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Why trees alone won't save the planet

Ahead of 'Nature Day' at COP26, this new blog explores the implications of focusing on tree planting alone and looks at how and why we should widen the scope of nature-based solutions under consideration.

Is planting trees really the only nature-based way to help mitigate climate change? By reading government press releases on tackling climate change before COP 26 and some of the updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) you may have thought it was. There was a significant danger of ignoring the benefit of existing natural forest cover, wetlands, our protected area networks and the threats to habitat integrity that undermine the ecological functionality of these natural systems.

In the desire to find suitable Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) aligned investment opportunities, and with companies and governments desperate to meet tough carbon offset targets there is a growing interest and investment in planting trees. Just about everyone is doing it, sovereign wealth funds, global tech companies and of course oil companies. It’s not a completely new strategy, pension funds have been investing in trees for decades, but not until the past few years has the impetus really grown.

And why not! Everyone likes trees. They form a core foundation of our landscapes, are associated with our cultural heritage and are a flagship of the natural kingdom. Planting trees provide one of the cheapest ways to suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow down global warming, as well as providing a multitude of ecosystem services such as helping to stabilise soils and reduce flood risks. This must surely then be a win-win solution. Investing in trees not only mitigates climate change but helps our planet and communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change, whilst helping to restore degraded landscapes and hence providing a nature-based solution to the challenges our planet faces from climate change.

Seeing the wood from the trees

To meet the ambitious needs of ESG investors and NDC targets, millions of hectares of trees need to be planted. India alone aims to plant over 20 million hectares with further global efforts such as the Bonn Challenge aiming to plant 350 million trees. However, it’s not yet clear where all these trees will be planted, potentially displacing existing formal and informal land users and promoting the emergence and spread of monocultures or fast-growing alien species, rather than the regeneration of native, degraded forests. The emphasis seems to be on numbers of trees and hectares of land placed under forest cover.

Focusing on planting new trees distracts attention from the continued destruction of other trees, with the loss of primary forests around the equator increasing at a growing rate with Brazil, for example, committing to planting 12 million hectares of trees by 2030 within its NDCs, but having seen the loss of 60 million hectares of Amazonian forest since the year 2000. So, could it be that by rapidly jumping onto the tree planting bandwagon countries - and well-intentioned companies - are actually contributing to unintended negative environmental impacts, whilst losing focus on the need to conserve existing forests and landscapes?

Protecting Forests

Renewed focus on the critical importance of conserving and protecting our natural forests was given the impetus and more importantly the political will it desperately needed this week at COP 26. 110 countries, including Brazil, China and Indonesia have acknowledged the role forests of all types play in enabling the world to meet its sustainable development goals, committing themselves to conserve their natural forests, stopping deforestation and reversing forest loss by 2030. This ambitious pledge now needs to be met. World leaders have been here before, making similar commitments in New York in 2014. What’s different this time though are the countries which have signed up, including Brazil, China and Russia which were missing signatories to the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests. This global commitment by political leaders must be supported by the private sector if their ambitions are to be met.

Branching out

Few investors are yet looking at the broader scope of nature-based solutions in which to invest. It's not only newly planted trees after all that suck up carbon. Grasslands, swamps and the soil itself all play significant roles in capturing carbon. As with forests, these habitats are being degraded at increasing rates. Climate-resilient grasslands are being lost to poor fire management and unsustainable farming practices, wetlands critical for regulating and cleaning water supplies are being polluted and their peat beds drained, while soil cover is being lost at a scary rate through land-use change and the loss of vegetation cover. Investing in the conservation of these landscapes by halting their degradation and enhancing the connectivity and network of intact natural wilderness areas would both enhance the adaptive capacity of landscapes to protect biodiversity and the people who live in them to climate change and contribute towards countries meeting their NDCs.

Putting a price on it

Nature is an asset, but often not one that we have properly quantified, nor our dependence upon it. Our natural capital needs to be properly measured with other capital goods, where depreciation is embedded into economic models. The depreciating value of our natural capital is not captured but needs to be. The Dasgupta Review (2021) premise is that if we put a price on the beneficial properties of different landscapes, e.g. as carbon sinks, they are more likely to be protected.

We are slowly taking steps in the right direction and opening the door for both public and private finance. But, we need to improve the dialogue between scientists and policymakers so that the quantifiable carbon capture benefits of habitat conservation are defined and articulated in a way that allows the investment community to integrate these practices into investment portfolios and facilitate the transition to broader investments.

Don’t stop at planting

The emphasis made here is not to stop planting trees, but to view nature-based solutions more holistically and acknowledge the dual mitigation and adaptation benefits that these actions can have. More countries need to integrate nature-based solutions into their NDCs and better articulate and quantify their actions and benefits when they do. The Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Deforestation is another step in the right direction, but we need to maintain pressure on these leaders if they are to deliver on their promises.

About the author:

Dr Chris Brooks is a Senior Consultant for Nature and the Environment