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Restoration with impact

New research: forests the size of France have regrown in the last 20 years
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Restoration with impact

Main image: Boreal forest in Northern Alberta, Canada near Fort McMurray © Global Warming Images / WWF

Nearly 59 million hectares of forests – an area larger than mainland France – has regrown since 2000, according to new analysis published today (11 May) by Trillion Trees, a joint venture between WWF, BirdLife International and WCS.

This area of forest has the potential to store the equivalent of 5.9 Gt of CO2 – more than the annual emissions of the USA.

By revealing the capacity of forests to regenerate themselves, the study will help guide smarter reforestation projects in the fight against climate change. 

Regeneration hotspots

One of the success stories for regeneration highlighted in the study is the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, where an estimated 4.2 million hectares – an area roughly the size of the Netherlands – has regrown since 2000.

This has been through a combination of planned projects to restore the forest, more responsible industry practices and other factors including a migration trend towards cities.

In the boreal forests of Mongolia’s northern wilderness, the study suggests that 1.2 million hectares of forest have regenerated in the last 20 years.

This is in part thanks to the work of Trillion Trees partner WWF, alongside increased emphasis from the Mongolian government on protected areas.

Other regeneration hotspots include central Africa and the boreal forests of Canada.

Where to focus restoration efforts

The study is designed to help inform forest restoration plans worldwide, by giving a picture of the areas where focusing restoration efforts could be most beneficial.

It is part of a two-year research project, which involved examining more than 30 years’ worth of satellite imaging data and surveying experts with on-the-ground knowledge of more than a hundred sites in 29 different countries.

It follows WWF’s map of Deforestation Fronts, published earlier this year, which showed the alarming extent to which the world is losing its precious forests.

‘The science is clear: if we are to avoid dangerous climate change and turn around the loss of nature, we must both halt deforestation and restore natural forests.

‘We’ve known for a long time that natural forest regeneration is often cheaper, richer in carbon and better for biodiversity than actively planted forests, and this research tells us where and why regeneration is happening, and how we can recreate those conditions elsewhere.

‘But we can’t take this regeneration for granted – deforestation still claims millions of hectares every year, vastly more than is regenerated. To realise the potential of forests as a climate solution, we need support for regeneration in climate delivery plans and must tackle the drivers of deforestation, which in the UK means strong domestic laws to prevent our food causing deforestation overseas.’

Director of nature-based solutions at WWF

Momentum for restoration

There is more momentum than ever behind forest restoration, including a wave of government pledges.

But close examination of these pledges shows that the delivery plans involve very limited expansion of natural forests, despite the strong climate and biodiversity benefits they offer.

With this new understanding of the potential for natural regeneration at scale, there is cause for re-balancing delivery plans to include more natural forest.

‘This map will be a valuable tool for conservationists, policymakers and funders to better understand the multiple ways we can work to increase forest cover, for the good of the planet. The data show the enormous potential of natural habitats to recover when given the chance to do so. But it isn’t an excuse for any of us to wait around for it to happen.

‘Through our partners at BirdLife International, WCS and WWF, Trillion Trees has worked hard to identify and protect the areas where there is potential for natural regeneration of these precious assets, and to learn from our successes to promote natural regeneration elsewhere, on an even larger scale.’

Executive director of Trillion Trees

More work ahead

The authors of the study warn that encouraging signs of regeneration cannot be taken for granted.

Forests across Brazil face significant threats today, even the Atlantic Forests – a recognised success story in restoration.

Such is the extent of historic deforestation that the area of this unique forest still needs to more than double – from currently 12% of its original extent to 30% – in order to reach what scientists believe is a minimal threshold for its lasting conservation.

‘Even though this is an exploratory effort, it still highlights the potential that enabling and consolidating regeneration has for mitigating climate change and securing its biodiversity benefits. However, this remains difficult to map and a lot of additional work lies ahead.’

Senior director of Forest Carbon Science at WWF

The map has been developed through a rigorous scientific approach, but the researchers acknowledge the limitations of working from remote sensing data and are seeking further input to validate or adjust the map and deepen their understanding of the conditions that led to regeneration.

Trillion Trees is inviting individuals with on-the-ground knowledge to contribute online via  

Primed with more detailed intelligence about regeneration opportunities, Trillion Trees plans to invite local partners and green funders to help facilitate new landscape restoration ventures, focusing on areas offering the maximum benefit for vulnerable ecosystems and local communities.

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