18 May 2021

New study: forests the size of France have regrown in last 20 years

Exciting new research from Trillion Trees – a joint venture between WWF, BirdLife International and WCS – demonstrates the capacity of forests to regenerate themselves if we let them.

Boreal forest in northern Alberta, Canada is an important carbon sink © WWF
Boreal forest in northern Alberta, Canada is an important carbon sink © WWF
By Trillion Trees

Climate change, deforestation, extinction – tackling these global crises can sometimes feel like an impossible task. But the truth is that conservation efforts are already beginning to have an impact, showing us that taking action is not just worthwhile, but absolutely necessary. Now, exciting new research is pointing the way towards a greener planet – in quite a literal sense.

Nearly 59 million hectares of forests – an area larger than France – has regrown since 2000, according to new analysis published last week by Trillion Trees – a joint venture between WWF, BirdLife International and WCS. This area of forest has the potential to store the equivalent of 5.9 gigatonnes of CO2 – more than the annual emissions of the US.

The study points to the Atlantic Forest in Brazil as one of the success stories for regeneration, where an estimated 4.2 million hectares – an area roughly the size of the Netherlands – has regrown since 2000, through a combination of planned projects to restore the forest, more responsible industry practices and other factors including rising migration towards cities (although much more needs to be done to protect and recover this important biome).

In the boreal forests of Mongolia’s northern wilderness, the study suggests that 1.2 million hectares of forest have regenerated in the last 20 years, in part thanks to the work of Trillion Trees partner WWF, and increased emphasis from the Mongolian government regarding protected areas. Other regeneration hotspots include central Africa and the boreal forests of Canada.

The study is designed to help inform forest restoration plans worldwide, giving a picture of the areas where focusing restoration efforts could be most beneficial. It is part of a two-year research project that involved examining more than 30 years’ worth of satellite imaging data and surveying experts with on the ground knowledge of more than a hundred sites in 29 different countries.

“We’ve known for a long time that natural forest regeneration is often cheaper, richer in carbon and better for biodiversity than actively planted forests, and this research tells us where and why regeneration is happening, and how we can recreate those conditions elsewhere,” says William Baldwin-Cantello, Director of Nature-based Solutions at WWF-UK.

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However, the authors of the study warn that encouraging signs of regeneration cannot be taken for granted. Forests across Brazil face significant threats today, even the Atlantic Forests – a recognised success story in restoration. Such is the extent of historic deforestation that the area of this unique forest still needs to more than double from currently 12% of its original extent to 30%, in order to reach what scientists believe is a minimal threshold for its lasting conservation.

Thankfully, we already have the tools tackle challenges such as these. “This research points to the fact that to reach forest restoration at the scale we’re all looking for, the proverbial ‘trillion trees’, we will need to employ a lot of the same tools that will also help end deforestation. The two go hand in hand. Valuing trees and forests in our economic systems, smarter land use planning, shifting the incentives for rural communities and others to benefit from forests… all of these can keep standing trees standing while also creating the space for new trees to grow,” says Bryna Griffin, head of BirdLife International Forests Programme.

There is more momentum than ever behind forest restoration, including a wave of government pledges. But close examination of these pledges shows that the delivery plans involve very limited expansion of natural forests, despite the strong climate and biodiversity benefits they offer. With this new understanding of the potential for natural regeneration at scale, there is cause for re-balancing delivery plans to include more natural forest.

Primed with more detailed intelligence about regeneration opportunities, Trillion Trees plans to invite local partners and green funders to help facilitate new landscape restoration ventures, focusing on areas offering the maximum benefit for vulnerable ecosystems and local communities.

Trillion Trees is a unique joint venture for forests – forged by three of the world’s largest conservation organisations – to speed up and scale up the protection and restoration of forests and to end deforestation. Find out more at: www.trilliontrees.org