We all evolved in ecosystems like this, where the sounds of birds and insects indicated the possibility of food, medicines and all the resources we need for survival. Ecosystems and their biodiversity still hold the key to life on this planet.
I'm obsessed with this biodiversity, the magic of the infinite network, where every species depends on others to survive. For most of my career, I focused on just one of those fascinating connections between insects and fungi in the soil.
I longed to understand the scale of these networks and to understand how they might help us with one of the greatest challenges facing humanity: our rapidly warming planet. The problem is clear. We know we need to reduce our emissions and draw the existing carbon out of the atmosphere, stop the damage and start the repair.
And this is where forests can help. Like all plants, trees capture carbon from the atmosphere, and they use it for growth. And some of that carbon enters the soil, where it can stay for hundreds or even thousands of years.
If we could stop the losses of forests around the world, we could directly help to cut our annual emissions. And if we could start to tip the balance in the other direction, we might even help the repair process.
But if people were really going to invest their valuable time and energy in a solution like this, we needed to comprehend the size of this opportunity and understand the impacts that we can have as individuals.
But comprehending something of this scale was a completely new challenge for me and my colleagues. For this, we needed the knowledge of experts all over the world. So we began building a new network. The more people we contacted, the more data we received, and the more clearly patterns began to emerge.
With data from over 1.2 million forests, we were able to build new machine learning models to predict forest structure around the world. For the first time, we could see that our earth is home to just over three trillion trees, almost half of what existed before human civilization.
We could see where the different species are distributed and how carbon is stored in this massive system. But this approach could also show us something more transformative. Using the same models, we could begin to see where trees might naturally grow under the existing climate.
And this suggested that outside of urban and agricultural areas, there's 0.9 billion hectares where trees would naturally exist. And this is room for just over one trillion new trees. We estimated that if we could protect these areas in the long term, then the soils and vegetation might capture up to 30 percent of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, capturing decades of human emissions.
We now have a wealth of ongoing research to refine these initial estimates. But the scale of this potential suggests that along with all the other benefits these ecosystems provide, they might also represent a valuable role in our fight against climate change.
When our research was accepted to be published in the journal Science, nothing could have prepared us for the media explosion that followed. Suddenly, it seemed like the whole world was talking about the potential of trees.
Under the umbrella of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the World Economic Forum launched their Trillion Trees Campaign to go alongside similar efforts from the WWF and United Nations. Suddenly, governments and companies all around the world were pledging their commitment to the restoration of earth's forests.
And with the job creation that would result, the idea of a global restoration movement was becoming a reality. But in the excitement of it all, and with the chance to make that positive impact I'd always dreamed of, I made some naive and stupid mistakes in communication that threatened the entire message.
The simplicity of our message was its strength, but it came at the expense of nuance that is so important. And as the headlines began to emerge, I desperately just wanted to pull them back in. Because to some, it seemed like we were proposing restoration as the single solution to climate change.
And this is the opposite of what this movement needs. When viewed through this lens, restoration just seems like an easy way out, a chance for us to "offset our emissions" by planting a few trees and ignore the very real and urgent challenges of cutting emissions and protecting the ecosystems that we currently have.
Restoration is not a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. It is just one of a huge portfolio of solutions that we so desperately need. And this view of trees as an easy way out is such a tempting perspective, but it is a real threat to the climate change movement and to the ecosystems that still remain.
(Faint sounds) This is also the sound of trees. It's a eucalyptus plantation that exists just a couple of miles away from where we began. Notice how there were no sounds of birds or insects. The songs of biodiversity are gone.
That's because what you're hearing is not an ecosystem. It's a monoculture of one single tree species planted for rapid tree growth. Along with the biodiversity that used to live here, this local community has now lost the benefits those ecosystems provided, like clean water, soil fertility, and most urgently, protection from the intense fires that now threaten the region every summer.
The UN suggests that almost half of reforested areas around the world are monocultures just like this, planted for rapid timber production or carbon capture. Just like a farm, these plantations may be valuable for timber, but they are not the restoration of nature.
And monocultures are just one of the many ways we can damage ecosystems when we offset our emissions without considering the local ecology or the people that depend on it. Following these mistakes, a second wave of articles flooded in, warning of the risks of restoration done wrong.
And this criticism was so painful because it was entirely correct. But most of all, I was terrified that we would squander this incredible opportunity, because restoration has such enormous potential for positive impact.
But just like every good idea, it only works if we get it right. But as the dust settled, we realized that this was actually a time when the entire movement gained real momentum. More people than ever were interested in global restoration, and with messages flooding in about the successes and failures of restoration projects around the world, we had access to the lessons that can help us to get it right.
Every new criticism offered incredible opportunities to learn and grow. Every failed restoration example was a lesson on how to improve future projects. These learnings were an entirely new source of data — data from the real heroes of this movement, from the people on the ground who were conserving and managing ecosystems around the world.
No one knows their ecosystems more, and no one is more aware of the risks of restoration done wrong and the need for accurate ecological information to show the best areas to focus on, which species can exist in those regions, and what benefits those species can provide to the community.
Historically, these are questions that have been addressed through years of rigorous trial and error. But we started wondering: What if we fed this deep on-the-ground knowledge back into our machine-learning models to learn from the thousands of successes and failures?
Could this help us to identify which strategies are working and failing around the world? And about a year ago, we started working with Google to help build and scale this idea into a functioning online ecosystem, where projects from around the world can learn and grow together.
By pairing Google's technology and our models, this ever-growing network of scientists, restoration projects, and NGOs could now build the platform that could serve the restoration movement. And I am so excited to give you a first glimpse of what we've been working on.
This is Restor, an open data platform for the restoration movement, providing free ecological insights to show which species of trees, grasses, or shrubs might exist in that region, monitoring of projects so that we can all see the developments happening on the ground.
And most importantly, for the sharing of ecological information so that restoration organizations can learn one another and so that funders can find and track projects to support. Restor is a digital ecosystem for restoration.
The more data the community uploads, the stronger the predictions get and the more informed action we can all take. Putting the learnings of thousands of projects into the hands of people everywhere. And this ecosystem is much bigger than just planting trees.
Trees are just the symbol for entire ecosystem restoration. Restor is for the protection of land so trees can recover, for the amendment of soil so vegetation can return, and for the thousands of other approaches used to promote the health of grasslands, peatlands, and all other ecosystems that are equally important for life on earth.
Whether you want to support a wetland conservation project with huge carbon potential or simply find which species of plant might exist in your garden and how much soil carbon they could accumulate, with this tool, we hope that everyone everywhere will have a chance to engage in the restoration movement.
The word "restore" is defined as the act of returning something back to its original state, but it's also the act of returning it back to its original owners. The restoration of nature is for the local biodiversity and the communities that depend on it.
And as that network grows, the collective action benefits everyone. And these benefits go far beyond the threat of climate change. Even if climate change stopped right now, the protection and rebuilding of earth's biodiversity would still be a top priority because it underpins all life on earth.
It can help us with all other global threats, including extreme weather events, droughts, food shortages and global pandemics. But global restoration won't be easy, and it will not be solved by tech solutions alone.
These tools can inform us, but ultimately the challenge is one that can only be addressed by us, by all of us. Just like the interdependent species that make up natural ecosystems, we humans are deeply dependent on one another.
We need the immense network of limitless connections, the farmers and project leaders on the ground who need local markets and industries to make use of sustainable products. The scientists, governments, NGOs, businesses, you, me, we are all needed to keep this movement going.
We need the whole ecology of humanity.