The Best Time to Plant a Tree
Trees do more than just provide greenery and sequester carbon. They represent a biome and support a world of lifeforms that are intricately linked to and depend on each other for survival, including us. This biodiversity is the foundation of the economy, livelihood, and life on Earth. Let’s dig a little deeper to understand how trees and biodiversity matter. What’s at stake if the biodiversity around us continues to deplete? Is there a connection with the current pandemic?
It is said that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago… or maybe even earlier. In a 1988 testimony to Congress, Dr. James E. Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration raised an alarm about the greenhouse effect which was, and still is, warming our climate. Leading climate expert Dr. George Woodwell and other climate science experts pointed to the need for ''a vigorous program of reforestation'' as one of the solutions to the climate change problem.
Despite similar warnings from scientists and climate activists, the degradation of our lands and forests have continued. It is time to halt and reverse this damage, for us and for generations to come. Planting a tree is one of the ways you can become a part of the solution.
Trees around the world act as hosts for a wide range of fauna–– from birds and bees to microorganisms who directly benefit us by pollinating our food crops and plants, keeping pests away, and enrich the soil by nitrogen fixation. Clean air, perennial flow in our rivers and streams, availability of groundwater, healthy soils for agriculture, flood control, and climate regulation are just a few of the other ecosystem services that are possible thanks to the trees around us.
Trees, biodiversity, and associated ecosystem services have enabled humankind to make social and material progress. Our key economic sectors like food, clothing, pharma, tourism, and cosmetics have thrived on the provision of land and raw materials for businesses. This progress has come at the cost of disruption of the earth’s ecological and biophysical systems. Unsustainable development has gradually chipped away at the earth’s natural capital and is now threatening our survival. With the current rate of biodiversity loss, experts project that the food, forestry, and ecotourism industries stand to lose a collective $338 billion in a year.
Therefore, there is no wonder that the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report for 2020 had already placed biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as a top global business risk in terms of both likelihood and impact over the coming decade. To put this risk in perspective, the FAO says a third of our agricultural landscapes are degraded and the latest UN SDG report states that one-fifth of the Earth’s land area is degraded. Land degradation has a direct impact on local communities, putting the well-being and livelihoods of millions of people at risk, while exacerbating biodiversity loss and climate change. The annual cost of land degradation at the global level is estimated to be at a massive $300 billion!
On top of that, land use changes such as deforestation and habitat encroachment also happen to be the primary pathways of transmission for infectious zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, threatening public health and turning the global economy upside down. This is due to the increased contact between humans and animals that occurs when animal habitats are disrupted.
While our livelihoods are threatened by climate change, emerging diseases, widespread poverty, and so much more, it may seem difficult to tackle so many issues at once. However, as we grapple with recovery— not just building back, but building back better— ecological restoration offers a path forward.
Ecological restoration or landscape restoration occurs through a mix of human interventions including planting of native trees and vegetation, removal of invasive species, and other measures that facilitate the restoration of natural ecosystem services. Restoration activities simply create the conditions so that nature and biodiversity can rejuvenate and replenish themselves.
Besides benefiting the environment, restoration activities have significant economic output and create jobs through restoration-related economic activities ranging from raising nurseries, planting trees, earthmoving, landscaping, to transportation. This set of activities based on restoration, also called the restoration economy, is highly labor-intensive when compared to most other industries.
It is estimated that every $1 million invested generates approximately 40 jobs, with the money flowing to people instead of machines.
In terms of economic output, the restoration economy generated a total of $24.5 billion economic output while employing 126,000 American workers.
A study by the International Institute of Sustainability finds that economic benefits from restored ecosystems far outweigh the costs of restoration in the very long term. Even if we were to conservatively estimate the economic benefits of planting trees, we would have an internal rate of return of 20% and a benefit-cost ratio of 10%. This is further substantiated by another study that finds that every US$1 invested in restoration yields somewhere between $7 and $30 in returns.
The restoration economy can thus create employment and spur businesses and economic activity that support rural livelihoods. Investing in planting trees and ecological restoration is a triple-bottom-line approach, a win-win.
The current pandemic and previous zoonotic epidemics highlight the extent to which humans are placing pressures on the natural world. A mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between humans and their surrounding ecosystems holds the key to more resilient economies and societies. Forests, wetlands, and our biodiverse ecosystems make up the natural capital that forms the very basis of our livelihoods and economy.
The crisis offers us an opportunity to switch to a path of sustainable development by combining economic recovery and growth with the conservation of natural resources and ecosystems that enable the former. Kickstarting post-COVID-19 recovery by investing in restoration is a nature-based solution that can help build that future.
That brings us to the end of this post. We looked at how trees and biodiversity help us sustain our economies, and how restoration can play an important role in getting us back on a more sustainable path of economic and human progress.
What are some innovative models of restoration or nature-based solutions that you’ve come across? We’d love to hear from you.