To avert a climate catastrophe, we have to save the world’s big trees

January 14, 2022

By: The Working Forest Staff

 Opinion BY MEG LOWMAN AND JANE GOODALL

MIAMI HERALD — In 2020, after tragic fires burned millions of acres in the Amazon, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, the Mediterranean and Siberia, an international newscast asked one fundamental question: “What will happen if all the world’s forests disappear?” Our blunt answer: “Humans will become extinct. Period.” Trees provide essential functions that keep us alive. These green machines contain zillions of efficient energy factories — known as leaves — without which no life on Earth can exist. We collectively have dedicated more than 11 decades to studying global forests and biodiversity.

This includes a range of programs outside of our own foundations: “One Million Trees by 2000” in the 1980s in outback Australia after dieback killed millions of rural gum trees; Mission Green (mission-green.org) to save 10 of the world’s highest biodiversity forest tracts; and Trees for Jane in 2021, aligned with the United Nations, and that aims to restore 1 trillion trees by 2030.

As two field biologists who have spent thousands of hours under forest canopies, we have seen how trees keep the planet healthy. And although we both advocate for planting trees, first and foremost, we want to make a clarion call to save big trees and mature forests.

Jane Goodall

This distinction is critical. Yes, we absolutely need to plant more trees. Such efforts will benefit our grandchildren. But for today’s generation and in the immediate wake of accelerating climate change, we need to conserve native, mature forests, whose trees are the senior citizens of the planet. An estimated 50% of our planet’s land-based biodiversity lives in the treetops. It will take decades — more likely centuries — before koalas can survive in the canopies of newly planted gum seedlings or birds return to nest in their uppermost boughs.

Big trees provide essential ecosystem services, both economic and cultural, even as we sleep: freshwater; climate control; medicines; timber; carbon storage; energy production; food; soil conservation; a genetic library for millions of species; and essential spiritual sanctuary for more than 2 billion people. Primary, or old-growth forests, are precious. They are the stalwart sentries that stand between life and life’s extinction.

Meg Lowman

Total plant biomass has declined twofold to 450 gigatons (GTs) since humans increasingly cleared forests in the last few generations. Shrinking fragments of tropical rain forests store less carbon today than 20 years ago, in part because we have cleared so many big trees and then replanted seedlings on hot, dry, cleared landscapes where few will survive.

Earth’s three major primary tropical rainforest regions — Southeast Asia, Amazon, Congo Basin — are rapidly shrinking because of human clearing and climate disruption. In the United States, Florida has cleared 1.95 million hectares of trees between 2000 and 2020, a whopping 26% decrease in the state’s native forests (www.globalforestwatch.org), yet this state relies on nature tourism, including forest recreation, for much of its economy.

We are, in essence, shooting ourselves in the foot. During any Baby Boomer’s lifetime, approximately 50% of the planet’s mature forests already have been removed or degraded by human activities. That is a deplorable track record. Planting trees is important, but their benefits are not realized for many decades. In the case of tropical rain forests, it may require a thousand years or more to restore mature trees, plus the millions of resident species — such as orchids and their host-specific bee pollinators — living in the crowns. We do not have the luxury of that long timeframe to restore a new cohort of arboreal “senior citizens.”

Many countries are spotlighting tree planting activities, which is laudable, but we need to prioritize saving existing forests. Recently, Ethiopia organized an official tree day during which citizens planted more than 350 million seedlings; other countries have undertaken similar actions. But the success rate of seedling survival is extremely small unless each tiny plant is watered and protected, many preferably under the canopy of big trees until they reach a certain age. The millions of species living in the tops of big trees not only serve as a future apothecary for human health but provide essential pollinators, foods, and materials that sustain humans; they are building blocks of essential ecological cycles that keep our planet healthy.

We both agree that humankind faces a planetary triage similar to that of a hospital emergency room: What should we save first and foremost? We argue that we must focus on saving those parts of nature that contribute the most to planetary health. Planting trees is important but saving big trees — and whole forests — is even more critical.

There is no time to wait.

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of TREE Foundation and a National Geographic Explorer. Jane Goodall, Ph.D., is the founder of the Jane Goodall Foundation and a U.N. Messenger of Peace. Lowman Goodall

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