The power of landscape-scale restoration for business

Mangrove trees
Mangrove trees on Merritt Island, Florida.

When leaders gather for Climate Week NYC next week, one question will dominate discussions: Now that the United States government has announced its intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement, who will take the lead to ensure that America meets its climate commitments?

We predict most of these discussions will focus on business. Even if the United States had stayed in the Paris Agreement, business always would play a key role in emissions reductions. That’s because large companies have the unique opportunity to develop solutions and technologies with global reach.

Most large companies already have made their own ambitious commitments to carbon reductions, and many are investing in promising green technologies, renewables and other solutions. According to the International Finance Corporation, climate-smart investments represent a $23 trillion opportunity.

The fact that business will assume the leadership mantle is good news. As we have seen in recent decades, substantial progress can be made outside of international treaties and agreements when industry leads the way.

So the real question at Climate Week NYC quickly will move from who will take the lead to how business will lead. Discussions will focus on the visionary and the practical: How can business raise its ambition to fill the leadership void in U.S. policy? How can my company deliver on its climate commitments and inspire others into action?

One of the most cost-effective and practical climate solutions for businesses also happens to be visionary: Landscape-scale restoration — the reforestation of large swaths of environmentally degraded lands using site-specific native species, along with the rehabilitation of wetlands and soil hydrology. This sort of holistic rebuilding of complete ecosystems will reverse decades of unsustainable management and allow them to operate as they should — mitigating climate change, cleaning the air and the water, and playing defense against storms and floods.   

There is also a compelling business case for landscape-scale restoration. Companies looking for practical, measurable and cost-effective climate investments will find that it delivers an impressive return on investment.

And companies looking for bold solutions will find that this approach not only reduces carbon, it delivers holistic benefits to communities, ecosystems and the economy. In fact, landscape-scale restoration is so critical to climate mitigation that it was codified as a solution in Article 5.1 of the final Paris Agreement.

The forest-based climate solution

This should not come as a stunning revelation. We long have known that we need forests and wetlands for carbon capture. We also are well aware that these forest-heavy ecosystems protect communities, economic infrastructure and precious species against the damaging effects of superstorms such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Until recently, however, landscape-scale restoration has not been as visible as other solutions because such projects are not very common. Moreover, some of these natural capital projects have been difficult to quantify in monetary terms, making it hard difficult for companies to justify investing dollars and resources.

That is changing. The Bonn Challenge, a global effort to restore 865 million acres of deforested and degraded land by 2030, has the potential to sequester more than 15 billion tons of carbon dioxide and generate more than $47 million in economic activity. To date, the Bonn Challenge has received 45 commitments from different initiatives pledging to restore more than 370 million acres. 

In the United States, the Nature Conservancy is working to double the pace of forest restoration on public lands. That group estimates that U.S. forests store and filter more than half of the nation’s water supply, provide jobs to 1 million forest product workers and generate $13.6 billion in recreation-based economic activity on U.S. Forest Service lands alone.

An American-made initiative tailored for business 

Another U.S. organization, Restore the Earth Foundation (with which I consult), is pioneering landscape-scale restoration with a model made for business investment. Last year, Restore the Earth launched its North America’s Amazon project to restore 1 million acres in the lower Mississippi River Valley. This project will generate $12 billion in shared environmental, economic and social value; reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 2 percent; begin to reverse the impact in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico by 12 percent; and build community and business resilience.

Companies including Shell, Entergy, CITGO, VMware and ERM have invested in the North America’s Amazon project initiative because they see it as a cost-effective way to offset their climate footprint while delivering community and economic benefits. Restore the Earth’s EcoMetrics Model lets companies account for the carbon dioxide, water, nitrogen and phosphorus offsets on their balance sheets. The organization also uses a revolving fund that leverages private capital to access public funding. Once the land is restored, it is sold to a conservation organization at the new market value, allowing the profits to be reinvested in restoration.

Restore the Earth’s 4,000-acre demonstration project in Louisiana shows the potential for impact: An independent auditor determined that, over a 40-year period, this project will turn the initial $15 million investment into more than $200 million in financial, manufactured, human, social and natural capital.

Together, these attributes — landscape-scale action, credible, practical metrics and an innovative funding model — form a sensible and pragmatic solution. 

More than just a climate solution

 As businesses gather at Climate Week NYC to think big about ways to address climate change, smart leaders are looking at solutions that deliver more than just carbon reduction. They are looking for holistic solutions that support thriving ecosystems, increase the health and well-being of local communities and create new opportunities for sustainable economic development. At the same time, these business leaders are looking for practical climate initiatives that help them meet their commitments today. With landscape-scale restoration, it is possible to have the best of all worlds.