Nature and Biodiversity

Why forest restoration is key to the net-zero transition

This image shows a forest in Indonesia, indicating the need for forest restoration

Forest restoration is essential if we are to meet the net zero targets Image: Photo by Imat Bagja Gumilar on Unsplash

Vaishali Nigam Sinha
Chief Sustainability Officer, ReNew Power
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  • Forests all around the world support wildlife and biodiversity and they are also vast carbon sinks.
  • Yet, since 1990, human activity has contributed to a loss of 420 million hectares of forests globally.
  • Governments, the private and public sectors, think tanks and communities worldwide must take collective action to restore, reforest and maintain forest ecosystems across the globe.

About 40 years ago, a villager saw dead snakes on Majuli Island alongside Brahmaputra River in the state of Assam. He immediately realised that the snakes had died due to a lack of shelter and food due to the deteriorating forest conditions in the area. He also witnessed large chunks of the forestland destroyed due to soil erosion. In 1980, this man, Jadav Molai Payeng, decided to restore the ecosystem of this land by planting bamboo trees. Over the next 30 years, Payeng started planting more species of flora and was successful in reforesting about 550 acres of forestland. His feat was only discovered in 2008 when a herd of a hundred wild elephants strayed into it.

Today, the Molai Kathoni forest, named in honour of Jadav Molai Payang, hosts a large number of species, including Bengal Tigers, rhinoceros, deer, monkeys and birds. Many bird species also visit the forest in transit. His inspiring and stunning achievement should give us hope, but also be a cause for deep reflection, given the scale of today’s climate change crisis, highlighted by the burning temperatures and forest fires in large swathes of Europe this summer.

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Humans are still destroying forests

Countries are working to meet their respective net-zero targets on a war footing and in this context, maintaining, creating, restoring and expanding their forest and tree coverage is critical. Since 1990, human activity has contributed to a loss of 420 million hectares of forests globally. This can be attributed to a lack of sensitisation among sections of policymakers, corporates and the broader population, as well as rampant deforestation. Even today, ten million hectares of trees are chopped down every year to support various human-led activities and this is set to increase, with the exploding human population adding to the burden on natural resources.

Take the Amazon rainforest, which absorbs 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon each year. Ironically — and tragically — it has now become a major source of carbon emissions due to deforestation.

The damage is widespread and the picture is only getting bleaker. According to Bloomberg, global businesses sourcing commodities, such as soybeans or rubber, stand to lose $53 billion due to deforestation unless they act. The case of deforestation gets worse when one looks at the formal forest sector, which currently generates 45 million jobs and about $580 billion in labour income. This is under threat as we deplete more forests each year. Additionally, the 1.6 billion rural people across the world, who depend on forestland for their livelihoods, will also face further threats to their existence due to deforestation.

Companies have a role to play in forest restoration

Given this grim context, corporates must step up to reduce deforestation if they are to meet their net zero carbon emissions targets. According to an analysis by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), over 90% of forest, land and agricultural companies are at risk of missing their net zero targets if they don’t act on tropical deforestation soon. The report also states that if the world has to reach its Net Zero 2050 goal, it must end deforestation this decade. A challenging, but must-achieve goal.

This scenario presents a compelling case for immediate and strong collective action to restore, reforest and maintain the existing forest ecosystems across the world. The term forest restoration today is getting significant traction in global conversations on climate change. Major investors are now putting forests at the heart of net zero goals, as more than $57 trillion in assets and investment portfolios have been committed to net zero by 2050.

Fortunately, investors today also want to create circular bio-economies; that is replacing non-renewable and fossil-based materials with sustainably produced forest products. One example is mass timber, which has the potential to reduce the embodied carbon of buildings by 50%. Creating such bio-economies requires sustained policy interventions and a community mindset shift to climate-positive products.

Ecopreneurship must be encouraged

As well as the private sector and policy interventions, what will be helpful is governments supporting skilling to scale up ecopreneurship and providing incentive-led schemes to ‘green’ businesses, especially those that are operating close to forest areas or depending on forests for climate-positive raw materials.

I also believe that targeted programmes for women in forest conservation are critical. Even today, in most tribal societies, women carry out the work of collecting forest products for subsistence needs. Such initiatives could work wonders for countries such as India, where a large part of the population still lives close to the forests or depends on them for basic livelihoods. While India has already committed to expanding its forest and tree cover to 33% of its geographical landmass by 2030, and climate action in India represents a $3.1 trillion opportunity, large-scale community eco-sensitisation is needed to achieve this target.

At ReNew, we have announced a target of planting 100,000 trees across our areas of operations by 2025 and, as a member of the community, we are scaling this target up to 1 million trees by 2030. In addition, as part of our ESG strategy, we are using the carbon markets framework by developing projects around nature-based solutions that encourage afforestation, protecting forests and land reclamation. Our commitment towards society and communities is evident from strong contributions towards energy access, water conservation, COVID-19 relief, female empowerment and community development. And, as a member of the First Movers Coalition and Co-Chair of the Alliance of CEO Climate Action Leaders India, we aim to inspire more companies in India and beyond to act now.

Undoubtedly, the clean energy transition is a gargantuan task. To fight this ecological and climate crisis, stakeholders from nations to policymakers to corporates to investors to lending agencies, need to break this massive goal into smaller achievable targets across different actors and regions. One smaller achievable target should be the act of forest restoration. Only a carefully monitored, collaborative and cooperative framework between governments, the private sector, the public sector, think tanks and communities can lead to impact on the ground and eventually support larger net zero goals.

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