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One Trillion Trees to Combat Climate Change: Why It’s Not So Outlandish

The clock is ticking on climate change. And if we want to take on the challenge of a better future for ourselves and our planet, it will require a coordinated effort to get change-makers on the same page. That’s the argument of the World Economic Forum, which has announced the initiative.

The goal of this initiative is audacious, but it’s also quite simple: By conserving, restoring, and planting 1 trillion trees by 2030, we can help slow the planet’s rising temperatures, as well as stimulate biodiversity and restore some of the planet’s ecosystem. The vision of is to create a platform to bring together stakeholders who, collectively, have the capabilities to organize reforestation at a huge scale and empower entrepreneurs and NGOs on the ground.

Salesforce is proud to support in two ways. First, we will contribute our technology in the form of WEF’s UpLink, a new digital platform built to do just that: bring together stakeholders of all sizes to solve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which include taking on climate change. Second, in support of the mission, Salesforce has set a goal to support and mobilize the conservation and restoration of 100 million trees over the next decade.

To understand the scale and the science around reforestation, we caught up with ecosystem ecologist Thomas Crowther, whose Crowther Lab research team at ETH Zürich helped write the original study that set the target of 1 trillion trees.

One trillion seems like an almost inconceivable number. How did you arrive at that?

We started with research that found that before the Agricultural Revolution, there were almost 6 trillion trees on the planet. Today, we estimate there are about 3 trillion covering about 2.7 billion hectares [around 10.4 million square miles] of land. We made a map that essentially evaluates where trees would naturally exist and with that, you can see there’s room for vastly more trees than there currently are. Obviously, we can’t plant in agricultural or urban areas, so when you eliminate those, you’re left with about 0.9 billion hectares [about 3.5 million square miles], or about a third of the area those 3 trillion trees currently occupy.

Thomas Crowther, professor of Global Ecosystem Ecology at ETH Zurich, where he formed the Crowther Lab. Crowther specializes in ecosystem ecology.

You argue this isn’t so much about planting trees – in many cases, it’s about letting nature take its course.

Totally. Planting is great, because it gets people engaged. But most of this is natural. If we can allow many of these forests to regenerate, they’ll do so much quicker than we can plant. It would take the whole population of the planet an insane amount of time to plant a trillion trees. But to restore that trillion is feasible. That said, “1 trillion trees” really is also a symbol for ecosystem restoration. If a place should naturally only have one tree per hectare, that’s the level you should be restoring. If the place should be a full forest, that’s the level you should be restoring. If there should be no trees, that’s what you should also be restoring. The tree is just the symbol of ecosystem restoration.

How do you influence a forest to regenerate?

In many cases, deforestation has occurred because humans have degraded the soil. The solution can come from either introducing water to the system or some kind of soil carbon amendments. So either composting or a little bit of spraying some fertilizer around will really spur on some natural regeneration. Sometimes, you can simply manage livestock differently to allow ecosystems to regenerate in a way that benefits the animals’ grazing patterns. There are so many ways that all vary around the world.

You’ve mentioned that reforestation alone isn’t enough to combat climate change, that it’s just one piece of the puzzle. But what impact does it have?

To address climate change, we need to do two things: cut emissions and draw down the carbon in the atmosphere. There are thousands of solutions we need to address both, and we need all of them in combination. But in terms of carbon drawdown, forests are the largest tool we’ve got at the moment. That doesn’t mean trees have a local cooling effect everywhere – in many cold places, they actually warm the environment. But at a global scale, they buffer it. And the global impact of trees is drawing down carbon. That’s what can make a big difference with the climate.

So in addition to helping jumpstart nature to take its course again, what needs to happen to get to that 1 trillion goal?

The first step is obviously to prevent deforestation which, at the moment, is still outweighing restoration. The fundamental core of that is keeping what we have: old forests that store the most carbon and biodiversity. That can be done by incentivizing governments. The next step is mass engagement from corporations and people who can fund this. That’s starting to come. We’re maybe 1/100th of the way there, but the amount of pledges I’ve seen in the last six months has truly given me hope. But then the real limiting factor is capacity building: We need hundreds of thousands of people to know how to restore a healthy forest. That’s also something the corporate world can help us with, because no one knows how to build capacity like a giant corporation that has built an infrastructure that spans the world.

What sort of action will that require from the corporate community?

Every organization in the world wants to throw money at trees right now. But when I say, “What we really need is to use your money for building capacity,” they all say, “Well, my stakeholders want trees in the ground.” By building the tech backbone and by enabling a restoration movement, that is practicing what you preach. It cannot be greenwashing: “We’ve done our bit by offsetting our emissions.” What we need is companies who can enable change, who can supply technology, who can rally others, who can influence policymakers. That’s what many are doing now, and it’s good.

Most recent campaigns to combat climate change have cited the 2018 UN-commissioned study that suggests if we can’t prevent an increase in temperature by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, we will be past a point of no return. Is that urgency resonating when it comes to reforestation efforts?

Totally. I keep saying it’s like a bubbling energy, and you wouldn’t believe my inbox of people around the world on every continent either wanting to donate or get involved. People are getting engaged. In terms of restoration, I really do believe it’s that target setting of 1 trillion trees that’s helping. If you don’t know quantitatively what needs to happen, you’re not going to do anything. Even if the scale is an enormous number, you say, “I can do my part towards the global goal.” Now you feel like you’re contributing to something. In addition, when you plant a tree with the idea of climate in mind, you recycle more, even though that’s not necessarily a climate thing. When people physically engage with the earth, you often see a real mindset change, and that is exciting.


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