Enough forest has naturally regrown since 2000 to cover mainland France
In what's described as the first thorough study to track natural forest expansion, researchers have found that an area larger than mainland France has regenerated since the year 2000. While deforestation continues to pose a grave threat to the world's biodiversity, the study does emphasize the potential of natural regeneration to help tackle the problem, which offers a number of benefits over active replantation strategies.
The research was published by Trillion Trees (a collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund, BirdLife International and the Wildlife Conservation Society) and focuses on natural forest regeneration, where these ecosystems are either left to recover on their own or given a little nudge along the way.
This can include active restoration and planting of trees in areas where land is degraded, but also more passive techniques such as clearing away invasive vegetation, adding fencing, or simply doing nothing at all. Compared to large-scale active planting, natural regeneration is up to 76 percent cheaper, promotes higher biodiversity of plants and animal species and offers advantages for pollination, water and the health of the soil.
The new analysis draws on 30 years of satellite data and surveys from experts on the ground, to gauge how much of an impact natural regeneration has had on the world's forest coverage since 2000. This culminated in a map developed through a "rigorous scientific approach," illustrating how much has been regrown and where hotspots lie across the globe.
This revealed that nearly 59 million hectares of forest have regrown since 2000, enough to store the equivalent of 5.9 gigatons of CO2, which is more than the annual emissions of the US. Brazil's Atlantic Forest is one example of a hotspot, where 4.2 million hectares have regrown, or an area around the size of the Netherlands. In Mongolia's boreal forests, meanwhile, 1.2 million hectares have regrown.
While these findings around naturally regenerating forests is undoubtedly a good thing, deforestation continues at an alarming rate and it will take a lot of work to arrest the slide. According to the UN, 420 million hectares of global forest were lost between 1990 and 2020. The annual rate of deforestation is slowing, however, at an estimated 10 million hectares a year between 2015 and 2020, down from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s.
The hope is that this new map can act as a tool for conservationists and policy makers to leverage the ability of natural habitats to recover when allowed to do so, and promote these processes in other locations on larger and larger scales.
“Even though this is an exploratory effort, it still highlights the potential that enabling and consolidating regeneration has for mitigating climate change and securing its biodiversity benefits,” said Naikoa Aguilar-Amuchastegui, senior director of forest carbon science at WWF and data analysis team lead. “However, this remains difficult to map and a lot of additional work lies ahead.”
You can check out the map and learn more about the project here.