilet paper.In the UK, as the demand for “luxury” toilet paper is growing, major brands are using now less recycled wood pulp than in 2011, fuelling the use of virgin pulp in an effort to create the softest product. Most toilet rolls use the FSC Mix mark but consumers should be aware that this means the paper is made from a mix of FSC virgin wood, recycled, and virgin wood from “controlled sources”.

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