As part of the Bonn Challenge and other initiatives, countries have pledged to restore forests. Autumn in the Thai Erawan National park. ©Shutterstock

Planting trees to save the planet

Tree planting and its role in maintaining and restoring ecosystems was looked at in a CIFOR Digital Forum held last October. The event was attended by representatives from a wide range of areas including business, finance, technology and conservation.

With global wildlife populations plummeting, around a million plant and animal species on the verge of extinction and much of the Earth’s land surface degraded, planting trees has become a popular option to save habitats and maintain human wellbeing. Around eleven per cent of all land could support new forests without encroaching on cropland or urban areas.

As part of the Bonn Challenge and other international initiatives, countries have pledged to restore forests and increase tree cover. But planting trees must not damage existing ecosystems and has to contribute to climate, biodiversity and sustainable development goals. To get an idea of how tree planting and growing can really work and deliver on internationally set targets, the “Digital Forum: Can tree planting save the planet?” looked at aspects ranging from financing to new technologies and presented accounts of experience gained so far. The meeting also saw the launch of the “Resilient Landscapes” venture.

Resilient Landscapes is an outcome of the recent merger between the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which organised the Digital Forum, and World Agroforestry (ICRAF). It seeks to facilitate private investment in nature-based solutions, addressing areas such as rejuvenating the functions of degraded ecosystems, mainstreaming biodiversity into national planning and supporting governments and the private sector in moving towards sustainable economies. Speaking at the Digital Forum, Howard Shapiro, Senior Advisor on the Private Sector to Resilient Landscapes, emphasised the role of trees in maintaining resilient landscapes, referring to the crucial role in recycling groundwater, but also noting their significance in areas such as social justice.

Financing tree planting

Various initiatives have been set up to support the financing of tree planting. In 2010, Tanja Havemann established Clarmondial in Zurich, Switzerland, to facilitate investments linked to improved natural resource efficiency. Addressing the Forum, Havemann referred to a range of aspects to be considered in financing, including not only the governance of funds and returns for investors but also environmental and social benefits and the fact that non-governmental organisations were often not used to being counterparts in investment schemes.

Carbon finance specialist Caroline van Tilborg noted that more and more climate-positive companies were emerging. However, she insisted that ventures should first seek to measure their own carbon footprint and implement reduction measures themselves.

Freetown the Treetown

Yvonne Aki Sawyerr, Mayor of Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown since 2018, has committed herself to various measures to transform her city in areas ranging from waste management and housing through urban planning, tackling environmental degradation to job creation in the tourism sector. “We are looking at tree-planting pragmatically,” Sawyerr said at the Forum. “Given climate change, it is desperately needed.” She explained that rural to urban migration had resulted in the hills surrounding the city being stripped of their forest cover – especially also because of a lack of effective building control –which had in turn led to erosion.

“Planting trees is a very important tool in addressing challenges that are now global,” Sawyerr said, noting that the city’s “Freetown the Treetown” campaign had mobilised young and old. Everyone can now sign up to become a tree steward, and the state of trees in public spaces and even in offices is constantly monitored. Not only does the movement enjoy public support, but it is also being backed by the private sector, ministries and even the World Bank.

Getting tree planting right

Thomas Crowther, Professor of Global Ecosystems Ecology at ETH Zurich, warned against viewing trees as an easy way out and pitting tree planting against the climate movement. Bridging the gap between the global and the local challenge of restoring ecosystems required generating global models as well as developing tailored solutions for people on the ground.

ICRAF project manager Susan Chomba stressed the need to link spatial data modelling with aspects such as local knowledge. “It’s a world of local communities,” Chomba noted, highlighting the importance of local initiatives and people who were not economically strong but nevertheless passionate about ecosystem restoration.

Harrie Lovenstein, who heads the R&D Department of the Netherlands-based Land Life Company, presented a range of technologies aimed at avoiding planting the wrong trees in the wrong places. His company has created a tree data base covering 30,000 varieties that is combined with GPS locating and tracking via drone and satellite. Lovenstein maintained that such efforts were essential in large-scale restoration projects to tackle what he referred to as “climate change acceleration”. Tree configurations and how tree species were helping to protect each other were also being looked at. “We are getting smarter with every tree,” Lovenstein remarked.

Tor-Gunnar Vågen, head of the Geo Science Lab at ICRAF, presented an app that can be used for tracking and recording in restoration efforts. The app, which works in several languages, is useful for selecting the right species for the right places.

Clarifying the scale of the challenge ahead in terms of tree planting, Lauren Fletcher, founder of the innovative venture studio ß-Earth and inventor of Tree Planting Drone Technology, stated that two trillion trees were needed to restore global-scale ecosystems. The right tools were required for the right locations, and hand-planting would always remain part of the solution. However, despite major commitments to tree planting, trees were still seeing negative growth. “We need smarter ways to combine efforts,” Fletcher concluded.

Author: Mike Gardner, free journalist, Bonn, Germany