We have been with allies in Glasgow, during COP26, discussing plans and commitments to plant millions of trees around the world. We have been inspired by many voices from all over the world. We are hopeful but we have fears too.
At COP26 there have been impressive announcements from governments and companies about scaling up tree planting and protecting standing forests. There has been significant discussion about investing in nature-based solutions for climate change, respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities and the importance of trees in sequestering carbon.
Our hope is that these commitments will accelerate transformational tree growing that puts local communities, their needs, priorities, and knowledge at the centre of the agenda. We see the possibility for a much-needed increase in community-led agroforestry and forest restoration that improves local livelihoods, raises soil fertility, nurtures biodiversity, that enhances water management, strengthens women’s leadership and yes, also sequesters carbon. In short, transformational tree planting that contributes to as many of the Sustainable Development Goals as possible.
At the same time as governments and companies trumpet major tree planting pledges a note of caution needs to be sounded. Our worry is that where carbon capture comes first, the approach will shift from transformational tree growing to transactional tree planting imposed from above. If carbon comes first then rapidly growing non-native species may be pushed rather than slow growing traditional ones. Large-scale single species monocropping could be incentivised at the expense of diverse planting that encourages rich biodiversity.
A recent report by BGCI shows that 30% of trees in the world are threatened with extinction. There could be a race to the bottom of quantity above quality. And the complexity of carbon offset projects, where the volume of CO2 sequestered by trees can be calculated, monetised and sold, could create a problematic bias towards mega projects that exclude initiatives led by small-scale farmers and local communities. In the rush to plant trees there is the risk of double counting trees so that what looks like many trees planted on paper is really just one tree planted in reality. There is the danger that customary land rights will be ignored and that governments will impose projects from above without the consent of customary land owners – where precious little of the benefit flows to the ground.
While we were in Glasgow we were busy with spades and saplings launching community-based tree planting projects around the city as part of our commitment to make things happen on the ground – with communities. The proof of the pudding of all these announcements will be in what happens on the ground, and whether it is transformational. Our hope is that these commitments will lead to world biodiversity being restored, the voices of the most vulnerable communities around the globe being heard, and words translated into action.
By Teresa Gitonga and James Whitehead