The most comprehensive study to date on the total number of Earth’s trees was released on Wednesday, reporting 3.04 trillion. That may sound like a lot, but the Yale researchers estimate that the number of trees on Earth has fallen by 46% since the beginning of human civilization, and people are still cutting down more than 15 billion trees per year. Luckily, as firms and countries look for solutions to reduce their net CO2 emissions, more focus around the world is being placed on reforestation.
On Thursday, outdoor apparel company Timberland announced it had planted its two-millionth tree in China’s Horqin Desert. The combined 700 hectares of trees not only absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, but also combat desertification, improve local agriculture, and will hopefully reduce the impact of dust storms that blow east across China, the Koreas, and Japan. At a cost of approximately $1 million since 2001, the project is a key part of the firm’s CSR efforts in Asia. “As an outdoor lifestyle brand, protecting and creating a more sustainable environment is not just a nice to have – it makes good business sense,” Timberland stated in the press release.
And reforestation itself is a prime business opportunity for firms like Australia’s Carbon Neutral. Its clients are companies or individuals who want their CO2 emissions calculated and then offset, which the firm does mostly through reforestation (and to a lesser extent of renewable energy projects) in Australia. Carbon Neutral is experiencing growing demand, including from some of the nation’s leading corporations. “Australian companies now view environmental responsibility as a critical component of their business, and they are increasingly being measured on their performance by consumers, investors and auditors,” said CEO Ray Wilson. Carbon Neutral develops biodiverse reforestation projects on degraded, semi-arid land that no longer supports viable agriculture, by planting up to 40 native tree and shrub species specifically matched to the individual environments.
But firms aren’t exclusively motivated by cost and compliance with CO2 requirements. Some want to give back to the environment on moral grounds — with the bonus of positive P.R. that is. For example, olive oil producer evo3, driven by the environmental passion of its founder Stratis Camatsos, has committed that for every bottle of evo3 olive oil or jam sold, a tree will be planted in a deforested area. To do so, it has partnered with NGO The Eden Projects, which hires entire villages in Haiti, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and Nepal to plant and care for trees in their formerly-deforested communities. To date they have planted 97,103,500 trees, creating 971,035 workdays for locals in the process. The NGO has refined its economy of scale to a bottom-line cost of just 10 cents per tree planted.
Meanwhile, tech startup BioCarbon Engineering aims to counter industrial-scale deforestation with industrial scale reforestation: planting 1 billion trees per year. It will do so using drones that map an area and then fire biodegradable seed pods into spots with predicted high uptake rates. The drones can plant 15-times more trees than by hand, at a cost of 10 trees per dollar. The following image shows BioCarbon Engineering’s planting sequence:
(Source: BioCarbon Engineering)
In May, BioCarbon Engineering stated in a press release:
“We will be working with local NGOs and farmers cooperatives to ensure that the local population will get all the benefits from restored ecosystems. For every dollar invested in forest restoration, there are 2.5 dollars of downstream income being created. We are not replacing local jobs, we are primarily focusing on complicated terrains or contaminated land that is inaccessible or dangerous for humans. We also plan to create hundreds of jobs in seed-pod preparation and forest maintenance.”
On the national-level, some commendable progress is being made towards eliminating deforestation. On August 20, Germany agreed to provide $588 million in loans and $25.7 million in grants to Brazil to develop clean energy sources and to meet its commitment to end deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. And since 2008, Norway has struck agreements with a number of tropical countries where deforestation is a major problem, such as Liberia and Indonesia, whereby it pays those countries upon verified reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.
But countries’ efforts need to go beyond slowing the damage to actually reversing it.
The benefits of reforestation are wide-ranging and obvious, and compared to other CO2 reduction proposals it faces virtually no opposition. A report issued this week by carbon research group RepuTex says reforestation is “a hidden ace-in-the-hole” for Australia in terms of domestic emissions reduction potential, as the cheapest option. “Particularly in cases where land has not been cleared for a long time and seeds are still present in the ground, the least-cost method is natural regeneration, where an area is set aside to allow plants to grow back naturally,” it stated. RepuTex estimates carbon emissions savings costs from reforestation at about $14-28 a ton. “The real benefits of forestry projects come from biodiversity, combating land/watershed degradation, job generation and improving national confidence regarding climate change — potentially the most important benefit that is also the least tangible,” RepuTex added.
So some countries have gotten onboard with ambitious reforestation plans. The Philippines’ National Greening Program (NGP) seeks to grow 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares nationwide from 2011 to 2016. And not all of it will be left idle; by planting trees that offer harvests without the need for clear-cutting, the NGP is creating local agricultural livelihoods. For example, under the 2013 to 2016 NGP roadmap, the Eastern Visayas region targets 122,900 hectares for planting of timber, fuel wood, coffee, cacao, bamboo, rattan, other fruit trees, indigenous species, and mangrove, according to Interaksyon News.
But China’s Three North Shelterbelt Project, or the Great Green Wall, is by far the world’s largest tree-planting project. By 2050, it is intended to stretch 4,500km (2,800 miles) along the edges of China’s northern deserts, cover 405 million hectares (42% of its territory), thus increasing the world’s forest cover by more than a tenth. But even this may not be sufficient to turn the tide of desertification.
The stark reality is that planting trees is only the beginning; working to keep them alive is more complex. Not all seeds or saplings take root, and other factors such as climate change and drought can wipe out trees, particularly non-native monocultures. Just 15% of trees planted on China’s arid lands since 1949 survive today, estimated Cao Shixiong of Beijing Forestry University, since many were not suited to the soil. By contrast, planting a variety of native species has the best chance of long-term success.
The problem of deforestation seems overwhelming on the global scale, but planting new trees has by no means been trivial. Lead author of the Yale study Dr. Thomas Crowther said it was hard to accurately count regrowth and reforestation, in part because saplings are small. But his team of researchers estimated that new trees might reduce the net loss from over 15 billion to about 10 billion trees per year. And deforestation will hopefully slow down even more after the upcoming climate change talks in Paris in December, where global rules on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) are expected to be accepted.
Still, an even better example to scale up around the world is the U.N. Environment Programme’s Billion Tree Campaign (now run by the nonprofit Plant for the Planet). It succeeded far beyond expectations — during the first five years of the campaign after its 2006 launch, some 12.585 billion trees were planted around the world and registered on the campaign’s website. A couple billion more per year, and we can all breathe easier.