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Protecting old trees vs planting new ones

Polly Thompson
July 29, 2022
Protecting our trees and forests or planting new trees
Protecting our trees and forests or planting new trees

By now we’re all familiar with the idea that trees can play an essential role in combating climate change. Carbon markets are a valuable mechanism for supporting so-called “nature-based solutions” (NBS) – protecting rainforests, planting trees, and making the way forests are managed more sustainable. NBS also have many additional benefits (co-benefits) beyond carbon impacts: to biodiversity, ecosystem services such as regulating water, and to local communities. The value of NBS is clear, but what’s less clear is which projects are best to support. Should we be focusing on protecting forests that are already there, or replanting the trees that we’ve previously lost? If you’ve read any previous blogs in this series this won’t come as a shock to you… but the answer is both. Both planting trees and protecting forests are necessary and valuable, as long as the projects are well designed. Here’s why.

What’s so great about trees?

Here at Sylvera, we love trees. Between our collective team, we’ve written enough blogs, dissertations, and even PhD theses to fill a book on why trees are an incredible natural resource. A few stats for you:

Forest ecosystems are like a huge storage unit of carbon - the IPCC found that forests today store more than all the carbon added to the atmosphere by human activity since the industrial revolution.

  • Forests take in CO2 as they grow, resulting in them absorbing ¼ of all historical emissions. In other words, climate change might already be significantly worse if it weren’t for trees.

  • Bonus nerdy fact - the huge effect of trees on CO2 in the atmosphere can be seen on graphs of CO2 concentration over time. If you look carefully, you’ll see it wiggles up and down on a yearly cycle. The down wiggles coincide with northern hemisphere spring and summer - when most of the trees in the world are growing fastest!

  • However, when trees are cut down all that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Deforestation and other land use change is the second largest contributor to climate change, after burning fossil fuels. 

Surely that’s convinced you that trees are really worth investing in - but how?

Carbon markets and forests

There are many types of nature-based carbon credits available, but the most common forestry credits fall into three categories: REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), ARR (afforestation, reforestation and revegetation), and IFM (improved forest management).

Each type of project has strengths and weaknesses, but the most important point here is that generalizations really can’t be made about project type and quality. Some REDD+ projects are amazing for people and the planet, some have no carbon benefits and yield negative impacts on local communities. The same range in quality can be found in IFM and ARR projects.

Plant or protect trees?

A lot of the differences between these projects comes down to the fundamental question of whether we should prioritize protecting forests that already exist, or plant new ones?

At a global scale, that is a false dichotomy. As we’ve argued before, we need to utilize all the climate mitigation strategies available to us. To stand a chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, global emissions need to peak by 2025, halve over the next decade and reach net zero by 2050. This will be impossible if we don’t stop deforestation very soon. Equally, even with very optimistic emissions reduction scenarios, we will rely on removals to some extent by 2050. Forest restoration offers one of the few solutions for carbon removal currently possible at scale.

Protecting forests is essential to combat both the climate crisis, and the parallel biodiversity crisis. We rely on forests for a huge range of ecosystem services, some of which we don’t even recognize until the forest is gone. Furthermore, the intrinsic benefits of forests is invaluable, hosting innumerable unique species that will go extinct without forests. 

It’s also important to recognize that huge areas of forest have already been lost or degraded. Restoring just a small fraction of this has the potential to buy us valuable time to develop the technology (like Direct Air Capture, which garners a lot of media attention) and infrastructure to reduce and remove other emissions. Furthermore, this will have added benefits of adding resilience to threatened biodiversity, and often helps local adaptation to the effects of climate change. However, not all ARR projects provide these benefits, unless they are well designed, well implemented, and restore diverse, native vegetation.

Which project do I pick?

For carbon credit buyers trying to decide between ARR, IFM and REDD+, there are a few considerations. For example, what are you using the credits for? Some climate claims have strict requirements. Once you have reached your net zero mitigation target, you must use removals to neutralise residual emissions, so ARR would be the best choice. You might also have a particular interest or passion for certain co-benefits, such as protecting an area of forest that is home to a particular animal. Credits with strong co-benefits like this generally attract a price premium.

The most important consideration is that credits are high quality, and have a genuine positive impact on the planet. There is no shortcut or proxy for that. Failing to engage in this due diligence opens up risks of greenwashing accusations and wasted spend. Luckily, Sylvera can do this hard work for you - we care just as much about recognizing quality solutions as we do about trees!

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