The voluntary carbon market has exploded in recent years, yet there are a number of recurring limitations to many approaches, such as (i) large proportions of total funding being swallowed up by brokers with a small fraction reaching the reforestation activity itself, (ii) a focus on single species of trees (plantations) which have minimal biodiversity benefits and are essentially funding an expansion of agriculture, and (iii) a lack of long-term direct financial benefits to local communities for participating in reforestation (e.g. a focus on government owned land, or a single initial payment to landowners to replant with no recurring payments to ensure long term protection for the replanted trees). All these approaches offer some level of success with regards carbon mitigation, but most miss the opportunity to address multiple Sustainable Development Goals simultaneously – (1) poverty alleviation by making reforestation a long-term source of regular income to poor communities in the tropics, (2) creation of new natural habitat to boost biodiversity, and of course (3) targeting carbon lockdown in the long rather than short-term. We believe we are uniquely placed to address all three of these thanks to our existing relationships with local communities and NGOs throughout the tropics, and our track record of successful forest research and conservation.
An exciting study in 2019 (Bastin et al. 2019, Science 365: 76) mapped the entire planet and identified 0.9 billion hectares of land that it currently underutilised and is able to support trees. If this entire area was reforested, they calculated that if would remove two thirds of the existing atmospheric carbon burden, essentially changing the face of the Earth’s climate. This study’s simplicity is a powerful advocate to widespread reforestation, but it offered no suggestions as to how this could be achieved in a cost-effective way. Our initiative therefore builds on this research by focusing on reforested area instead of the more traditional individual tree schale, but it requires a clear target cost of reforesting each hectare in order to be scalable and achieveable.
To do this we are using the aviation industry as an example. Aviation contributes 2% of global CO2 emissions annually, and so for the industry to “do its bit” it should be aiming to reforest 2% of the 0.9 billion hectares, which is 18 million hectares. The challenge is how cheaply could this be done, and so we are taking the lower end of the range for monetary value per tonne of carbon, which is US$10. If we apply this $10 per tonne value to the 895 million tonnes per year emitted by aviation, it would give an industry budget of $9 billion per year to fund the reforestation. In basic monetary terms, this gives a target of $495 per hectare per year to fund long-term reforestation. Our primary goal is therefore to demonstrate scalable reforesting for this price that also addresses poverty alleviation and biodiversity protection.
Our initiative is designed to work in the following way:
- Villages are identified with >100ha of unutilised and privately-owned land and the community engaged to secure participation. Government owned land is avoided to ensure income is directed to the communities themselves.
- One nursery per village is established as a locally-run business enterprise providing employment to members of the local community. Each nursery collects seeds/seedlings/fruit for 30+ local tree species identified as important components of local natural forest, and each nursery targets the initial supply of 40,000 saplings of 30-50cm height.
- Local small-scale farmers who own unutilised land are contracted to reforest based on the free-of-charge provision of saplings and an initial payment per hectare in return for planting, weeding, watering where necessary, tending and replacing any saplings that die.
- Trees would be planted at the density of local mature forest to target the long-term creation of natural habitat
- If contractual obligations are met, each farmer receives the same payment on an annual basis in return for maintaining the reforested land and replacing any lost trees.
- After 15 years, in addition to annual payments, farmers are permitted to harvest 5% of the reforested trees per year providing the wood is used for non-carbon emitting purposes (e.g. construction or furniture) and providing they replant with new saplings – this provides a secondary income to the farmers but also ultimately creates a mixed forest with a range of tree ages; optimal for biodiversity.