In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that painted a pretty grim picture of what the world will look like if we do not take action on climate change: extreme heat waves, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. But if this warning isn’t enough, the current state of extreme weather events should be.
Over the past few months, the world has experienced the devastating impacts of climate-related disasters, including a rise in climate-fueled wildfires and the increasing strength of storms like Hurricane Ida in the Caribbean and US. As climate change takes the lives of more people each year, vulnerable populations that are already at a disproportionate risk of living in poverty will be hit the hardest.
But there is hope. World leaders are gathering this fall at COP26, the UN’s Climate Change Conference, to implement policies and discuss solutions that can help us mitigate and adapt to climate change. One of these solutions comes from nature and is ready to be deployed today: trees.
Growing and conserving healthy forests are one of the simplest and most natural ways to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But when deciding where to conserve forests and grow trees, conservationists need to keep in mind sound ecological principles and science to make sure their efforts are achieving the most benefits possible.
“It is important to make sure the right tree is grown in the right place. And not all places need the same amount of trees, or even any trees at all,” Nicole Schwab, co-head of nature-based solutions at the World Economic Forum, told Global Citizen. “For instance, there are very functional, intact grassland ecosystems that should remain unforested because they serve an incredibly important ecological role.”
For this reason, balance is key. Conservation and restoration initiatives like growing trees need to be carefully designed and implemented to avoid doing more harm to the environment than good, such as by focusing on planting native tree species over non-native ones. They also need to prioritize regions that need more tree coverage.
“In areas where there’s been significant degradation of natural forests, we have an opportunity to act now and in a dramatic way,” Schwab added. “Some areas need the conservation and protection of standing trees, others need assisted or passive restoration of degraded forests, and others need active planting measures.”
With this in mind, the World Economic Forum launched 1t.org, an initiative designed to serve the global reforestation community by mobilizing private sector ambition and engagement, accelerating restoration in priority regions, and empowering a new generation of ecopreneurs to take action on climate change.
From reforesting the Sahel region as part of the Great Green Wall to growing trees in historically excluded urban areas of the United States that lack green spaces, 1t.org brings together governments, businesses, NGOs, ecopreneurs, and young people to support investments in nature that reach the scale of change the planet needs.
3 Things to Know About Trees
- The world’s forests absorbed twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted between 2001 and 2019, acting as a “carbon sink” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- The effects of systemic racism — such as redlining, discriminatory policies, and disinvestment — have prevented tree equity in urban neighborhoods home to communities of color.
- Investing in tree restoration projects can create jobs, combat air pollution, and increase the availability of food sources.
How Do Trees Benefit People Living in Poverty?
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that we lose around 10 million hectares of forests every year, resulting from population growth and humans’ increasing consumption. If we continue to lose trees at this alarming rate, the world will experience a loss of ecological biodiversity and millions of jobs.
Biodiversity is an important regulatory tool for the Earth’s ecosystems; each plant and animal species has a role to play. When trees are cut down and not replaced, every one of the planet’s lifeforms are at risk.
That’s one reason why we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, which is threatening our ability to access clean water sources and grow crops. And though some people do not feel the impacts of deforestation immediately, the 689 million people living in extreme poverty experience forest loss as a matter of life and death.
Increasing reforestation efforts can maintain livelihoods and create new sustainable jobs, particularly since forests already provide over 86 million green jobs around the world. As more initiatives take place to engage rural communities in tree growing and conservation efforts, more people will be able to generate incomes by participating in sustainable agroforestry practices.
In addition to sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, trees bring a variety of health benefits to the people around them, which can help address some of the effects of environmental racism.
Every now and then, we see news reports about the impacts of environmental racism: high levels of lead poisoning causing adverse health effects for people living in Flint, Michigan; Black and Hispanic communities experiencing breathing problems associated with air pollution; huge garbage piles tainting the health of low-income people in developing nations.
These incidents are not isolated and they primarily affect people of color who live in urban areas where green spaces are less likely to exist. But planting and growing trees in these areas can act as a natural defense against some of the threats, such as extreme heat and air pollution.
Trees lower regional temperatures by providing shade, which can help prevent some of the 5 million deaths caused by extreme temperatures each year. In addition, they can clean the air, filter water, and improve our mental health, all of which help ensure humans live healthier lives.
How is 1t.org Growing Trees and Uplifting Local Communities?
Addressing social inequities has to be a key consideration of tree growing initiatives, to ensure that defending the planet does not end up costing low-income people their lives and livelihoods. As 1t.org’s global community works to reforest areas of the world that need trees the most, it is working with NGOs, civil society groups, and ecopreneurs on the ground to scale up tree growing initiatives.
Currently, 1t.org has four regional hubs: the United States, the Sahel, the Amazon, and India. In each of these areas, there is a need to support tree growth while empowering local solutions and supporting local efforts.
In the US, 1t.org has partnered with the non-profit conservation organization American Forests, which developed an important tool called the Tree Equity Score to shed light on the cities and towns that do not have adequate tree coverage and are most impacted by systemic racism.
“[Systemic racism] has life-or-death consequences because people in these neighborhoods are most at risk due to factors such as housing and health status, and [a] lack of trees can make them as much as 20°F hotter,” said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests. “We are committed to tree equity for climate justice.”
In developing nations, there is also a need to elevate and work with local efforts to achieve impact that is socially and ecologically responsible. In sub-Saharan Africa, 1t.org supports the continent’s Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel initiative to connect stakeholders and support ecopreneurship and innovation.
“It’s an incredibly ambitious goal to grow an 8,000 km natural wonder across the entire width of Africa to fight back desertification, as well as provide food and nutrition to local communities through practices such as agroforestry,” Florian Reber, head of community at 1t.org, told Global Citizen.
He added: “In the Amazon, we’re bringing together regional and international collaborations to help build a sustainable bioeconomy that will provide livelihoods to locals while also restoring forests.”
As government leaders gather to address the climate crisis at COP26 this fall, the private sector needs to do its part to combat the worst effects of climate change by taking action. Tree growing is just one solution that can have great results on the environment and local communities, but it cannot be the only step conservation organizations and corporations take.
To fight climate change, companies must first rapidly and significantly decarbonize across all sectors. That’s why Global Citizen is asking businesses and governments to sign on to the Race to Zero campaign to curb greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to pledging a combined total of 1 billion trees by 2022 in support of the 1t.org trillion tree ambition.
Initiatives like 1t.org are investing in nature-based solutions to climate change by growing and conserving the world’s forests, but individuals can also take action to support the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty. When our work incorporates an intersectional approach, Global Citizens can have a part in fighting climate change and reducing inequalities for people everywhere.
You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.