Scaling Action for Nature: A Blueprint for a Sustainable Future

Who Will Speak For The Trees
January 25, 2024
Tom Crowther
Prof. of Global Ecosystem Ecology at ETH Zürich

by Dr. Tom Crowther, ETH Zürich & Yishan Wong, CEO of Terraformation

The complex and intricate systems of nature, vital for sustaining life on Earth, are in danger of being lost. At this moment in our planet’s history, the need for decisive action has never been greater. 

We are at a critical juncture where we must end the era of greenwashing and take tangible steps toward real climate action. This involves not only protecting and restoring natural ecosystems but also drastically reducing our collective carbon footprint. Yet an urgent component of success in these efforts is also among the least discussed: equitable development that directs funds toward the stewards of our planet’s biodiversity.   

Combining carbon drawdown and emissions cuts

Nature possesses immense potential for carbon drawdown. Within the complexity of these natural systems lies a solution to help stabilize our climate and preserve biodiversity — but this capability can only be realized if we simultaneously cut emissions. That solution is the restoration of our planet’s native forest ecosystems, which hold the potential to sequester 30% of our atmospheric carbon.

Restoring our native forests stands at the core of revitalizing this link between biodiversity and climate. Yet without cutting emissions, local shifts in weather patterns and natural disasters can undermine the health and resilience of forest ecosystems, compromising their ability to effectively sequester carbon. 

Thus, efforts in forest restoration must go hand in hand with aggressive emissions reduction and decarbonization strategies to create a balanced and effective approach to climate change mitigation.

The multifaceted power of nature

Nature's complexity is its strength. This bio-complexity sustains our planet and can also be our ally in stabilizing the climate. To leverage this power, we must allow ecosystems to recover and thrive. Biodiversity is not a luxury but a necessity for the stability of people, nature, and the climate. It is the interconnected web of life that maintains the balance and resilience of our ecosystems.

Forests are not just collections of trees, but intricate networks of life, with each species playing a unique role in maintaining ecological balance. By focusing on native forest restoration, we re-establish these natural habitats, offering a sanctuary for myriad species — from the smallest bacteria and fungi to the largest mammals. 

This restoration is a catalyst for the recovery of entire ecosystems, ensuring that each organism thrives, supporting many others in turn, all contributing to the health and stability of our planet. Native forest restoration is a critical step toward reversing the losses in biodiversity and building resilience against climate change.

Decarbonization and nature conservation: Two sides of the same coin

We cannot afford to choose between decarbonizing our societies and saving nature. These are not mutually exclusive goals; they are interconnected and interdependent. We need nature for effective climate action, and robust climate action is essential for the preservation of nature. The health of our planet depends on this dual approach.

The synergistic benefits for achieving our biodiversity and climate goals call for a holistic approach to environmental stewardship. Indeed, it is only when forest restoration benefits local people and biodiversity that the climate benefits will ever be realized in the long term. It's essential that financial and political mechanisms drive the flow of wealth toward local communities, farmers, and Indigenous populations that promote biodiversity across the globe. 

By weaving together these objectives, we can create a sustainable model where the progress in one area reinforces success in the other, leading to a healthier planet for all its inhabitants.

Biodiversity as the goal, carbon capture as the byproduct

In ecological restoration, the primary goal must be the health and diversity of local ecosystems and the people who depend on them. Carbon capture is a natural byproduct of a landscape teeming with life. When local communities see the value in maintaining healthy, biodiverse ecosystems, long-term carbon sequestration will follow. This means that for projects to achieve their full potential, the needs and knowledge of local populations must be at the center of restoration initiatives.

Ecological recovery is possible when it is driven by the people in those regions, who are the stewards and beneficiaries of thriving biodiversity. When thriving nature is the economic choice of local communities, then it will grow. Whether agroforestry farmers aim to improve biodiversity to enhance yields, or an Indigenous community protects their native biodiversity and benefits from ecotourism, nature can only thrive when local people thrive too.

This community-driven approach also bolsters the sense of ownership over the long-term health of local ecosystems and the value for sustainable practices, leading to enduring environmental stewardship and effective carbon capture.

Rethinking restoration: Beyond tree planting

Effective restoration goes beyond simply planting trees. It includes countless actions, including conservation, agroforestry, silviculture, rewilding and any other action that enhances the health of biodiversity. In every context, it requires a holistic approach that includes equitable development and the creation of financial and political mechanisms to direct wealth toward local stakeholders, including communities, Indigenous groups, farmers, and foresters. These are the true custodians of biodiversity, and their involvement and empowerment are key to successful ecological restoration.

This holistic approach necessitates a shift in how we view and value our environmental strategies. It's not just about the number of trees restored, but about nurturing entire ecosystems and the people who depend on them. Investing in these local stakeholders means providing them with the tools, education, and financial resources needed to manage their natural resources sustainably. 

When these custodians of biodiversity are supported and recognized, they can implement practices that benefit both the environment and their livelihoods. This creates a self-sustaining cycle where ecological health and community prosperity reinforce each other, leading to more resilient and thriving ecosystems.

A call to corporations: Catalytic contributions over greenwashing

For companies seeking to contribute to environmental efforts, the path forward involves more than offsetting damage with mass tree plantations. Real change requires two significant steps. 

First, companies must eliminate ecological degradation and emissions from their own supply chains. This is about taking responsibility for their environmental impact and actively working to reduce it, for the Earth is and has always been the foundation upon which we’ve created economic value.

Second, companies should invest in and support catalytic initiatives that empower vast numbers of local communities, Indigenous groups, farmers, and foresters across the globe. These groups are at the forefront of promoting biodiversity and should be the primary beneficiaries of corporate environmental initiatives. Sponsoring such catalytic initiatives yields a positive cascade of sustainable practices and environmental stewardship, creating a wave of restoration efforts that extends far beyond the initial investment.

A better world — by all of us

As we face the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, the path forward requires a collective effort that respects and leverages the complexity of nature. By directing our efforts toward restoring and maintaining healthy, diverse ecosystems and making conscious choices to reduce our carbon footprint, we can ensure a sustainable future for our planet. 

Our primary focus now is to channel significant attention and resources toward the local communities, organizations, and people at the forefront of ecological restoration, as they work tirelessly to safeguard our planet's future.

This is not just an environmental imperative; it is a moral one. Let us embrace this moment as an opportunity to be the architects of a better, more resilient world.

About the Who Will Speak for the Trees? Series

At a time when human economic development is prioritized over the needs of nature, the Who Will Speak for the Trees? series features top reforestation leaders with a broad range of restoration expertise, including climate tech, monitoring, science, finance, media, and more. These diverse voices offer expert viewpoints to instill confidence in how humanity can support nature to deliver a forested future for all living things on Earth. Join us for this ongoing series to learn more about the science of reforestation and how restoring ecosystems is part of a comprehensive climate solution.

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Tom Crowther
Prof. of Global Ecosystem Ecology at ETH Zürich
Thomas Ward Crowther is a professor of ecology at ETH Zürich and co-chair of the advisory board for the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. At ETH Zürich, he started Crowther Lab, an interdisciplinary group of scientists exploring the role of biodiversity in regulating the Earth's climate. Crowther is the founder of Restor, an online platform that provides connectivity and transparency to thousands of conservation and restoration projects around the world. He also founded SEED, a biodiversity monitoring tool to help measure the health of nature across the globe. He was selected in the final cohort for Prince William’s Earthshot Prize, and was selected by World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader for his work to promote nature.
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