The deep roots of a sustainable future

Forestation is one of the best solutions in the fight against climate change and for the requalification of the urban environment.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
17 July 2020
8 min read
by Maria Pia Rossignaud
17 July 2020
8 min read

When we think of the many initiatives taken to plant new trees, we often imagine them far off, out in the country, in natural places. But for a few years now, an idea has been spreading, of using afforestation both to fight climate change and make towns and cities more varied and pleasant to live in.

European Green Deal

The aim is to renaturalize land, by planting trees and shrubs that suit the local soil and weather. Planting new trees can alleviate the effects of human activity, help climate adaptation and make the land itself more resilient to environmental stress and the extreme weather events provoked by global warming.

In the last few months, the recently appointed President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has insisted on the need for a Green New Deal for the continent. It’s a massive plan of economic and political measures, with lofty goals for all EU states, to be reached in two phases, in 2030 and 2050. This green revolution will strike at every sector of the economy. It will demand a circular economy, energy efficiency, decarbonization and permanent adoption of energy from renewable sources. It will also fix its sights on reforestation over wide areas.

Compensating by planting

We’re already used to thinking about planting as a practical way to help the climate. It’s one of the basic strategies that government bodies, companies and individuals resort to if they want to offset their own environmental impact. It’s had a place in almost all legislation on the climate for years now, and often provides a simple, though obviously not comprehensive, solution to a very complex problem. To paint the picture with a figure, almost 25 million acres of forest are chopped down every year now to free up land for crops, pasture and palm oil.

The scientific community has been wedded to reforestation for some time now, churning out reams of research and studies that prove its benefits. NASA’s Alan Buis says that “By planting more than a half trillion trees […] we could capture about 205 billion metric tons of carbon, reducing atmospheric carbon by about 25 percent.” This statement, based on research by Jean-Francois Bastin of ETH Zurich, is a perfect example of the general thinking on the issue.

New trees for a new urban environment

But afforestation is still relatively obscure. It’s used in a range of places and the figures vary, although they’re impressive when you consider that we’re talking about thousands of plants here. The method can be used in towns and cities or in the country, wherever there’s enough ground to grow a real wood. Large trees can be put in a more heavily urban context, in parks, avenues and squares. On private land, afforestation can be a good way of reclaiming industrial areas in an environmentally sustainable way, or creating a wood at a company’s offices. And that’s not to mention the good work it can do in places where water’s at risk, or where slopes have been strengthened and need protection. It can help restore land after environmental disasters, as with storm Vaia in Italy in October 2018. Building green infrastructure like walls of trees, rainforest gardens and banks of mangroves means fighting phenomena like floods, which are becoming ever more common and aggressive thanks to climate change.

An afforestation protocol

Rete Clima is a non-profit organisation that has worked all over Italy for years, encouraging private companies and other non-profit bodies to forge links in a network for the climate, communities and parks. Its aim is to run environmental projects that put into practice the corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies set by the United Nations for 2030. Rete Clima came up with the Italian afforestation protocol, which sums up these projects well: “The protocol is an opportunity to formalise our technical forestry (urban and rural afforestation) with a ‘green label’ that identifies and represents the way we work. We want it to be a tool for practical work to help the climate, through a campaign that will make the whole country more green.”

The actions envisaged by this protocol are several, starting from the application of a proper forest planning, the creation of naturalistic plantations and use of native, certified species. And yet, all the requirements needed for the good forestry practice and existing regulations have to be attained, as well as the maintenance of all plantations until their maturity, the direct participation in forestry by companies and local people and last, but not least, the involvement of the local horticulture industry.

All to “create real, concrete and long-lasting benefits for local communities and the whole country.”

These guidelines were drawn up to create a sort of certificate of quality for afforestation work, and are an excellent summary of everything it should involve.

The benefits of urban afforestation

At the second World Forum on Urban Forests, held at the end of 2019 in Milan, they showed that we’re heading relentlessly for greater mass urbanisation. It’s estimated that by 2030 about two thirds of the world’s people will live in urban areas, and thinking about the space in our towns and cities today is therefore essential. The liveability of urban areas will be ever more on the agenda. So, the urban strategy we choose to follow will determine our future. The Forum showed that urban afforestation is the only really practical choice if we’re to reconcile a growing population and sustainability in the cities. Besides these benefits, afforestation regulates temperature, alleviates cold winter winds and offers shady spots in summer. It also builds a safe haven for many bird species and ensures the wellbeing of organisms that are essential to our survival, like bees.

Good things coming out of Mexico and Wales

Afforestation is a relatively recent thing but we already have big examples of how it can be done. We’ll give just two here, although the list is huge. The first was a futuristic project that took its key from the past. The old cities of the Maya rose up amid tropical plants and canals. Now the world will see its first “smart forest city” near Cancún, in Mexico, after an agreement between the local government and the architect’s studio Stefano Boeri, already famous for Bosco Verticale in Milan. The project was presented at the Climate Action Summit in New York and will house 130,000 people in a sustainable, self-reliant community stretching over just over 2 square miles. The entire urban area will be covered in greenery and rely solely on electric transport right from the start. And all of it by 2026, an exceptionally short time for such an ambitious project.

The second is in Wales and the aim is an entire forest, or rather a network of woods, covering the whole country. It will help protect nature, improve biodiversity and bring down carbon dioxide in the atmosphere thanks to the absorbing trees. The project will cost 5 million pounds and the authorities want to get local people on board as much as possible in carrying it out, to hammer home the idea that “woods belong to everyone and it’s everyone’s job to take care of them.” It will begin at a pace of 5,000 acres a year of planting, then grow to a full speed of 100,000 acres a year. The promoters and government bodies involved hope their “national forest”, as the sylvan network of tomorrow has been christened, will lower Wales’s carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050, greatly improving the quality of its air and attracting tourists. It will also lead to cleaner river water, better land for crops, a new habitat for animals and wood for eco-friendly buildings.

These are two very different initiatives but with a revolutionary common thread. They might serve as a model for the action we should take – no matter how small its scale as long as it’s effective – to fight climate change with afforestation.