Opportunities and challenges for forest restoration
As mentioned in our previous newsletter, perhaps one of the most unexpected events of 2020 will be how a global pandemic finally rushes the world into the long-waited “green revolution”. Or, at least, how environmental concerns become an essential factor of mainstream economics and political decision-making.
Many governments are planning an unprecedented wave of monetary and fiscal stimulus measures to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic crisis and, at the same time, decisively address climate change concerns. Reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases is set to be a key priority and we could soon witness a disruptive shift on global development policies. The massive interventions discussed so far can radically change the economics and market dynamics across several sectors, and the political momentum can lead us to a new status quo. But will it be different this time? So far, the contrast between what has been promised and what has been effectively supported casts some doubts, as this overview by Bloomberg Green shows.
But what does this have to do with trees and forest restoration?
We know that the an effective reduction requires lower overall emissions and absorbing (sequestering) CO2 out of the atmosphere. However, it will take time to decarbonize the global economy – even with stronger regulations and more active efforts. For many companies under pressure to act, the faster solution will be to simply trade and offset their emissions within the current carbon markets. Compensation schemes should become more prevalent and an accepted cost of doing business. The demand for tree-planting is likely to explode, since it is one of the primary offsetting approaches. Should we therefore expect more trees in the future? Likely yes, but there are a few important points to consider:
- Since we need a mix of solutions, other approaches will also benefit from a growing market and be actively promoted in multiple ways: direct financing, fiscal incentives and even new market rules and policies. As Bloomberg Green reports, such support might finally make technological solutions like carbon capture and sequestration commercially viable at an industrial scale.
- Large-size buyers of offsetting solutions, like corporations, will look at cost-effectiveness and the capacity to scale-up quickly as critical selection criteria. Even in an expanding market, this will increase the pressure on tree-based solutions to be economically competitive (read: cheaper) versus other solutions.
- In addition, tree-based offsetting requires securing access to land without competing with other land uses, such as agriculture or urban expansion, while ensuring that trees stay in place for decades. This challenge is common to many conservation and restoration efforts focused on sensitive areas in developing countries. The inflows for these projects can make a big difference, but many of these countries also suffer from weak governance, higher corruption concerns or general instability. For corporate actors, all these factors might be framed as operative risks and lead them to invest elsewhere, where the uncertainties are lower. This argument is already being made to promote commercial offsetting plantations in places like Scotland. Will the money flow away from developing countries? Since local governments still need to create income sources, what will this mean for the protection of remaining primary forests?
In the coming times, it is important that we keep the broad picture in our minds: we need to integrate vibrant ecosystems with a sustainable human usage, and remember that it takes time and effort to restore when we fail to preserve. It is also crucial to remember that planting trees is not the same as restoring an ecosystem, and that a young tree is not the same as an adult tree.
Restoration requires a more holistic perspective and a longer time-frame than a commercially-effective way of sequestering CO2. Ultimately, we need to address both the root causes of deforestation and the excessive production of greenhouse gases. Otherwise, we will remain focused on compensating carbon emissions in the cheapest possible way or in “replacing” trees lost, while forgetting that a healthy forest ecosystem does more for us than just absorbing CO2.
The knowledge for effective restoration and management of forest ecosystems will come from science and from long-time practitioners. In this Yale Environment 360 interview, the ecologist Charles M. Peters covers several lessons we can take from indigenous communities and their centuries-old, hands-on experience in forest management. This knowledge is often ignored but it can and should make an invaluable contribution to the restoration toolbox.
This type of integrative and holistic approach is also a key aspect of the work developed by the PARTNERS restoration network. This broad global network has covered several aspects for successful, evidence-based restoration efforts. Their website, particularly the resources and publications sections, is strongly recommended as a source of information on different key aspects.
Take a walk on the wild side
Within the multiple initiatives linked to ecological restoration, not just of forests, it is valuable to look at the rewilding movement. Coming from the conservation field, the core goal of this larger-scale approach is to ensure healthy, functional and self-regulating ecosystems, in a state similar to pre-human intervention. This is achieved by creating and connecting core wilderness areas and reintroducing apex predators and keystone species, who keep natural structure and processes, as explained by the Rewilding Institute in the USA. The reintroduction of the wolf in the Yellowstone National Park is one of the most visible successes, as recently covered by The Guardian.
As the highlighted video from Rewilding Europe shows, the desire to experience a primal state of nature has a strong appeal. As such, it is not surprising to find a growing niche in the tourism industry that tries to tap into this. Several large landowners in Britain are, literally, returning their aristocratic estates to the beasts and offering new tourism experiences to finance it. Motivated by a mix of deep conviction and business sense, these initiatives might provide additional support for nature-based economies and new management models that try to address rural desertification and landscape degradation throughout Europe. The current shock in the travel industry, due to the pandemic, has led to a shift from international to local tourism. This might provide a welcome wave of public interest and support for rewilding and restoration projects but the usual conflicts between mass tourism and conservation need to be considered as well.
It’s crucial to keep in mind how many aspects of our modern, technological world depend on how we care for the global forests and other ecosystems. Borrowing from the worldview of the ancient Greeks and older civilizations, forests neatly connect the four elements: they ensure the flow of water, the vitality of soils, the quality of air and even the fire that feeds many of our human activities. The science that we have generated in this last century shows again and again how these ecosystems are the ones keeping our planet habitable and beautifully plentiful in life and diversity. We exist in Nature, not apart from it.
- A Business Approach to Sustainable Landscape Restoration (online course at Coursera, English, free registration): this online course looks at the role that business can – and should – have in integrated landscape management and large-scale landscape restoration. The course was developed by the ENABLE partnership, which is co-funded by the ERASMUS+ programme of the European Commission and involves a diverse, international group of European organizations.