Why growing forests is awesome

Job van Hooijdonk

Co-Founder of Regreener

Growing forests has many benefits

In 2016, a record of 29.7 million hectares of forest disappeared. That’s 290,000 square kilometers. Well over 50% of the world’s forests have been cut down in the last 100 years. A lot of the deforestation took place in third world countries.

Globally, one fifth of the Earth’s land area (more than 2 billion hectares) are degraded, an area nearly the size of India and the Russian Federation combined. Land degradation is undermining the well-being of some 3.2 billion people, driving species to extinction and intensifying climate change. Can we fix this? Of course we can (you’re visiting HAPPY Eco News after all!). I believe it can be done by planting a lot of trees, if we do this the right way.

Is planting trees as good for the Earth as everyone says? Well, let’s be clear: I don’t believe we will save our planet by just planting trees. Of course, a major turnaround (in both thinking and doing) is needed to save our planet. We need to reduce emissions and maybe even adjust a lot of the systems that are currently in place. However, I do believe that growing forests (if it’s done right) will play a very important role in fighting climate change. From the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the food we eat, forests sustain us.

In my opinion, there’s a major difference between planting trees and growing actual forests. Planting trees usually means that the focus is on the number of trees that are planted. There are projects out there that are simply trying to plant as many trees as possible. These projects tend to miss the real point of restoring nature. In addition, we often see this creates monocultures (i.e. the planting of one species of tree), which do more harm than good.

Growing forests on the other hand is about creating or restoring biodiversity systems. As far as I’m concerned, the real beauty of growing forests is in the combination of benefits. Forests cover nearly 31 per cent of our planet’s land area. You will understand by now: I’m a big fan of forests. One important difference between planting trees and growing forests is the opportunity to use Assisted Natural Regeneration as a method to grow forests. ANR is a blend of active planting and passive restoration, where local people – leaning on their knowledge of the land and on ancestral or local traditions – help trees and native vegetation naturally recover by eliminating threats to their growth and survival.

Growing forests has many benefits, and one could easily write a book about this. I’d like to quickly point out some of the main benefits below.

Benefits of growing forests

Carbon/Oxygen

Forests produce oxygen, which we need to live. At the same time, forests absorb the carbon dioxide we emit (or exhale). With some help from the sun, during a process called photosynthesis, trees take the carbon dioxide (CO₂) and transform it into clean oxygen (O₂). One fully grown tree can provide enough oxygen for 2 to 10 people, depending on the kind of tree. Forests are one of the most effective “devices” we must pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Want to improve the quality of air? Start planting trees.

Biodiversity

Nearly half of Earth's known species live in forests, including almost 80% of all biodiversity that can be found on land. Forests contain 60,000 different tree species, 80 percent of amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species, and 68 percent of the world's mammal species. Some rain forests are among the oldest ecosystems on Earth. Biodiversity is a big deal, both for ecosystems and human economies, yet it's increasingly threatened around the world by deforestation. The magical thing about growing forests? It provides us with an opportunity to bring back a lot of that biodiversity, if we start now.

Water

Once again, the effect trees have is magical. Forests both release and absorb water. How this works? As trees release CO2 through their leaves and the photosynthesis process, they also release water. Around 90% of a tree's water is released through its leaf stomata or pores as evaporation. This cools down not just the tree but the air and other organisms around it.

Forests play a very important role in capturing water. As a result, forests reduce the risk of natural disasters like floods and landslides. Soil erosion is a natural phenomenon. However, nowadays it is becoming a real problem. Deforestation, deep slopes, lack of vegetation, and increasing human activities cause an acceleration of soil erosion at higher speeds each year. The good news is that everybody can do their part when it comes to erosion control. One simple and effective technique you can use is to grow forests. With their deep roots, forests can stop erosion. Forests help the local environment by protecting delicate soil from wind and rainfall, which in turn prevents landslides and surface runoff. Furthermore, planting trees in coastal areas (mangrove tree along the coastline for example) can prevent floodings in such areas as well.

Healing degraded land

As mentioned before, there are approximately 2 billion hectares of degraded land worldwide. The urgency of restoring degraded forests and other ecosystems is such that the United Nations declared the years from 2021 to 2030 the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Big parts hereof can be healed by growing forests. This will bring the soil back to life, as well as the roots of the trees.

Social benefits (employment)

Tree planting projects create employment opportunities. Especially in developing countries, this can be absolutely life changing. Providing economic incentives and simple planting techniques to support local communities restores both the local environment and the local economy. At Regreener, we always look at the social benefits when choosing tree planting projects to support. Putting the local community at the center of the projects inspires great commitment to reforestation in their country and a sense of ownership to protect their forests long-term.

Preventing climate refugees

This is a very important social factor as well. I believe we need to do whatever we can to make sure we prevent a massive number of climate refugees. This is how this works: a lot of the deforestation in the world takes place by impoverished people cutting down trees for charcoal production or to sell the wood. The result? Forests disappear, soil erosion takes place, areas dry out, and ultimately areas become unhabitable.

Although estimates vary quote a lot, there could be between 400 million and 1.2 billion (!) environmental refugees by 2050. As you can imagine, situations will be terrible even before people decide to leave their home. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an annual average of 21.5 million people has been forcibly displaced by weather-related events – such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures – since 2008. The bad news is this is only getting worse. In a lot of situations, growing forests can prevent people from having to leave their homes.

Mental health

Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and improves mood. Numerous studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting down and looking at trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Even if you live in a part of the world where none of the above is experienced, it would still be good for you to have a forest around!

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit”

Conclusion

Growing forests is awesome. It is very important to create healthy forests. Forests provide oxygen and they are very important to boost and/or restore biodiversity. Furthermore, forests are champions when it comes to regulating water, both in (too) dry and (too) wet areas. Forests have the magical ability to heal degraded land, which is very important if you realize there’s 2 million hectares of degraded land worldwide. Finally, growing forests provides for social benefits, varying from employment to preventing climate refugees to improving mental health.

So, although I realize that just growing a lot of forests is not going to solve the climate crisis we are currently in, I do believe it will play a very important role. Reducing carbon emissions, accelerating the energy transition, reducing plastic use (and thus pollution) are very important topics. It is my belief that we should focus on all those things, while growing a lot of forests for real impact. There is this old Greek saying I keep thinking about, that sums it up pretty well: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit”.

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