Nature-Based Solutions Series: Collecting Carbon, Supporting Communities, and Cooling the Planet

Lucy Neiman, Zondits guest, 2/16/2023

Zondits and many other outlets have focused primarily on the transition to clean energy as the central path for addressing the challenges faced. Yet there is clear evidence that the transition away from fossil fuels alone cannot meet even the most conservative global climate goals that have been set. There are many significant reasons to conserve and protect our natural systems, and it is a growing realization that reducing carbon in the atmosphere is an important one. This series explores multiple ways that focused nature-based solutions can have positive impacts.

This third installment in the series looks at the value of forests and woodlands protection campaigns that help fight climate change.

Trees are the ultimate carbon sink and preserving forest land is the most natural and productive method of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Despite this, massive deforestation is significantly reducing this valuable resource to meet global climate change challenges. Multiple policy initiatives and incentive programs to protect forest lands are underway, but proponents argue that they need to be ramped up quickly in order to maximize the positive impacts.

According to a report published in the monthly journal Nature Climate Change, the world’s forests absorb a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year, 1.5 times more than the United States annual emissions. But forests also do a lot more – they provide cooling for local communities, cities, and land, filtering of pollutants, resilience against extreme weather events, habitats for diverse species, and natural building materials for expanding populations and economies. But when a tree is cut and burned, and especially when forestland is burned to make way for other uses, a lifetime of stored carbon is released, accelerating the climate crisis. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that forests cover approximately 30% of the planet’s land but are shrinking by over 18 million acres per year. According to National Geographic from 1990 to 2015, the world’s forests decreased by 1%, with most of the losses occurring in the tropics where 25% of the world’s carbon is stored. Deforestation has been happening for thousands of years as the planet which was once mostly covered in forests was cleared for farming, animal grazing and development. Deforestation contributes to soil erosion, interruption of water cycles, loss of biodiversity (80% of land-based species live in forests), and of course increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The most dire predictions report that the massive Amazon rainforest – source of fresh water for 35 million people and the world’s climate and temperature regulator – may collapse within less than 50 years and could flip from a carbon sink to a source by 2035 due to deforestation, development, and climate change. Under Brazil’s previous president Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon reached the highest level since 2008 as development was encouraged and protections removed. The world may breathe a sigh of relief with the recent election of Lula Da Silva and his pledge to reverse deforestation of the Amazon but reducing years of damage and ingrained attitudes will be a major challenge.

Reforestation Campaigns

In the US, the Biden Administration has pledged over $100 million to plant more than a billion trees to replace burned acreage and dead forests created by wildfires and heat waves. This pledge is three times larger than previous years and will replace over 4 million acres of forest. US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated, “nurturing natural regeneration and planting in areas with the most need is critical to mitigating the worst effects of climate change while also making those forests more resilient to the threats they face from catastrophic wildfire, historic drought, disease outbreaks and pest infestation.”   

The World Economic Forum is promoting the Trillion Trees Campaign, a global partnership started in 2020 between countries, companies, and NGOs, to restore and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030 to fight climate change. China responded by committing to plant 70 billion trees by 2030 continuing the country’s reforestation efforts and contribution to creating over 25% of the world’s new forests in the last 10 years.

The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 program highlights and promotes the world’s pioneering restoration projects that are working to restore ecosystems. A key initiative is Africa’s Great Green Wall project that aims to create an 8,000 kM forested green wall across the width of Africa to prevent the spread of the Sahara Desert and create productive green communities in 11 African countries. The project is only 18% complete but recently received a large infusion of funds for the next decade. The restoration effort is showing progress with communities adopting tree planting projects and farmers learning improved farming techniques including agroforestry, rainwater harvesting, and small-scale irrigation. Populations in these countries have already been impacted by climate change and will benefit from the jobs created and improved food production from the ultimate restoration of 100 million hectares of degraded lands.    

The COP27 announcement of a deforestation roadmap for soy, palm oil, and beef producers has been widely criticized as having little substance and continuing to optimize profits for commodity traders rather than following a carbon reduction pathway. GreenBiz reports that the roadmap fails to consistently define deforestation and focuses only on illegal deforestation, failing to address the conversion of native ecosystems such as grasslands, shrublands, and peatlands that contribute to carbon storage. This limited commitment reflects the fact that many businesses do not believe that sustainable practices will benefit their businesses long term. Although advocates are making the case that investment in forests is good business, convincing governments and land speculators will likely take significant time and effort.

Smaller-scale efforts are also underway to support the preservation of forestland and promote woodland management that increases carbon storage. For decades, many states in the US have maintained programs that provide tax advantages for preserving woodlands. The Tree Farm programs are the best known and provide for lower property taxes on land that is excluded from development. Trees can be harvested from program lands, but the land cannot be clear-cut or otherwise diverted for residential or commercial development. If it is, back taxes with interest and penalties must be forfeited.

But Tree Farm programs were never designed with climate change issues in mind. The land is instead managed for the health of the forest and selective harvesting of marketable timber as goals. The new carbon storage programs require the woodland to be managed with carbon storage as the primary goal. Foresters trained in carbon storage survey the land and help the landowner create a management plan. Incentives are paid to the landowner for continued carbon storage-based management of the property.

A future Zondits article will provide details on these regional smaller scale programs.

Managing Woodlands for Climate Progress and Economic Prosperity

As part of the Trillion Trees effort, the World Economic Forum’s 1t initiative developed Investing in Forests: The Business Case  to promote the economic value potential of forest conservation and restoration and the ways that companies and landowners can become sustainability leaders. The publication addresses business advantages from opportunities for new market growth, reduced risk for supply chains and customer preferences, access to capital, improved customer relationships, and improved talent attraction and employee retention. Opportunities exist for businesses dependent on forests to improve resiliency and increase profitability. And for businesses not integrated with the forest economy, paths for creating new products that benefit conservation efforts and enhance their relationships with employees and customers are identified. For industries with large greenhouse gas emissions, investments in forest management and restoration present opportunities to offset high emissions.

Many progressive businesses have risen to the challenge but more participation is needed to counter deforestation and fund continued expansion of restoration and conservation efforts. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimates that the total value of the world’s forests is close to $150 trillion – double the value of global stock markets. That opportunity should spike the interest of businesses. The next installment of this Zondits series will discuss programs, both large and small, that are demonstrating early success addressing climate issues through forest management.

Additional reading on the topic: