Missing the forest for the trees
Across the world, forests span 4.06 billion hectares and support 80 percent of all land-based species - absorbing a quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted by human activities in the process. In the US, for example, forests cover 304 million hectares - sequestering 866 million tons of carbon a year (~16 percent of the US annual emissions) while delivering a range of co-benefits to society and the economy. Zooming out, more than 250 million people living in forested areas depend on them for subsistence and income. Thus, as world leaders and innovators seek to stymie the pace of climate change, preserve biodiversity, and support a growing population, it is evident that trees are an important part of the solution.
Trees, which are about half carbon by weight, fix atmospheric CO₂ through photosynthesis - integrating it into complex organic molecules used in above-ground biomass (trunks, branches, foliage) and below-ground biomass (root systems). Beyond carbon, forests are known for regulating local climates - filtering out water pollution, regulating stream flows, recharging aquifers, and absorbing flooding. Across the contiguous US alone, forests contribute more than half of the pure water delivered to citizens while filtering atmospheric pollutants like sulfur dioxide, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide - removing 17.4M tonnes of pollution from the air we breathe.
As it stands, forests cover about 31 percent of the world’s land area, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate. In the last 300 years, 1.5 billion hectares of forest - 1.5x the size of the US - have been felled or destroyed due to human or natural factors. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometers (502,000 square miles) of forest - an area larger than South Africa. Today, less than 20 percent of the world's forests remain “intact” - free from logging or other forms of development. Keep in mind that when trees sequester CO₂, the plants simply store the carbon, incorporating it into their woody biomass and leaves as they grow. When forests are cleared for agriculture, harvested for wood products, or destroyed by natural disasters, the accumulated carbon is re-released back into the atmosphere.
In truth, 95 percent of annual deforestation occurs in the tropics. Half of the problem happens in Brazil and Indonesia, where stakeholders sacrifice the long-term benefits of standing trees for short-term gain. Between 2015 and 2017, tree cover loss in tropical countries emitted 4.8 Gt of CO₂ per year. Put another way, if tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third in CO₂-equivalent emissions, behind China and the US. In the US - a pioneer in national parks and wildlife preserves - 99 percent of the nation's frontier forests have been lost across the lower forty-eight states over the span of a century. In aggregate, three agricultural sectors account for three-quarters of global deforestation:
Beef: 2.1 million hectares of forest are converted to pasture land to raise cattle every year. Not only does this contribute 41 percent of tropical deforestation, but it more than doubles the rate of conversion generated by the production of oilseeds and forestry products (the second and third biggest drivers) combined.
Oilseeds: Two commodities, palm oil & soybeans, drive 18.4 percent of deforestation. In Malaysia and Indonesia, entire forests are felled to cultivate palm oil, which makes its way into everything from shampoo to ice cream. The bulk of the global soybean harvest goes towards feed for livestock or biofuels.
Forestry Products: Logging operations, which provide the world’s wood and paper products, account for 13 percent of tropical deforestation. As it stands, almost 4 million hectares of timber are harvested across the globe each year.
In theory, halting deforestation, preventing large-scale forest fires, and encouraging sustainable forest management practices could help keep global warming under 2°C while restoring 33 percent of the world's land that is moderately or highly degraded. But offsetting emissions through reforestation and afforestation (planting trees in areas that have never been forested) is far from a simple fix. Moreover, recent reports have uncovered how industrial tree planting techniques are regularly conflated with beneficial natural forest restoration. In truth, tree planting initiatives, especially those focused on massive numerical targets, run the risk of:
Incentivizing industrial forests: Across the globe, 45 percent of promised new forests will be monoculture tree plantations, which rely on fast-growing non-native species (i.e., acacia, eucalyptus, and pine) that are cheaper to seed but also provide fewer ecological benefits. Man-made forests, primarily planted across countries like Brazil, China, Indonesia, and Nigeria, alter the functioning of entire ecosystems - leaving them more vulnerable to pests (insects and microorganisms) and fire.
Exacerbating climate change: As counterintuitive as it sounds, increases in forest cover can make global warming worse. Afforestation, which often necessitates clearing land, can release existing carbon stores in the soil, resulting in a net loss of carbon from an ecosystem. The introduction of foreign saplings also crowds out native species and increases the fuel available to wildfires, which re-releases large pools of CO2 back into the air.
Disrupting natural ecosystems: In developing countries, there is a conflict between using millions of acres of traditional rangelands to plant trees that offset the developed world’s emissions and using them for agriculture to feed growing populations. In South Africa, grazing lands are being replaced by these thirsty invasive species, which offer little biodiversity benefits, consume more water than native plants, and dry up rivers and wetlands; and on Hainan Island (China), afforestation programs are substituting biodiverse farming systems with monocultures of eucalyptus and rubber.
As a global regime advocates for ‘wall to wall’ planting of tree plantations to absolve our climate crisis, grasslands, which cover 20 to 40 percent of the world’s land surface and were never meant to be forests, are at risk. Without proper planning and oversight, we risk a situation where we “miss the savanna for the trees” and lose a significant portion of our ancient grassy ecosystems forever. Companies like Propagate Ventures recognize that the combined value of forests and grassland is the key, either in separate areas or in silvopastoral systems, which combine trees, pasture, and forage to improve land health and increase carbon sequestration. Their precision agroforestry platform allows landowners to add value through fruit, nut, and timber crops.
At the same time, a handful of startups are creating reforestation tools to help sustainably reforest denuded landscapes from seed to sapling and beyond. DroneSeed is deploying drones to provide rapid reforestation after wildfires while Terraformation and the Land Life Company partner with landowners and NGOs - leveraging technology to plan, train, sustain and scale restoration projects. Their toolkits include native seed banks, modular nursery kits, solar-powered desalination plants, and software to help clients rapidly, repeatedly reforest degraded landscapes. In contrast, Future Forest Company acquires land and then co-deploys reforestation with biochar and enhanced weathering to increase carbon sequestration per hectare by up to 10x.
However, we mustn’t confuse climate restoration with only adding new forests to an ecosystem. If we are interested in using trees to combat climate change, one of the most effective, immediate, and cost-effective approaches at our disposal is protecting existing natural forests, otherwise known as “proforestation,” rather than indiscriminately planting new ones. By allowing mature forests to grow into their full ecological potential and degraded lands to regenerate naturally into jungle or woodlands, we can store 40x more carbon than a tree plantation while leaving precious rangelands and conservation areas alone.
Overall, unlocking the power of forests can provide 23 percent of the climate mitigation needed over the next decade to meet goals set in the Paris Agreement. While the best solution isn’t clear, the deforestation crisis presents a chance for governments, policymakers, and innovators to come together to develop more effective frameworks and technologies for tracking, managing, and regenerating our dwindling stock of forests. At ReGen Ventures, we see ecosystem restoration and conservation as an exciting opportunity to partner with the most ambitious teams working with nature instead of against it to restore and preserve our planet. If this sounds like something you are working on, get in touch!