Realities of forest restoration in landscapes

Posted on 14 August 2020

Comprehensive forest and landscape restoration is one way we can hit fast forward on reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.
By Craig Beatty, WWF-US

During the history of life on Earth, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have only twice been at or above current levels. 

In both cases, natural processes led to reductions: through the colonization of land by plants and then by the evolution of flowering plants. Also, in both cases, millions of years passed before CO2 levels lowered to what we would consider normal, the type of time commitment humanity cannot currently afford. 

Fortunately for us, we can commandeer the very same natural processes that nature evolved to deal with high CO2 levels in the past without needing to wait millions of years. Combined with a transformational shift away from heavily carbonized systems that drive massive emissions and land degradation, comprehensive forest and landscape restoration is one way we can hit fast forward on reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.

Perhaps ironically, a significant portion of the elevated concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the degradation and conversion of past forests and landscapes themselves. With each indrawn breath, we take in a portion of all the ecosystems that have been degraded and converted in human history, which are about half of those that ever even existed. Restoration—which should include activities like afforestation, reforestation, ecological restoration, agroforestry, land management, and other types of regeneration—has the potential to reclaim those losses and is the only climate action ready to be implemented at a scale that can potentially lead to negative emissions.

Forest and landscape restoration is a key nature-based climate solution, and its important role in mitigating climate change is strongly supported by climate science. To achieve a 1.5°C climate pathway, 100–1000 GtCO2 will need to be removed from the atmosphere in addition to carbon emission neutrality. The lower end of that range is roughly the equivalent of the total historical CO2 emissions from Russia, and the higher end is about the equivalent of the total historic emissions of Asia, Africa, and the Americas combined. 

Forest and landscape restoration can make significant contributions to meeting those removal needs. Some studies report annual mitigation potentials from afforestation and reforestation as high as 10.1 GtCO2, while others find that the restoration potential of trees is between 133.2 to 276.2 GtC and that one-fifth of cost-effective climate solutions involve the restoration of native forests and wetlands. Though they each define restoration uniquely, the implication of restoration as a necessary climate action is clear. 

Restoration efforts can be rolled out with the urgency the climate crisis requires. Working within existing restoration frameworks and platforms—or co-opting conservation and land management platforms for restoration initiatives—can fast-track restoration opportunities assessments that can be comprehensive, inclusive, and completed in under one year.

The broad support of tree-planting initiatives is a testament to the notion that a world with more trees is not a bad thing. Global campaigns like the Bonn Challenge, and regional efforts like AFR100, Initiative 20x20, or ECCA30, have spurred the creation of consultative bodies to discuss landscape issues and further stakeholder engagement in the emergent definition of degraded land and restoration opportunities in dozens of countries. Combined, national and subnational commitments to restoration exceed 170 million hectares worldwide across over 63 jurisdictions, and still more countries are undertaking forest and landscape restoration without committing to these platforms. 

However, the reality of forest and landscape restoration at such scales requires more than evidence, opportunity, and will. It also requires an alignment of these objectives with the people who have the rights, motives, and ecological and cultural understandings that are unique to each landscape. Without their consultation and participation, restoration initiatives focused solely on delivering maximized climate mitigation outcomes are often divorced from local reality and risk strong opposition unless they demonstrate how restoration supports the needs and concerns of local people. While national commitments and initiatives can help generate interest and can support research and programs that generate real benefits for people, restoration is something that can only happen locally by engaging people to invest in degraded landscapes and to work to improve the ecological conditions within their landscapes. 

Most people who work in restoration understand this and are diligently endeavoring to ensure that restoration is defined broadly enough so that it can include thousands of different types of actions that meet the needs of local people and economies; generate multiple benefits for different stakeholders within the same landscapes; prioritize the conservation of existing ecosystems; and support the ecological restoration of areas important for wild and agricultural diversity. 

If we view restoration as a process that can contribute to solving urgent problems — the climate crisis, poverty, human health, the rapid extinction of species and ecosystems, food security, access to natural resources, desertification, forced migration, and many, many more — we must ensure that restoration realizes its potential to deliver in different ways for different people, not just the objectives of one particular group.  

Every single restoration initiative should be directed toward creating these transformational conditions, and there are dozens of examples for how partnerships between governments, the private sector, WWF, and local representatives can work together to transform degraded landscapes. To dismiss any of the social, economic, or ecological complexities of how people might ultimately engage in restoration in order to quickly scale up will miss the mark of what restoration is ultimately designed to deliver in perpetuity, no matter your perspective. 

In this respect, there is a right way and a wrong way to start considering restoration. And, while we need to act with urgency in the face of the climate crisis, we also can’t afford to waste our efforts by cutting corners, counting trees, or skipping steps. Coupled with swift and deep cuts to current emissions, we can take a little time to make sure our forest restoration efforts comprehensively engage local people, plan for how we meet the needs of diverse stakeholders, and deliver the climate benefits we need to put us on a long-term pathway to a 1.5°C world.
Seedlings ready for planing in Nepal.
© Karine Aigner / WWF-US