Forest News #15

This month, we go back to the basics: what is reforestation? As the commitments for global restoration grow, which strategies exist and which potential problems lie ahead? What is technology bringing into the portfolio of techniques? And, as so many people live in cities, what is happening there? Enjoy the read and stay engaged.

What on Earth is ‘reforestation’? It’s more than just planting trees, as explained in this video by Conservation International. As detailed in their nice Q&A article, and being discussed right now in Davos at the WEF2020, it is also a critical tool to stop climate change.

New members

  • Our latest member is Ecological Balance from Cameroon, whose projects combine education and participation with active restoration efforts. They see forests as deposits of natural wealth, accumulated over generations, and want to bring the benefits and value of Cameroon’s forest back into the everyday life of their people while promoting a wiser usage.

Restoration – status and reflections

In recent years, nations around the globe have pledged to restore their degraded lands by planting millions of trees. The Bonn Challenge, launched in 2011 with the goal of restoring 350 Mha of land by 2030, has been followed by numerous public and private initiatives. Each has increased the target numbers further and, at the WEF 2020 in Switzerland, another global push for a trillion trees has been launched while stressing that collective action from public and private is needed. Such level of public commitment and attention is very positive, increasing the support for quick implementation and proper supporting research and monitoring efforts.

The success of restoration initiatives to combat climate change depends on many factors, such as the type and number of planned species, location, involvement of stakeholders, and the restoration techniques. As the video above highlights, there are different ways to reach that goal. Restoring ecosystems – not just planting x million trees – should be a key aspect of any strategy.

A recent article in the journal Nature looks critically at different strategies to reach these global goals and potential problems with some options. The authors looked closer at the reports of individual countries who had signed such initiatives and point out that almost half of the pledged area is set to become plantations of commercial trees. Although they can support local economies, plantations are much poorer than natural forests at storing carbon, which undermines their ability to deliver for climate. They are also inferior in ensuring other important ecosystems services which impact whole countries and the lives of millions of people. Another article, in the Undark magazine, adds more points to the discussion and highlights why experts warn that our restoration efforts could have far fewer benefits expected.

Given all these blurry lines and uncertainty, there are growing concerns that the reforestation agenda is becoming a “green cover” for a further assault on the world’s ecosystems, as discussed in Yale 360º. Looking at where tree cover has changed in the recent past and the drivers behind it (e.g. agro-industrial pressure), it’s easy to be worried that current deforestation rates continue as before, under the conviction that restoration (or simply planting trees) can easily compensate for the damage done. That is not the case. Bringing ecosystems back to health and the size they had is a much costlier and longer process than many consider, without a guarantee of success. That is why halting deforestation and biodiversity loss needs to go hand-in-hand with restoration efforts and with quick improvements in how we humans live, produce and trade.

Restoration – new techniques

How can we manage tree populations so that they can better cope with increased temperatures, as predicted by climate change scenarios? Researchers are focusing on genetics as a key tool to save trees, looking in the trees’ DNA for genetic markers that are associated with good growth under warmer climates. This could then help to identify and select seeds more suited to the expected future conditions, and use them in restoration efforts to decrease post-planting mortality rates.

Evaluating and improving tree-planting approaches is still a challenge, partly because the outcomes are hard to pin down. The bigger the initiative, with larger areas and more plants and parameters, the harder it becomes. As Mongabay reports in detail, some organizations have been embracing cutting-edge technology solutions, such as QR codes, drone surveillance and even blockchain to keep tabs on the fate of every planted tree. Such approaches could provide better data to assess the projects. In addition, they can also improve transparency and accountability, while helping donors to know exactly where their money is going and to feel more connected to nature.

Financing is also a crucial part. CO2 credits have become an important financing component of many restoration projects, and this is expected to increase further. In order to secure the credits and receive the corresponding funds, the projects have to assess how much carbon is stored in the trees in a way that is accepted by external auditors. Computer models are already used to estimate how much carbon might be stored in a given area and type of forest but, traditionally, you still need to go to remote areas and measure individual trees with measuring tapes. This creates a logistic challenge, time-consuming and with high costs, which many people are trying to improve on. Business magazine Forbes,recently reported on Pachamama, a high-tech start-up that aims to simplify the methods used to estimate carbon storage in restoration projects. Their approach has been to develop a platform that takes data gathered by satellite imaging and other remote-sensing technologies, then uses artificial intelligence to produce useful figures on how much carbon is being stored in that forest. In addition, it creates a space where projects and the brokers for credits can present and validate the results. This would make it easier for local forest managers to show how much carbon is stored in their local lands and to trade accordingly, simplifying the flow of funds.

Technological solutions are an important part of the toolbox to restore ecosystems in an effective way, fighting against climate change and improving the lives of many. But we have to remember we also have to ensure other crucial parts of the system: establish a legal fram

Urban forestry

According to World Bank data, 55% of the global population today lives in urban areas, tendency increasing. Urban forests are therefore an important topic for us, given the many benefits that trees (and green areas) can bring to such spaces. In addition to making cities more beautiful to live in, well-placed trees can influence urban climate and reduce energy needs, improve air quality, reduce stress in city-dwellers and – of course – sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and serve as long-term carbon sinks. A recent article in Mongabay looks at what cities in the United States are doing to fight against climate change using urban forestry and trees. Climate change action at local scale has become increasingly important in the United States after the country pulled out of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.

Suggested reading

  • Enhancing food security through forest landscape restoration (IUCN, 2015) This collection of case studies from Brazil, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, the Philippines and Viet Nam highlights how forest landscape restoration (FLR) interventions enhance food security. They illustrate the ‘win-win’ solutions that can increase land functionality and productivity, develop resilient food systems and explore the long-term potential outputs and enabling conditions for FLR interventions.