The Challenge of Tracking Tree Growth: A Key to Restoring Our Planet

Measuring tree growth success

This year, the global effort to combat climate change has gained a powerful ally: business. Together, we aim to plant trillions of trees to restore land and absorb carbon from the atmosphere, potentially limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, planting trees is just the beginning. To truly understand the impact of these trees, we need to track their growth, carbon storage, and the benefits they provide to people and the environment. But how do we go about tracking the growth of a trillion trees?

Why We Need to Track Tree Growth

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Tracking tree growth is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, it allows governments, companies, and NGOs to assess their progress and learn from successful projects. It also helps identify struggling initiatives that need adjustments. Furthermore, tracking tree growth highlights the achievements of individuals, such as farmers in the dry Sahel region who have restored vast areas of land without external assistance. These success stories hold valuable lessons that can only be shared if we have a systematic way of measuring changes in the landscape.

Challenges of Tracking Tree Growth

While high-quality satellite data and platforms like Global Forest Watch effectively track deforestation, they are less effective at monitoring tree growth. Why is that? Well, growing trees to maturity takes time, often 15 years or more. It’s much harder to observe a small sapling slowly growing in a field than to notice the absence of a mature tree. Furthermore, the cost of obtaining and analyzing very-high-resolution imagery, which could capture this growth, is prohibitively expensive on a global scale. Additionally, the quality and consistency of the existing data on tree growth vary significantly, making it difficult for project managers and funders to trust the reported success of tree restoration projects.

Building Globally Consistent Datasets

As we approach the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, set to commence in 2021, and witness the start of corporate pledges to protect and grow a trillion trees, we must address these challenges. We, at Tips Tree Planting, are fully engaged in finding solutions. Recent studies have revealed the presence of billions of sparsely scattered trees in rural areas that conventional remote sensing methods couldn’t detect. By incorporating this data into our global analysis, we can have a more comprehensive understanding of tree cover gain and loss.

Through a pilot study in Southeast Asia’s Mekong region, we discovered an increase in the number of trees on farms and pasturelands. This finding encouraged us to collaborate with the University of Maryland’s GLAD lab to expand our research to Latin America and develop a globally consistent, annual dataset that tracks tree growth at various scales – from global to subnational.

We are leveraging the power of artificial intelligence to analyze raw satellite data across 30 landscapes, each spanning around 10,000 hectares. Our goal is to create accurate, detailed maps of millions of trees, addressing the limitations of official statistics, plans, and models that often overlook them.

By combining these approaches and building a Global Restoration Progress Index, we can track the progress of Trillion Trees and the tree restoration movement more accurately than ever before.

The Challenge of Tracking Tree Growth: A Key to Restoring Our Planet

Establishing a Protocol and Community of Practice

To ensure the credibility and impact of tree restoration efforts, we need globally consistent, independent data that identifies successful and unsuccessful tree restoration “hotspots.” This information will help us better understand the effectiveness of countries’, NGOs’, and companies’ investments. Additionally, we must develop a well-supported community of practice for individual projects funded through platforms like TerraMatch. This community should establish consistent, independent monitoring protocols that support project implementers and funders.

At Tips Tree Planting, we are creating a scientifically sound, cost-effective protocol to monitor tree restoration projects within agricultural, forest, and urban landscapes. This protocol focuses on key indicators such as tree count, tree cover, and tree species, which will be measured for up to 15 years after planting. By combining field data collection with remote monitoring techniques like satellite imagery interpretation and artificial intelligence, we aim to keep costs as low as possible. Ultimately, the aggregated data from projects following this protocol will provide insights into whether our efforts to combat climate change and restore trees are on the right track.

The Challenge of Tracking Tree Growth: A Key to Restoring Our Planet

Measuring, Understanding, and Investing in Tree Restoration

Measuring tree growth is just one aspect of assessing restoration success. It is equally important to measure the economic and social impact of restoration to ensure that people can truly benefit from these initiatives. As corporations and governments increasingly seek scientific evidence of success, tracking progress becomes essential. Funders are investing in measuring success and expect their planting partners to do the same. However, it’s crucial to recognize that the true cost of tree restoration success extends beyond tree planting to include engaging local communities, adequately caring for trees, and measuring progress.

With the newfound momentum behind corporate pledges and advancements in scientific research, now is the time to start actively tracking the progress of tree restoration efforts. As we continue to develop a robust global atlas, aptly named “Restoration Watch,” and establish an adaptable yet consistent protocol for projects, we will be one step closer to restoring our planet, one tree at a time.

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