Restoring 1 billion hectares of nature is both necessary and attainable
Our civilization has unwittingly damaged the biosphere. But it is well within our scientific and economic capabilities to heal nature and to live alongside it.
The urgency to act boldly to reverse this damage hinges on avoiding various ‘tipping points’ that cause runaway deterioration of living systems and permanently alters the course of life on Earth (including organized human society).
It is encouraging to witness the rapid deployment of renewable energy worldwide, the swift adoption of electric cars, and the gradual reinvention of heavy industry towards low-carbon operations. The rate of adoption must accelerate until the economics of preserving the legacy systems become unviable.
Even with decarbonizing these core industries, we will still need to extract at least 40 gigatons of excess CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050 to remain in a safe average temperature range - generally considered to be a < 1.5C increase in temperature. And although global warming is of paramount concern, it is by no means the only one.
Of the approx 6 trillion trees that existed at the dawn of human civilization, more than half have been destroyed since, releasing their carbon in the process.
Yet forests did and do far more than hold carbon - they stabilize the local weather and water cycles, and host the biodiversity that’s essential to food systems. These other losses need to be redressed too.
A natural solution to address multiple risk dimensions:
Forests were fundamental to the creation of the biosphere as we know it. Helping them recover at a grand scale is fundamental to keeping nature safe. Conversely, if forests go, so do we.
Photosynthesis produced virtually all the oxygen in the atmosphere (initially via bacteria, then via plants). It is such an efficient process that a single planted tree (cost ~$2) can draw down between 1-2 tons of CO2 during its growth phase. So as a proven carbon-sequestration system, no other ‘technology’ today comes close.
Yet, planting millions of trees alone won’t do the job: we need to restore biodiverse natural forests and peatlands that host diverse and cooperating communities of plants and animals. By doing so, we not only create an optimal and durable carbon sink for excess atmospheric carbon, we also gain the other essential benefits: stability of soil, water and weather systems, and diversity of animal life.
Equally, we need to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the de-carbonisation challenge. So, while nature-based solutions have tremendous advantages, any approach (e.g. Direct Air Capture, olivine sand, etc) that has a chance of removing CO2 from the atmosphere permanently (net of energy and risks required to operate) should be embraced in parallel. And of course, our governments must find ways to slow and eventually stop entirely the destruction of precious old-growth forests in areas such as the Amazon, Borneo and Central Africa.
Over the next decade, we need to restore ~1 billion hectares of such natural landscapes on degraded land globally. This is approximately the size of continental US and implies the regrowth of ~1 trillion additional trees over the next 10 years.
In order to achieve this, we’ll need to plant or rewild the optimal mix of tree species for each biome (see image) necessary to grow quickly, attract biodiversity and ensure long-term resilience. We already know how to do this; we have just chosen to do other things instead. For perspective, the world currently manages 4 billion hectares of land for agriculture (including grazing).
Sounds bonkers but we do stuff like this all the time:
Planting 1 trillion trees (approx 1000 trees per hectare) may feel like an insurmountable and complex logistical challenge but it is one which society is very much capable of doing given the correct moral and economic motivations. So before throwing in the towel, we might consider that human civilization already operates at this echelon of logistical complexity:
- Smartphone companies manufacture and distribute 1.5 billion smartphones each year around the globe and each smartphone normally contains 500-1000 individual components, meaning that more than 1 trillion components are precisely sourced, organized and integrated into distinct products each year by a handful of companies - and then delivered globally into the hands of users. That’s over 10 trillion components delivered over a decade.
- Coca Cola alone produces and delivers 30 billion aluminium cans each year around the globe. That’s 300 billion cans delivered over a decade into the hands of individuals.
- Sea freight companies ship 11 billion tons of cargo around the globe by container every year. That is more than 100 billion tons over a decade.
A spectacular future for Earth is within reach:
The benefits of such a massive restoration effort are immeasurable and long-lasting:
- Permanent carbon sequestration will mitigate and reverse the impacts of atmospheric warming and reduce the risks of catastrophic tipping points being reached.
- Restoring habitats and biodiversity will support the survival of endangered species and protect threatened ecosystems. This will help to maintain the balance of the Earth's biosphere and preserve the rich diversity of life within it.
- Restoration has been shown to improve air and water quality, reducing the risk of diseases such as asthma, allergies, and waterborne illnesses. It also has a positive impact on mental health by providing opportunities for recreation and improving access to green spaces.
- Lastly, natural capital restoration will create massive job and income growth in the target geographies; it will help to reduce poverty and improve food security, water availability, and the well-being of local communities.
We need to imagine a world where vast landscapes are thriving with diverse flora and fauna, where clean air, pure water and healthy soil are the norm, where local communities are empowered to steward the land and are prosperous as a result of it.
We need to imagine our civilization deeply embedded with and benefiting from nature - not conquering it. A world where nature and human beings coexist in harmony and balance. This is the world we can create by restoring 1 billion hectares of degraded landscapes globally over the next 10 years, while doing everything we can to halt deforestation of remaining old-growth forests.
Lastly, high-minded ideals are good but we need methodologies that work efficiently at a local level and can be scaled in the *real world*. We created Zulu Forest Sciences to seek a science-backed, scalable and financially viable methodology to enable landowners, local communities, NGOs, corporates and impact investors to work together to restore landscapes at scale. We've begun restoring thousands of hectares; and we’re always open to collaborators and constructive ideas for how to be better and to move faster.
For more information or to sponsor or high-impact ecosystem restoration programmes, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org