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Magic Machines: Why Companies are Backing Europe’s Forests

Rebecca Fay | 04 November 2019 |

You may have noticed the increasing discussion of “magic machines”: trees as an existing, proven solution that can remove significant amounts of carbon from the air, build themselves, and offer a cost-effective natural climate solution that supports local communities and biodiversity. Despite the numerous known benefits of protecting, restoring and managing thriving forests, countries across Europe are not meeting their tree-planting targets, and businesses are stepping up to fill the gap.

Magic Machines: Why Companies are Backing Europe’s Forests

Trees are going to be vital in the UK’s mission to address climate change,” said Stephen Prior, Co-founder of Forest Carbon - a key contributor to the design and success of the UK’s Woodland Carbon Code - in our recent webinar: How Business is Taking Action to Reforest Europe. “But we are woefully short of where we need to be as a country”. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change suggests 30-50,000 hectares of new planting per year, yet in the period between 2016 and 2019 the annual average was ~9,000 hectares.

Europe is home to only 5% of the world’s forests - the extent of forest cover lost can be viewed on Global Forest Watch’s map - and while some European governments recognise the important role trees can play in national plans to address climate change and improve biodiversity, forests are far from reaching their full potential as natural climate solutions on the continent.

The picture is not much better in the Netherlands. With less than 25m2 of forest per person living in the country, the Netherlands is one of the least forested countries in Europe. And its existing forests are under pressure from the impacts of a warming climate and diseases like ash dieback. First noticed in the Netherlands in 2009, ash dieback disease is caused by a fungus which weakens trees year on year, withering leaves and causing new shoots to “die back,” leaving them vulnerable to secondary infections. The disease spreads quickly and has destroyed large areas of forested land. While research is being carried out in multiple European countries, there is currently no cure. And with little government budget for forest restoration, corporate funding has become essential.

That’s one of the reasons why we worked with Staatsbosbeheer - the Dutch Forestry Commission - to establish a forest restoration project for Microsoft close to its datacenters in the Netherlands. We also set up a project to reforest 130 hectares (approximately 130 football pitches) across Ireland where the company also has datacentres. That programme was the model for the Irish Government’s creation of a native woodland financing mechanism, making it easier for businesses to support Irish forest creation in the future.

Microsoft’s tree-planting programmes are funded by its internal carbon fee and for Holly Beale, Microsoft’s Programme Manager of Datacentre Environmental Sustainability, it’s about engaging staff and local communities. “We know there’s a gap in the investments in natural climate solutions and we’ve realized the increasing role of corporates in contributing to the commitments countries have made to emissions reductions,” she commented. “But there are also very real business benefits to these contributions.” Mike Miles, Microsoft’s General Manager of Workforce and Community Development, agrees: “We want to make sure that the communities that host our datacenters are places that our employees want to live and raise their families. And we want to make sure the communities welcome our datacenter presence, so we look for opportunities to focus on projects that the community themselves values.”

Trees feature in five of the top 20 climate solutions highlighted by Project Drawdown, but its clear that their impacts go beyond enabling us to meet global climate objectives. According to Prior, you don’t need to wait for the forest to grow: “Many of these benefits will accrue as soon as the trees are planted, livestock are excluded from the area and high intensity agriculture is halted,” he said.

While Microsoft has recognised the health, well-being and recreational benefits that forests can provide its datacentre staff and communities, Prior highlighted a number of other benefits, and water quality is a big one. Sufficient tree cover reduces downstream flooding – which is predicted to increase as the climate warms – by intercepting rain and reducing peak flow. In addition, forests intercept pollution, acting as purifying water filters, helping to keep rivers clean. Trees also help maintain optimal water temperatures and shading, enabling aquatic life to thrive.

Once established, a new forest in the Palencia area of Northern Spain will play a critical role in preserving freshwater systems throughout the region. Through Natural Capital Partners, the Nordic Leisure Travel Group is supporting the planting of 10,000 trees to restore degraded ecosystems close to a key holiday destination. More than 10 million hectares of land across Spain have either been abandoned after extensive grazing and loss of soil quality or destroyed by wildfires, which, like flooding in certain areas, are becoming more commonplace as the global temperature increases. Kim Houmark Hansen, Head of Sustainability for the business, commented: “Plants and forests represent one of the most effective climate solutions today and are essential to achieve global targets. That is one of the reasons why we have decided to include forestation as a central part of our climate action plan.”

With all this interest in trees, it’s important that the design of new, high quality European forests is right as we increase the quantity of trees planted and land area covered. This project in Spain will plant a mixture of Sessile and Pyrenean Oak, Scots Pine, Rowan and European Crab Apple tree species to restore a thriving forest ecosystem. Similarly in the Netherlands, all post-disease replanting has been done with a mixture of stress-resistant indigenous and foreign shrub and tree species, all with a strong potential for CO2 absorption. Casper de Groot, Forest Advisor for Staatbosbeheer, agreed that it’s important to plant diverse, mixed woods to help alleviate the pressure of disease by avoiding monocultures, which have historically dominated Dutch landscapes. Staatsbosbeheer has an additional goal to improve the resilience of Dutch forests, by implementing practices like graduating forest edges – with smaller shrubs leading to larger bushes to medium and larger trees in the forest centre – rather than hard lines between large trees and agricultural land or infrastructure, which provide less protection.

Surprising for some, De Groot also highlighted commercial wood production as an important goal in multi-functional forests. Prior agreed, stating that 40% of Forest Carbon’s projects have an extractive element to them. The UK ranks second in the world for timber imports, currently importing around 80% of its wood; producing timber in-country would reduce pressure on old-growth forests elsewhere. “The carbon will stay locked up in harvested wood products, which might become timber for the construction industry, fence posts, all sorts of things,” he said. “With future rotations on the same piece of ground, you get a long-term, never-ending cycle of planting new trees, capturing more carbon, storing it, and planting more trees. So as far as carbon capture goes it’s extremely efficient.”

Trees can help us both mitigate and adapt to climate change – buffering the impacts of extreme weather events while bringing business and brand benefits to the companies supporting their restoration. As was said on the webinar: “Knowing what we know now, we wish people had planted more trees thirty years ago. We are planting now, so that people won’t have to ask the same question of us 30 years in the future.”

Find out how your company can support forest creation in Europe

Companies can work with Natural Capital Partners to support trees as a natural climate solution through two approaches:

  • Protection and restoration of existing forests that are threatened and/or degraded.
  • Creation of new forests in regions that were historically forested.

We deliver programmes with local partners who understand the specific requirements of the area and we use best-in-class standards and approaches to ensure our clients’ claims are of the highest quality.

Contact to find out more.

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