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
The 2016 Fort McMurray fire in Canada is another example of poor forest management. This fire has displaced more than 80,000 people and has been described as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. The wildfires have started in peat swamps, a wet forest where native trees scarves of water-dense, flame-retarding peat moss. How had a swamp burned with such severity? The answer lays in a miscalculated 1980 government campaign for forest growth. As part of an experiment of converting bogs to timber, the Canadian government drained large areas of the Alberta swamps and planted black spruce, spacing them for maximum growth. The trees gorged themselves on the groundwater out of the swamps.
As a result, they grew an unusually wide canopy that chocked out the peat moss. A drier moss replaced it and as the land dried the trees grew into huge stores of fuel.
Furthermore, a study by Chinese ecologists reviewed the results of one of the 1952 China large-scale tree-planting campaign of afforestation. The program aiming the country’s arid regions to fight desertification has damaged local ecosystems. Foresters planted huge tracts of thirsty non-native trees, that had sucked up the groundwater as they grew, dropping the water table to dangerous levels. The afforestation program must be reassessed with future species selected for drought tolerance and ability to subsist on little water.
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.