Panel explores opportunities for trillion trees campaign to unlock forest potential

A panel of experts including EII Executive Director Dan Nepstad convened Wednesday to discuss the role of forests in reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming. The panel comes amid heightened attention on forests reflected in global initiatives like the trillion trees campaign.

While panelists welcomed the newfound focus on forests, they warned efforts could fall short unless they recognize current opportunities and priorities for forests in climate mitigation strategies.

“Done well, the trillion trees initiative is a fantastic opportunity,” said Rob Jackson, professor of Earth Science Systems at Stanford University, noting forests absorb as much as a third of the world’s fossil fuel emissions while enhancing biodiversity. “Done badly it could do more harm.”

The effort to restore or plant a trillion new trees has gained broad support in recent months and has spawned a variety of new initiatives, including a collaborative effort among leading NGOs and another, the platform, announced in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos and later embraced by the White House.

But Jackson stressed forests cannot be a substitute for cuts in emissions from the energy sector, which he called an “immediate need.” He highlighted the potential damage of planting forests in the wrong places for local ecosystems and local economies. And in the context of climate change, managing a trillion trees over the course of a century or more is fraught with challenges. “How do you keep these trees alive,” observed Jackson.

“Our nursery production has gone down in recent decades,” said Ann Bartuska, senior advisor with Resources for the Future, addressing the difficulty of growing forests amid a changing climate. “How do we optimize the selection of species for carbon sequestration and site specificity? Where things have grown before they may not grow in the future.”

Forest protection and regeneration are among the “low hanging fruits” when it comes to leveraging forests’ potential as carbon sinks, according to Nepstad.

Such strategies are critical to preventing an Amazon “tipping point,” whereby the world’s largest rainforest succumbs to the pressures of deforestation, drought and wildfire, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and turning the Amazon into a carbon source rather than a carbon sink. Protecting the Amazon’s existing forests and encouraging the regeneration of degraded lands, he noted, will do as much or more for the climate than planting new forests, and for less cost.

Achieving that requires leveraging the current focus on forests and channeling the growing number of corporate commitments to carbon neutrality toward supporting regional governments in the tropics, some of which have already made important strides in advancing sustainable development goals.

“Brazil demonstrated what no one thought was possible, which was to radically decrease deforestation,” explained Nepstad. Beginning in 2005, the country cut forest loss from twenty thousand square kilometers annually to less than four thousand. Those numbers have since been rising, partly due to the fact that Brazil saw just 4% of its major contribution to climate change solutions compensated by international donors.

Nepstad sees the lack of incentives for forest protection as a major challenge to scaling forest-based climate mitigation strategies. “The huge effort it takes, and to forego short term economic opportunities… Will the world recognize and compensate that on some level?”

He also stressed the need for international campaigns to take a more pragmatic approach to forest conservation, suggesting efforts aimed at divestment from farm and livestock systems that can cause deforestation need to be accompanied by strategies for increasing investment in farm systems that are compatible with forest protection and regeneration. “There is potential to shift the logic on the ground,” he said, “but we have to get things aligned.”

Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist and senior vice president of World Wildlife Fund, pointed to the need for greater public engagement.

“It is important that we increase our investments in natural climate solutions, starting with avoided deforestation, forest protection and regeneration,” said Shaw, adding that the trillion trees movement has helped to mobilize communities around forests. “But if the culture and community don’t support it, it won’t persist over time.”

Wednesday’s panel was hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and was moderated by institute director Chris Field.

It was held amid the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the repercussions of which include economic disruptions that Nepstad suggested could lead to an urban flight back to forests in developing countries, increasing deforestation and land-use pressures. “Will investors see that and engage in these regions?” he asked.

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