Climate Change Solutions: Tropical Forest Reforestation

This post is the second in a series of short explorations on key climate change solutions, inspired by this fantastic list from Project Drawdown.

Photo by Raphaël Menesclou on Unsplash

Tropical forests are closed canopy forests growing near the equator that have heavy rainfall throughout the year. Forests are a significant carbon sink as trees store carbon through photosynthesis, with tropical forests containing around 25% of the world’s carbon. The Amazon Basin alone may hold 90–140 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to 9 to 14 decades of human carbon emissions.

Tropical forests once accounted for 12% of the world’s landmass, but now only account for around 5% given heavy deforestation. Deforestation has largely been driven by conversion of forest lands for ranching and agriculture, in particular for production of beef, soy, palm oil, and wood. As tropical forests disappear, we have lost significant sources of carbon capture, contributing to 10–20% of global carbon emissions.

To move towards a 1.5 to 2 degree global warming scenario, tropical forest reforestation is one of the most important solutions in our toolbox. Reforestation can occur through several paths, including allowing deforested land to naturally grow back into forest as well as actively planting seedlings. Project Drawdown estimates that if we restored 161–231 million hectares of degraded rainforest and allowed for natural reforestation, we could sequester a total of 54 to 85 gigatons of carbon from 2020–2050.

The Bonn Challenge, started in 2011 by Germany and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is one of the largest and most visible programs tracking reforestation. The challenge has two milestones for global reforestation (including but not exclusive to tropical forests) — the first in 2020 for reforesting a total of 150 million hectares, and the second in 2030 for reforesting a total of 350 million hectares.

As of 2018, around 71 million hectares of forest land were under reforestation, based on data from 19 regions out of the 57 that committed to the Bonn Challenge. Total global commitments add up to more than 170 million hectares. The portion of this going to tropical forests is difficult to tell, especially as data from the challenge is still sparse. Brazil (the country that contains ~60% of the Amazon and that is losing the most tropical rainforest per year) has committed to restoring 12 million hectares of rainforest by 2030, with 2005 as the start year. As of 2018, Brazil reported 9.4 million hectares already under regeneration.

While these numbers are certainly fuel for positivity, they appear to fall short of Project Drawdown’s goal of 161–231 million hectares between 2020 and 2050. Using some rough calculations, if Brazil already has 9.4 million hectares under regeneration prior to 2018, they are committing to restore only an additional 3 million hectares by 2030. Even if we take the 12 million hectares at full value and assume that all of that regeneration occurs between 2020–2030, that is only a ratio of ~2.5% of the total 478 million hectares of tropical forest in Brazil in ten years. If we assume a similar rate of regeneration for every ten years from 2020 to 2050 for all of the world’s 1,700 million hectares of tropical forest, we would have approximately 127 million hectares under regeneration between 2020 to 2050.

The commitments under the Bonn Challenge are a key step towards reaching upwards of 160 millions hectares of regenerated forests between 2020 and 2050. In order to reach these targets, commitments in countries with the highest amount of rainforest land and rainforest loss such as Brazil will need to set even more aggressive targets. The Bonn Challenge should also aim to increase transparency on how many hectares are under regeneration each year by country in order to hold pledge-makers accountable to their commitments.

As a society, we need to decrease our demand for key commodities that lead to deforestation and hold farms and companies accountable for clearing out additional swathes of forests for agriculture. In order to reach our goal by 2050, we need to improve the momentum towards reforestation, which has been gaining steam in the last decade.

On an individual level, we can take action as consumers and as advocates:

  1. Decrease consumption of products related to tropical deforestation, including beef and palm oil
  2. Support businesses that are committed to protecting tropical forests, such as businesses certified by the Rainforest Alliance to comply with its Sustainable Agriculture Standards (which includes provisions against recent conversion of rainforests), or businesses that score well on the World Wildlife Fund’s score card for palm oil
  3. Donate, volunteer, and advocate for organizations that are working to protect tropical forests, such as One Tree Planted, Rainforest Action Network, and Rainforest Trust.