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Tina Casey headshot

The Forest Landscape Restoration Movement Fills the Tree-Planting Pledge Gap

By Tina Casey
forest aerial shot - wide - tree-planting and reforestation

Reforestation pledges are perceived as a politically neutral, publicity-friendly way for corporations to demonstrate their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change. But forestry experts have begun drawing attention to significant shortcomings in conventional tree-planting programs. Instead, they advocate for a new approach, called forest landscape restoration, that provides for overall ecosystem health and community well-being.

What’s right with planting trees

The benefits of trees have been part of the public conversation for generations, fostered in part by corporate tree-planting programs that emphasize soil retention, water conservation and runoff prevention.

In contrast, the carbon sequestration benefit of trees has not been on the public radar until recent years. Nevertheless, scientists dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries were already beginning to piece together the elements of photosynthesis, in which trees and other plants capture and store carbon dioxide from the air.

By the late 19th century, scientists also assembled evidence that human-related carbon emissions were producing a “hot-house effect,” leading to a rise in global temperatures. These early observations were finally quantified in the 1950s when methods to measure the impact of tree and plant growth on global carbon dioxide levels emerged.

Though it took another 60 years or so, the scientific quantification of tree-based carbon sequestration set the stage for business leaders to champion large scale tree-planting programs as a climate action tool.

What’s wrong with planting trees

Corporate interest in tree-planting jumped in recent years alongside new research demonstrating that large-scale planting programs could become a powerful carbon sequestration strategy.

In 2019, for example, a Swiss research team estimated that an area of the Earth equivalent to the U.S. could be available for reforestation, capturing 300 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere as the new trees mature.

Corporate interest in tree-planting is also supported by high-profile environmental groups, non-governmental organizations and other groups such as the World Economic Forum, which set a trillion-tree goal at the 2020 launch of its “1t” reforestation initiative. 

However, by 2020 red flags were already beginning to emerge. One key issue is WEF’s focus on planting trees to produce lumber, paper and other forest products. In that context, it is no surprise that the initiative received support from former Republican President Donald Trump, despite his long record of undermining climate science.

In voicing support for the WEF initiative, the Trump administration also referenced forest commodities and related key words like forest management and productivity. Similarly, the 2020 “Trillion Trees Act” sponsored by Republicans in the House of Representatives commingled forest products with environmental goals.

In July, Associated Press reporter Stephen Groves noted that the trillion trees bill, which is hung up in committee, “checks the right boxes” for Republicans. “It is friendly to the timber industry and touts a climate solution — sequestering a massive amount of carbon from manmade emissions — that would also partially alleviate the need to wean the country off fossil fuels,” Groves wrote.

The need for a more holistic approach

On Friday, The New York Times published an op-ed by the essayist Claire Cameron, who explained one good reason why entwining forest commodities with tree-planting initiatives does not necessarily result in an environmentally desirable outcome. That’s because commodities reforestation tends to focus on just one species, with an eye on future harvests.

“Forestry experts understand that a monoculture of trees — like the black spruce saplings we were planting, six feet apart in neat rows — has made wildfires more likely and much worse when they occur,” Cameron wrote, in recollection of the summer she spent planting trees in Canada. The area had been clear-cut, and it would be harvested again once the new trees matured. 

“Much later, I learned that the trees we were planting, black spruce, are so combustible that firefighters call them gas on a stick,” she added. 

Cameron also drew attention to a June report released by the independent watchdog organization Forest Practices Board of British Columbia, which linked monoculture tree-planting programs to an increased risk of severe wildfires.

A more sustainable approach: Forest landscape restoration 

In a naturally regenerated forest, fire-susceptible trees would be cushioned by other fire-resistant species that retain more moisture. This type of consideration is at work in the emerging field of forest landscape restoration.

“More than just planting trees, forest landscape restoration aims to restore the natural functioning of ecosystems in deforested and degraded landscapes, while also supporting the livelihoods and well-being of the people who live there,” Fran Price, who leads the WWF's Global Forest Practice initiative, wrote in an op/ed for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Forest landscape restoration does not preclude human activity in forests. Instead, the focus is on engaging local communities in long-term, sustainable forest management practices, aided by the latest science as well as Indigenous and traditional experience.

Among other case studies, WWF cites a pilot program in the Amazonian province of Tahuamanu, Peru, where to livestock farmers are implementing practices aimed at reducing the rate of deforestation while increasing productivity.

Challenges and opportunities: It’s all about the seeds

Corporations seeking to support forest landscape restoration initiatives should be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“Community-based forest management is widely recognized as one of the more effective measures for stopping deforestation,” WWF observes. “However, the effectiveness of community management is dependent upon the broader socio-economic context, including tenure type, community governance, local capacity, opportunity cost and incentives.”

Business leaders can ensure the success of reforestation initiatives by raising the engagement of these under-represented local communities.

For example, one key factor in a successful, large-scale landscape restoration initiative is the availability of a sufficient supply of native seeds.

A research team recently studied the challenges besetting seed supply systems in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana and Kenya, which  set a collective commitment to restore 24.1 million hectares (more than 93,000 square miles) of degraded land. Challenges they face along the way include a “lack of policies, capacity building, financial investment and involvement of local community members,” the researchers observed. 

“A greater involvement of stakeholders from different societal levels and sectors would be an important step in building a better foundation for further capacity development,” they added.

They identified building up a community supplier network for natives seeds as a key step toward achieving successful restoration initiatives. That provides several opportunities for corporate involvement, including help with procuring digital tools and mobile phones. 

In addition to increasing the supply of high-quality native seeds, the network would provide new income opportunities for local communities and incentivize the conservation of native species. 

As the forest landscape restoration movement grows, business leaders have new opportunities to demonstrate that their understanding of tree-planting has also matured into a more sustainable model that avoids the environmental mistakes of the past and focuses on community well-being.

Image credit: Olena Bohovyk/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey