Tree-planting pledges have soared globally, spawning an ‘any-trees-at-minimal-cost’ solution to climate change that often does more harm than good from a biodiversity, carbon, and land perspective. In response, the global botanical community is preparing to launch the world’s first certification to recognize land-management initiatives that enhance, rather than deplete, biodiversity, while sequestering carbon and contributing to resilient livelihoods.
At this year’s annual UN climate change conference (COP28), director of science at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens Alexandre Antonelli announced that the Global Biodiversity Standard, under development since COP26, is expected to launch in mid-2024. The goal is to specifically recognize and promote the protection and enhancement of biodiversity across land-management initiatives like tree planting, habitat restoration and agriculture.
The standard’s assessment methodology has been developed by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the world’s largest plant conservation network, in collaboration with technical partners like the Society for Ecological Restoration and the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), and the manual with all technical specifications will be published soon.
“The Global Biodiversity Standard is a powerful tool to deliver quality restoration projects and tackle the rapid expansion of poorly-designed tree planting schemes that are accelerating the decline of biodiversity,” said Antonelli, who noted that existing certifications have permitted the planting of invasive species and failed to provide robust incentives to plant native or threatened species.
By promoting the mass planting of non-native trees, he said, even well-meaning initiatives are endangering species and ecosystems by introducing new pests and diseases, and depleting water resources.
The survival of native, threatened tree species matters for the integrity of ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity, like pollination. For example, a single oak tree supports the life cycles of 2,300 species of mammals, birds, insects, fungi, lichens and other plants.
Globally, at least one million species rely on specific tree species to survive, but 30 percent of the world’s tree species are at risk of extinction.
Right trees for the right reason
Governments, businesses, and nonprofits have committed to planting trillions of trees in the next decade and, while Antonelli underscored huge potential of reforestation and restoration efforts, he warned against a tendency to plant the cheapest and fastest growing trees: in his words, “cheap carbon.”
“We want to drive a paradigm shift, whereby the focus is on planting the right species, at the right place, and for the right reason for more resilient landscapes and communities,” explained the scientist, who noted that only 3 percent of global climate finance is currently spent on nature-based solutions.
The standard, he said, looks to provide assurance to governments, financiers, and the public regarding the quality of restoration and tree-planting efforts, and encourage a global move away from short-sighted carbon solutions based on planting any tree at any price.
The technical criteria for the Standard, and the methodology for assessing and certifying sites, were under development for 18 months starting in April 2022, and involved testing across more than 100 sites in six countries (India, Kenya, Peru, Brazil, Madagascar, and Uganda.)
The Standard, which has undergone both a technical and a public consultation, is designed to work in terrestrial and coastal ecosystems with all levels of diversity, from grasslands to rainforests, although it plans to expand to marine and freshwater ones in the future.
Beyond the assessment, the idea is to have local institutions acting as regional hubs to mentor initiatives so they improve their environmental and social outcomes in the short and long-term, as the Standard’s project manager David Bartholomew explained.
“The Standard looks to drive progress towards multiple existing frameworks like the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration,” said Bartholomew, who also encouraged applications from agroforestry and conservation initiatives as soon as the standard is operational.
Tools for the task
To support tree planting initiatives in selecting ‘the right tree for the right place’ while planning projects in alignment with GBS criteria and the ten ‘golden rules for tree planting‘, CIFOR-ICRAF has developed the openly available GlobalUsefulNativeTrees (GlobUNT) and Tree Globally Observed Environmental Ranges (TreeGOER) databases.
GlobUNT – a global database documenting the native distribution and uses for over 14,000 tree species – addresses GBS criteria to maximise the number of native species, avoid planting potentially invasive species, and include threatened species and those that benefit tree planting communities. It also has a climate filter that allows users to provide the baseline (historical) or future conditions of the planting site.
TreeGOER provides information on environmental ranges for an even larger number of tree species – close to 50,000. “With this knowledge at hand, planters and planners can select species that remain suitable in future climatic conditions – something that is absolutely crucial for biodiversity and for local livelihoods,” CIFOR-ICRAF senior scientist Roeland Kindt explained. “The need to select species that match changing environmental conditions is recognized among best practices for ecological restoration.”
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