On Tree Planting and Nature-Based Solutions. (Part 1)

David Borbón, RRC’s mangrove specialist in Baja California Sur, with a handful of Rhizophora propagules.

Nature-Based Solutions (NBS — also sometimes referred to as Natural Climate Solutions or NCS) have been slowly gaining attention but as of the end of 2021, have gotten very hot. This year i’ve been made aware of new nature-based investment wings at tech companies, energy companies, and large banks. This post is going to focus on some key issues when it comes to NBS, but here’s the definition, from the World Wildlife Fund:

Nature-based solutions refer to a suite of actions or policies that harness the power of nature to address some of our most pressing societal challenges, such as threats to water security, rising risk of natural disasters, or climate change.

An example: Mangroves, the family of trees taking up the bulk of my attention currently, are a nature-based solution to coastal erosion, storm surges, and hurricanes. The estimated value of one hectare of mangroves, per year, in ecological services alone is $100,000 USD! Here’s a good model of how mangroves can protect coastal communities and ecosystems:

Among the most popular nature-based solutions is tree planting. There are dozens of NGOs and organizations dedicated to planting trees in one form or another, from the Trillion Tree Endeavor, to Terraformation, One Tree Planted, and many more. And these orgs may be involved in urban, rural, reforestation, afforestation, timber plantations, or any other setting where people may want to plant trees. Regenerative Resources is squarely in this group; one of our primary goals is to get a billion mangroves in the ground in the next 15–20 years. But not everyone is in love with tree planting.

Steelmanning the Opposition

Tree planting comes in for some heavy criticism. According to Oxfam, there isn’t enough space on the planet for all the trees we need. “To achieve net zero via trees would require at least 1.6bn hectares of new forests, equivalent to five times the size of India or more than all the farmland on the planet.”

Moreover, tree planting programs can go wrong in so many ways. A couple salient examples suffice here: A Mexican tree planting program increased deforestation and led to lower overall tree cover. The introduction of Prosopis Juliflora in E. Africa has caused so much ecological damage that it is deeply hated, and known in Kenya as the “Devil Tree.”

Here’s how Ecosia’s blog sums up the issues in general:

One of the biggest lies of our times is that planting trees is simple. In fact, there’s so much that can go wrong: if you plant monocultures instead of mixed forests, you end up with ecological dead zones. If you plant non-native species, they could become invasive and end up destroying biodiversity. If you don’t partner with local communities, your trees won’t survive at all.

At its worst, tree planting as a source of carbon credits & do-goodery, is little more than an emotional bandaid for bureaucrats or business leaders who spend most of their time in offices, completely disconnected from the natural world, who end up doing untold destruction while hearing from their subordinates that they are helping to save the planet.

Finally, tree planting as a solution often ignores people. This should be blindingly obvious but people are the overwhelming cause of deforestation globally. We are cutting down trees almost everywhere there are trees, for agriculture, for tourism development, for wood products, and have been doing so for millenia. How do we know that people won’t cut or burn the trees we plant 20, 50, or 100 years from now? Out of all the criticisms of tree planting, this is the strongest.

Thus ends my steelman of the argument that tree planting is not a solution to climate change. In my own experience, the criticisms are valid; there are lots of wrong ways to plant trees, and doing it poorly will do more damage than good. How do you know if someone’s doing it wrong? Here are the main red flags:

1: No local leadership and no integration of local communities.

2: Monocrop plantations in lieu of biodiverse landscapes, and emphasis on exotics rather than natives.

3: Failure to integrate projects with local systems of livingry — understanding of local economics, local land management, local culture, local people, historical use of trees and land use, and local ecosystems is crucial.

4: Failure to account for incentives — this was the achilles heel of the Mexican project cited above. It’s axiomatic that policies create incentives and incentives drive behavior.

But just because it’s often done wrong doesn’t mean it can’t be done right.

When done right, trees (and NBS in general) are one of the most powerful solutions not just to climate, but to a gordion knot of devilishly tricky problems. Two of my favorite success stories follow, first and foremost of which is Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

Here’s FMNR’s Track record, and why it has an argument for being the best aid program in the history of aid programs:

  • 20 million hectares of land reforested across 20 countries.
  • 9 million families that have on average doubled their income, and gained easier access to water, firewood, nutrition, and education. In Niger, they found that farmers using FMNR did 5X as well as their neighbors in terms of productivity and profitability in drought years.
  • Not only does FMNR sequester carbon, and act as a nature-based solution to that aspect of climate change, but it improves agricultural productivity, reduces reliance on expensive fertilizers, seeds, and biocides, mitigates drought, protects against famine, increases biodiversity, provides the resources to allow kids to go to school, and on average doubles farmer incomes.

How does this rate on the scale of awesome compared to an industrial carbon capture plant? Let’s compare:

The second example I want to bring up is the Loess Plateau in China, as documented by John Liu:

It’s important to understand that this was a massive undertaking across 4 million hectares, done by the World Bank and China in tandem. From the World Resources Institute:

In the Loess Plateau, funding from the World Bank and the Chinese government helped restore 4 million hectares of land, more than doubling the incomes of local farmers, reducing erosion by 100 million tons of sediment annually, reducing flood risk, and dramatically increasing grain production.

There are many more examples I could highlight — and not just in the realm of conservation or regenerative agricultures. Biomimicry is a subset of nature-based solutions, which extends the reach of this mindset from land management into engineering, design, materials sciences, and other fields that at first thought would seem unrelated. Just for kicks, here’s how changing a bullet train to be shaped like a kingfisher’s head created massive efficiencies and reduced noise pollution.

As carbon crediting and carbon markets evolve, many NBS projects, organizations, and practitioners are turning to these markets as a key vehicle for finance. There’s a lot to say on this subject, and i’m only going to touch on it now.

How many tons of carbon have been sequestered as a result of the Loess Plateau and FMNR? It’s likely billions of tons given the scale of the projects. But in both of those systems carbon wasn’t even a consideration. For the farmers in the Loess Plateau region, are they concerned about how many tons of carbon they’re sequestering? For the FMNR practitioners in Kenya or Niger, how high do you think carbon emissions is on their list of priorities? To ask it is to realize the ridiculousness of it, but it also illuminates a critical point about NBS in general:

In Nature-Based Solutions, carbon sequestration is often the byproduct of the work being done. But if carbon were not now a mechanism for financing this kind of work, it would simply be a positive externality. This is definitely not true all the time, particularly as carbon markets evolve & demand increases. For instance, the accelerated weathering folks fit as a nature-based solution but are focused almost entirely on carbon (and secondarily on ocean acidification). But in my own experience, and within the NBS networks I frequent, carbon is generally viewed as a somewhat crude stand-in for valuing nature as a whole.

In the next articles i’m going to flesh out some of the dynamics here a great deal more. The obvious follow up questions are “given how awesome nature based solutions are, why is there a seeming preference among policy and investor types for more expensive tech-oriented solutions? Why aren’t projects with the scale of the Loess Plateau or the reach of FMNR being duplicated elsewhere?” I’m going to get into that, as well as into issues around carbon markets and NBS, particularly the issues of leakage, additionality, and permanence.

PS: If you’ve got other NBS projects that you think ought to be highlighted, particularly when it comes to ecosystem restoration, please post in the comments below — i’m shocked at how few people know about the ones i posted above, but there are so many more deserving of attention!

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