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Can Money Grow on Trees? A Commercial Case for Regreening the Planet


Justin Adams

Executive Director of the Tropical Forest Alliance (seconded to the TFA from The Nature Conservancy)

February 2017

Photo © TNC
Photo © TNC

What do chocolate, rubber, nuts, fruit, charcoal and timber all have in common? These products all provide the backbone of major global industries—and they all grow on trees. So in a sense, money does grow on trees.

Traditionally conservationists have advocated for protecting trees, not cutting them down—especially given the role that deforestation plays in driving climate change.

This still holds true, but with the world’s population expected to hit 10 billion people by 2050, we are facing unprecedented increases in demand for food, fiber and fuel.

Reforestation and the productive use of landscapes is not only key to meeting these needs—if done well, it could potentially be the largest single natural lever we have for carbon storage.

If we can bring commercial incentives into play, and excite forestry companies and end users, conservationists may be able to leverage funding and government policy to turbo-charge key sectors involved in land-use in a similar way as happened in the renewable energy sector.

We need to create a buzz and incentive around sustainable land and forestry that’s good for business and good for the environment.

The Nature Conservancy's 7,600 acre Ellsworth Creek Preserve links with the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, along with more than five miles of Willapa Bay shoreline. Photo © Chris Crisman
The Nature Conservancy's 7,600 acre Ellsworth Creek Preserve links with the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, along with more than five miles of Willapa Bay shoreline. Photo © Chris Crisman

If nature was a techno-fix

It has been internationally recognized that there is quite simply no path to below 2°C without the help of nature.

We need trees, and not just for all the products they provide: trees also clean our air and water, provide crucial habitat, and capture and store carbon on a global scale.

In fact, research tells us that forests could contribute up to one-third of the solution to tackling climate change; forests are even written into the Paris Climate Agreement. Yet forests and land use attract orders of magnitude less funding and attention than the energy sector.

If forests, wetlands and soils were a techno-fix for climate change, made from concrete and steel, billions of dollars would be flowing towards this solution from governments and Silicon Valley alike.

So how do we start to achieve this growth? One sector where this is possible is the forestry sector itself. With the right environmental and social safeguards in place, the sector offers potential for both economic growth and carbon mitigation.

Today, the forestry sector already employs 13.7 million people around the world and it directly contributes $120 billion to global GDP. Emerging economic analysis tells us that there is potential to grow that number by 50 percent in the next 10 to 15 years. As environmentalists, we should be supporting that, so long as high sustainability standards are met, such as provisions to avoid reforesting on native grasslands.

So, how do we build a vast carbon store by creating more demand for wood? It’s about creating the right kind of incentives for the right kind of wood. Our research also shows that forests well-managed for timber can often store as much carbon as unmanaged forests.

Extracting timber from a well-managed forest does result of course result in immediate carbon loss—but that forest is able to grow back.

And, the sustainable supply of timber provides a sustainable supply of jobs and revenue that can deter the threat of conversion to other land uses.

Photo © PLP Architecture
Photo © PLP Architecture

High rise ambitions for wood

Construction, food and other heavy-emitting industries can all benefit from large-scale tree planting. One of the best uses of wood is in construction—already commonplace in residential buildings across the United States.

In recent years, there have been some big advances in wood technology. Innovation in wood products could change the way we build commercial buildings and grow the demand for wood as a building material. For example, cross laminated timber (CLT) can now be made to be stronger than steel and fire resistant, while also reducing the lifetime carbon footprint of a building by 40 percent.

Technologies like CLT offer the potential for timber to be used in more than just residential buildings, expanding into the high-rise and commercial building markets. Wooden skyscrapers are starting to pop up around the globe, with the tallest wooden building in the world (80-stories) set to make its debut in London.

In addition to high-powered industries like forestry, cities and municipalities also stand to benefit substantially from planting more trees. New research by the Conservancy highlights that more than 3,000 cities globally could improve the quality of their drinking through forest restoration and protection alone. Our research also demonstrates that planting more trees in cities reduces temperatures and filters out pollution from the air—leading to healthier cities that also store carbon.

Aerial view of mountain top coal mining in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason
Aerial view of mountain top coal mining in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason

Opportunities in every country

It’s clear that planting trees benefits both the environment and the economy, but two major questions still remain: 1) Where are we supposed to put all of these trees? And, 2) who is going to pay for them?

In answer to this first question, analysis shows that the opportunity exists in every country. For example, in the Appalachians of West Virginia, there are almost 2 million acres—an area twice the size of Delaware—of degraded land that could be reforested.

Reforesting this area with native hardwood species could lead to the sequester of 6.9 MtCO2, the equivalent of taking more than 5 million cars off the road. Furthermore, this reforestation effort would also create new jobs in one of the most economically depressed parts of the United States.

To answer the second question—of who is footing the bill—we look to the phenomenal growth of renewables for inspiration. The renewable energy revolution was fundamentally about unleashing innovation across both the public and private sector, creating incentives to boost investment in useful products.

The remarkable growth in renewable energy was driven by measures like innovative tax credits and renewable portfolio standards in the United States. Now, we need to look for the equivalent financial systems for reforestation. In India, for example, the government is proposing to adjust its tax code to spur reforestation, and Brazil is emerging as a leader in reforestation policy.

That sounds like an easy sell. The truth is that setting up the conditions for these investments will require cooperation from actors across a range public and private sectors, including some who have had uncomfortable or even antagonistic relationships in the past.

It will take more education and demonstration of how these projects can work on the ground. But you when you consider the potential benefits of making these investments—more jobs, more trees, less pollution and less climate change—this simple idea becomes rich with opportunity.