At a climate summit this fall, Bill Gates sparked controversy by dismissing tree planting as a climate crisis solution, calling it “complete nonsense.”
To many, this may seem shocking. But the real issue stems from the misconception that ecosystem restoration is the same as mass ‘tree planting’.
If you are like so many children who grew up watching David Attenborough on TV, the idea of ecosystem restoration probably evokes visions of a beautiful planet with vibrant animals and thriving communities. This beautiful vision is not only inspiring; it is essential for our survival on this planet. This decade has been named the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to recognize the urgent need to halt and reverse the destruction of nature.
And yet, as we approach the mid-point of this critical decade, ecosystem restoration has been suffering from an identity crisis that threatens the entire movement. The problem at the heart of this controversy is that there are conflicting ideas about what restoration actually is:
To many people, restoration means planting as many trees as possible to offset carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this view of restoration can be extremely dangerous because tree planting often gets used as an excuse to avoid cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which continue to threaten life as we know it. If the fossil fuel industry continues to spend almost a trillion dollars on expanding new oil and gas operations, even 10 planets full of trees could not offset the devastation that would result.
These monoculture "carbon farms" are not the restoration of nature. In fact, they are often the destruction of it. They often cover landscapes in a blanket of trees that grow at the expense of the native biodiversity or local people who live in that region.
Because of this greenwashing, a stream of media articles has highlighted how mass plantations can do more harm than good. GreenPeace and other environmental NGOs have called for an end to nature-based solutions. And while confidence in nature-based solutions remains low, so do financial commitments to nature, as the shortfall for biodiversity is as high as $900 billion per year.
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However, nature is not the problem. Trees are not the problem. In fact, we need them more than ever before. The problem is our misuse of them as a quick fix to offset carbon emissions.
To address this growing controversy, hundreds of scientists recently joined forces to publish an Integrated Global Forest Assessment in the journal Nature. This study shows that the recovery of natural forests has the potential to help with ? of our carbon drawdown needs in the fight against climate change. But it also shows that these climate benefits will not be achieved if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions.
If emissions continue, then fires, drought and warming will only threaten the forests that we have left. The science is clear, that there can be no choice between cutting emissions and protecting nature, because we urgently need both. We can’t address the climate crisis without nature, and we can’t address the nature crisis without cutting emissions.
The study also shows that the full potential of forests will not be achieved by monoculture tree plantations, which store less than half as much carbon as diverse ecosystems. Most (61%) of the forest potential can be achieved by protecting and managing the ecosystems that we have left, allowing them to recover to maturity. The rest can be achieved by incentivizing community-driven efforts to enhance biodiversity in degraded regions.
Ultimately, these climate mitigation benefits are fantastic, but the climate adaptation benefits for local people are far more important. Diverse, natural ecosystems can have a cooling effect in the hottest regions, they can trap moisture in the driest regions, and they are therefore vital to the resilience of communities in the face of climate change. These benefits are not limited to forests, as we desperately need to protect natural grasslands, peatlands, wetlands, and all other ecosystems that are equally essential to life on Earth.
So how do we achieve the benefits of ecosystem restoration, whilst avoiding the threat of greenwashing? I believe that we must first align on what the goal of nature restoration really is.
We need to end our tunnel vision on carbon, because that is not the primary goal. The real goal of ecosystem restoration is improving biodiversity for the local people who depend on it. To do this, the real challenge is to find the solutions that make natural biodiversity the viable option for local people.
Across our planet, there are millions of local communities, indigenous populations, farmers, and businesses who are finding the solutions that make healthy biodiversity the preferred economic choice. For these initiatives, carbon is not the goal. It is a byproduct of healthy livelihoods.
You can see thousands of them on the global restor.eco network. When Leitoro Adrian protects patches of local Kenyan forest with the NaPO network, the vegetation traps moisture so that his cattle can graze. By protecting nature, Leitoro is securing sustainable food, livelihoods and medicines for the Rendille tribe that he belongs to. This means that nature has become a viable option. As more and more nearby villages join in, nature continues to recover across the entire landscape.
Leitoro is not alone. Like the farmers in the Centro De Estudos Rioterra community in Brazil, or the community conservationists of Lemo Nakai Village in Indonesia, Leitoro is one of countless people across the globe that depend directly on healthy, diverse forests for his livelihood.
When you see the thriving biodiversity supporting local livelihoods, then the real value of ecosystem restoration becomes abundantly clear. And the slogan of Zambian farmer, Samuel Kamwendo—“no trees, no bees; no honey, no money”—requires absolutely no explanation.
To end greenwashing, organizations should not invest in mass monoculture plantations and carbon offsets. Instead, our financial and political mechanisms need to distribute the flow of wealth towards millions of community-driven initiatives like this, which enhance biodiversity for the people who depend on it.
These are the local stewards of nature, who are protecting all of us against the global threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. We need to invest, donate, and buy products from these local, community-driven initiatives around the world so that more and more people can become economically empowered by nature.
When healthy nature becomes the viable option for local people, that is when we get the long-term climate benefits of nature as a wonderful byproduct.
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