A certain term has been increasingly reverberating through the climate-change lexicon: “nature-based solutions.” In brief, it refers to ways of mitigating climate change through protecting and restoring the natural world. Often, it’s broadened out to include using nature to address other complex global challenges, such as alleviating poverty and conserving biodiversity.
Tree-planting might well be the most-heralded nature-based solution of late, with governments, businesses and public figures, from Jane Goodall to Salesforce, supporting ambitious planting pledges, such as the blockbuster 1T.org initiative launched earlier this year, which aims to plant and protect 1 trillion trees by 2030. “We are seeing tree planting growing into a global movement, and a default move in order to restore ecosystem balance and save the planet from the ravages of climate change,” said Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Director-General Robert Nasi at the recent digital forum Can tree planting save our planet? hosted by CIFOR and World Agroforestry (ICRAF).
“This is what we want – or at least what I want,” he said. “But the simplistic assumption that if you need to offset your emissions you plant a tree is wrong, and these kinds of practices must change. We should not be interested in planting trees but in growing trees. There is a difference in terms of time and in terms of scale: this is a long-term endeavor.”
At the half-day digital forum, scientists, forestry experts, practitioners, community groups and leaders, investors, entrepreneurs and policymakers teased out some of the hard science, on-the-ground experience and practical steps toward ensuring tree-planting is an effective nature-based solution.
“We need to avoid ‘green-wishing’ initiatives – and particularly those that are not backed up by evidence and science,” said ICRAF’s Director-General Tony Simons, in his closing remarks. That means looking beyond ‘feel-good’ planting-day pics and paying careful attention to what happens both before and after trees are laid in the ground. It means planting the right trees in the right places, and developing landscape restoration programs holistically and strategically, with thorough engagement from civil society, public agencies and the private sector.”
To date, effective tree planting and landscape restoration at scale has been hampered by a struggle to attract sufficient financial investment – despite the myriad of opportunities available through national and private-sector restoration commitments and strong political momentum.
That’s where the new CIFOR-ICRAF initiative Resilient Landscapes comes in. The initiative was officially launched at the forum as an innovative platform to leverage the Centers’ combined 69 years of research, technology and innovation on integrated forestry and agroforestry systems, to provide solutions for companies, financial investors, donors and governments to the most complex and urgent global crises – ranging from climate change to biodiversity loss to broken food systems.
The mission of Resilient Landscapes is to connect private and public actors in co-beneficial landscapes; provide evidence-based business cases for nature-based solutions and green economy investments; and leverage and de-risk performance-driven investments with combined financial, social and environmental returns. Although it’s a start-up, it is powered by CIFOR-ICRAF, which has a formidable track record: USD 1.8 billion invested in research; 25,000 knowledge products and publications created to date; 1,000 projects completed in 79 counties across Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe; and 700 staff operating in 30 countries.
The vision of the new enterprise is “a world of resilient landscapes, where people and businesses equitably thrive and do so in harmony with an ever-changing nature.” To achieve its ambitious targets, it has brought together an all-star team of finance, international development and business experts including Howard Shapiro, the former Chief Agriculture Officer at Mars, Inc. who serves as the current senior advisor on private sector for Resilient Landscapes. “Real success will come when we mobilize social capital and leverage natural capital to deliver advances in financial returns,” said Shapiro. While Shapiro had a storied career in the private sector, he is also a scientist (geneticist).
Making the business case for sustainability
Havemann, a leading thinker in the green investment space, laid out the scale of some of the funding gaps our society is faced with: to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2030, over USD 7 billion will be required annually, and at least USD 3 billion will be needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) around food security. “So there’s a huge need to work more collaboratively trying to get these different projects funded,” she said. “And it’s really exciting to see that there are more and more different types of partners coming together to try out different types of transactions.”
Norman, president of the American sustainable energy company E3 International, shared an exciting example of just such a collaboration, which E3 is carrying out with Resilient Landscapes and CIFOR-ICRAF. They’re working in a province in Serbia to grow trees as a sustainable short-rotation biomass source for heat and power in the country. Through the project, fast-growing, perennial willow and poplar trees are planted on degraded government-owned agricultural land. The plantations provide a secure source of renewable energy; help reduce air pollution by co-firing with coal in power plants; take pressure off existing forests for fuelwood; create much-needed rural employment; and they have the potential to generate carbon credits, too. “A key component is the political support for the energy security,” noted Norman: the shift toward local, renewable, cleaner energy is particularly timely for Serbia, which is Vice-President of the upcoming 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26). “So this will help the country meet its clean energy goals, meet its SDG aspirations, and really help to restore nature,” she said.
But sourcing and developing ‘bankable’ projects like this can be challenging. Up-and-coming climate change advisory and investment firm Pollination Group made international headlines earlier this year when it teamed up with HSBC Global Asset Management to launch a series of ‘natural capital’ funds, through which they aim to raise USD 6 billion from institutional investors for projects that “preserve, protect and enhance nature.” During the panel, Caroline Van Tilborg, carbon finance specialist at Pollination Group, described how her company is sourcing robust technical projects to offset the emissions of their fund partners.
She said there’s high demand for carbon credits at present, due to the large number of “beautiful pledges,” as she terms them, that businesses are making to become carbon neutral. “But there is actually a scarcity of beautifully designed projects that tackle the multiple benefits that can be generated within landscape restoration projects.”
Greening supply chains
Commercial agriculture is the single largest global cause of deforestation and forest degradation, so improving the ecological and social impacts of agricultural supply chains is another key focus for actors in the green investment space. Vagen, a Geoinformatics Senior Scientist at ICRAF, has been working with Resilient Landscapes to help governments and private sector actors address these kinds of issues effectively. During the panel, he took the audience on a ‘virtual journey’ to the Ivory Coast and used time-lapse imaging to show how land was deforested, then planted with cocoa – and then how cocoa production dropped off as the land became more degraded and diseases spread through the plantations. “So the question then is, what next?” he asked. “And what we [Resilient Landscapes] bring to the table is science – the science that needs to be there to underpin the types of decision-making that need to happen in order to restore these systems.”
Saraber, director of operations at Earthworm Foundation, an NGO devoted to improving supply chains and a key partner of Resilient Landscapes, also shared some of his own experiences working to address deforestation and livelihood issues in palm oil and cocoa value chains. He emphasized the importance of keeping one’s “feet in the field” and staying connected to the realities and concerns of communities and local stakeholders on the ground, and praised the recent upsurge in commitments to this crucial area of work. “We’re super excited by the convergence around landscapes and long-term solutions creation, and the fact that there’s real financing coming to this place, and that we’re seeing businesses prepared to be innovative and think differently about how to tackle change.”