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Global Forest Regrowth: 58.9m Hectares in 20 Years

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

Jonny Rogers explains how natural forest regrowth might fight against the threats of deforestation.

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Photo by John Towner

Providing oxygen, food and shelter to the world’s land-based species, forests are essential to supporting life on this planet. Deforestation not only destroys habitats and displaces human settlements, but also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and renders land vulnerable to soil erosion, wildfires and flooding.

According to Trillion Trees, however, thanks to a joint venture between a number of conservation NGOs, 58.9 million hectares of natural forest have regrown since the year 2000 – enough to soak up more than the annual emissions of the United States. Using satellite data to build a map of regenerated forests, contributors to the project hope that their discoveries can provide encouragement in the global mission to mitigate climate change:

“Deforestation is at the center of our climate crisis, and we must do everything we can to halt it [...] the restoration of our natural forests will play an essential role in preserving these critical ecosystems.” – Josefina Braña Varela, vice president and deputy lead for forests at WWF

Forest Regrowth and Tree-Planting

One area that has experienced significant regrowth is Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which is home to 5% of the world’s vertebrates and 8% of its plants. Although the forest has been reduced to less than 15% of its original size, it has also been the subject of focused conservation efforts over the past two decades, including the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact to plant or restore 15 million hectares by 2050.

The study also highlights Mongolia’s boreal forests, which have seen 1.24 million hectares of regeneration and 32.7 million hectares placed under official protection. This is, in part, a result of an increased pressure on the Mongolian government to prioritise conservation after climate change and industrial activity increased the number of wildfires in the country.

Recent years have seen world leaders, governments and large corporations pledging to plant millions of trees, in many cases as part of an effort to ‘offset’ carbon emissions without having to change other practices. Nevertheless, tree-planting might in practice cause more harm than good if it is not carefully planned and managed – planting only one species of tree in an area with no variation might leave an entire forest susceptible to the same pests and diseases, for example.

Although forest regeneration might involve planting native trees and shrubs, common regenerative practices also often depend on letting ‘nature take the lead’. For example, ‘assisted natural regeneration’ involves removing invasive vegetation or fencing off territories to let former forests reclaim land, and ‘spontaneous natural regeneration’ involves outright stopping all human activity.

Deforestation: A Bigger Threat

It is important to recognise, however, that the rate of forest regrowth does not currently counter the rate of global deforestation. It has been estimated that 386 million hectares of tree cover were lost in a similar time-period to the Trillion Trees study – over seven times the area of the naturally-regenerated forests.

In 2019, a study found that 26 million hectares of forest (an area comparable to the size of the UK) is being lost every year worldwide. In April this year, it was reported that only 7% of Britain’s native woods and trees were in a good condition. As such, forest regrowth, tree-planting and conservation laws will remain ineffective if they are not partnered with efforts to tackle deforestation.

Deforestation is caused by a variety of activities, including unsustainable agricultural practices, mining, logging and public infrastructure projects. Slash-and-burn agriculture, for example, involves farmers burning large areas of forests to fertilise the ground for temporarily improved crop growth. However, as the soil soon loses its fertility, this process can only be repeated for a few consecutive years, after which a new area has to be decimated.

Even if most people are not directly involved in clearing land or harvesting timber, our actions and choices are still complicit in global deforestation. At an individual level, we could all minimise our demand for paper by recycling and supporting sustainable organisations, as well reducing our consumption of meat and palm oil products.

"To realise the potential of forests as a climate solution, we need support for regeneration in climate delivery plans and must tackle the drivers of deforestation, which in the UK means strong domestic laws to prevent our food causing deforestation overseas." – William Baldwin-Cantello, Chief Adviser on Forests for WWF UK


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