Climate and Nature

Science is redefining forest restoration for biodiversity, this is what we can do to help

An image of a forest floor in Indonesia, illustrating the need for the careful restoration of forests

Forests need to be carefully managed to improve biodiversity. Image: Unsplash/Imat Bagja Gumilar

Thomas Crowther
Professor of Global Systems Ecology, ETH Zurich
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Climate and Nature

  • A new study, published in the journal Nature shows that outside of urban and agricultural areas, natural, biodiverse forests have the potential to capture an additional ~226Gt of carbon.
  • Due to ongoing deforestation, the total amount of carbon stored in forests is ~328 Gt below its natural state.
  • Financial institutions and businesses should take steps to end deforestation within their own portfolios and supply chains.

As the debate on restoring forests to offset carbon continues in the media, hundreds of scientists across the globe, led by Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, have joined forces to build an integrated global assessment of the forest carbon potential. This study - published in the journal Nature – suggests that while natural, biodiverse forest recovery can contribute to ~30% of carbon drawdown goals, natural forests are no substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If we fail to slow our emissions, then ongoing climate change will threaten forests and limit their ability to absorb carbon.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

What the science says

The data shows that the total amount of carbon stored in forests is ~328 Gt below its potential across all types of landscapes. A gigaton is equal to the CO2 emissions of Brazil and Mexico combined. If we exclude urban and agricultural areas, the study highlights that natural forests, if allowed to recover, could capture an additional ~226 Gt Carbon. But, this won't be achieved through vast tree plantations.

The majority, 61% of this potential, can be achieved by protecting the natural forests that we still have, allowing the recovery of areas that have been degraded so that they reach maturity.

The remaining 39% can be achieved by reconnecting fragmented forest landscapes through sustainable, context-appropriate ecosystem management and restoration. This includes a huge effort across conservation ecotourism, agroforestry and rewilding that make biodiversity the viable economic choice for communities.

The dataset revealed that biodiversity accounts for approximately half of the global forest productivity, showing that the potential of forests could never be achieved with monocultures of a single species. Sustainable agricultural, forestry and restoration practices that promote healthy biodiversity and the well-being of local people will have the greatest potential for carbon capture and storage in the long term. And, importantly, this does not include the conversion of other natural ecosystems that would not naturally support trees. It is critical that we protect the ecological integrity of natural grasslands, peatlands, wetlands and all other ecosystems that are equally essential for life on Earth.

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Redefining restoration

For too long, we have extracted from nature. In the fight against climate change, when carbon becomes the only goal, this incentivizes the mass plantations and carbon offsets that can cause damage. It’s time to shift our focus to human wellbeing and biodiversity so that carbon capture is a by-product.

Across our planet, there are communities, indigenous populations, farmers and businesses that make natural biodiversity the preferred choice. There are thousands of examples where biodiversity is improving long-term income for people across the globe and this should be prioritised.

In the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, for example, coffee production has been ravaging the soil and biodiversity. Coffee crops are expected to decline as much as 30% in the next 70 years due to a rapidly changing climate bringing erratic rainfall and prolonged drought, further accelerating a decline in soil health and increasing the threat to biodiversity.

One community is working to change this reality. Desta’s Coffee Jungle Farm provides a shining example of how a community can do things differently. Growing the native coffee plant in the sunny patches of a rainforest, allows the surrounding ecosystem to trap water and nutrients, enabling the coffee plants to grow and produce berries without irrigation or fertilizers.

This mutually beneficial relationship between the community and the forest, whereby the community protects the forest and the forest nurtures the coffee plants, creates a virtuous and economically viable cycle between people and nature. Today, this coffee is sold globally to a variety of companies and consumers who can demonstrate their link to this regeneratively farmed coffee.

Another example is in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the Fercliffe project is working to restore 2,000 Ha of humid mistbelt forest. A community of local residents and organizations are removing alien invasive species, growing indigenous trees where the forest has been degraded, promoting habitat corridors between fragmented patches and watching the biodiversity come back.

But fundamentally, none of this is going to be possible without a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. There can be no choice between looking after nature and decarbonizing because we urgently need both. We need nature for climate, and we need climate action for nature.

So, what can we do to help natural forests?

We can all play a part in that change. We, the public, could:

1. Look at what we are consuming and try to choose the local, sustainable options.

2. Invest, donate and buy products from the millions of local community-driven efforts that promote biodiversity across the globe.

3. Put pressure on organizations and governments to protect nature.

4. Encourage financial and political mechanisms to shift focus towards promoting biodiversity for the well-being of people across the globe.

For the private sector, acting on climate and deforestation is no longer a choice, it must:

1. End deforestation within their own operations. Rather than offsetting their impacts on nature, try to minimize them first.

2. Accelerate steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which continue to threaten ecosystems across our planet.

3. Invest in the millions of local community-driven efforts that promote biodiversity across the globe.

Companies can also consider pledging to 1t.org, the platform that supports the recovery of forests by conserving, restoring and growing a trillion trees by 2030 for people, biodiversity and the planet.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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