“When I think that a man alone, reduced to his own simple physical and moral resources, was enough to cause this land of Canaan to spring out of the desert, I do find that, after all, the human condition is commendable.”

This is how the book The Man Who Planted Trees, by French writer Jean Giono, ends after having told the story of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd that reforested an entire alpine valley single-handedly during the first half of 19th century. Although it is fictional, on several occasions over the last few years real instances of reforestation have paid indirect tributes to Monsieur Bouffier. 

For example, although we don’t know if the Chinese-American researcher and documentary maker John D. Liu read the book, his story could well have been inspired by Giono.

Liu is known to most for the documentary “Hope in a changing climate” where he shows the huge Loess Plateau ecosystem regeneration project, a highly degraded 640 thousand square kilometre area and, at the time, one of the poorest places in China. 

Premiering in 2009, at Copenhagen’s Cop15, the documentary showed an international audience how natural ecosystem regeneration was an incredibly effective environmental, economic and social solution for alleviating the effects of climate emergency while strengthening human resilience. 

Regeneration, regarded as an activity restoring degraded environments’ ecological functions, brings two key benefits at local level: it lowers the risk of floods and landslides while improving soil retention; and it increases farmers’ earning opportunities, thanks to increased soil fertility. Not to mention reforestation’s added benefits on a global level: through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it in the soil while offsetting human-induced emissions.

The documentary’s underlying message embodies the need to understand, and consequently change, the value of natural capital in a market context. What we have been able to do so far has been to ascribe monetary value to land\'s farming potential, but we hardly ever come across successful stories where economic value is allocated to vital benefits provided by biodiversity, trees and soil.

The unique characteristic making nature-based solutions so effective is a cross-sectorial approach. While carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in soil, local biodiversity richness increases while poverty drops thanks to improved water and food security.

Precisely ten years on from Copenhagen’s unsuccessful COP, some new research, conducted by Crowther Lab of the Zurich Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), provides an estimate of the number of trees (900 million) and of the main areas where they should be planted (Russia, USA and Canada) so that once mature they can store 205 billion tonnes of carbon, amounting to two thirds of the human-caused emissions released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

“Regeneration of forest ecosystems is not one of many solutions to climate change, it ranks first for immediacy and efficiency (…) the cheapest on the market and anybody can implement it by personally offering trees or donating them to locally-active organisations,” claims Tom Crowther, head of the research team.

This solution, as outlined in the study published on Science, must not rule out the need to stop emissions from fossil fuels nor weaken the deforestation ban of virgin areas: conserving is always more sustainable and cheaper than restoring. Indeed, in order for forests to express the beneficial potential described in the research, we will have to wait between 50 to 100 years and, as shown by the latest IPCC reports, we have to act immediately on cutting emissions to try and remain within the 2 degree increase in global temperatures.

Christiana Figueres, UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) former Executive Secretary, and René Castro, General Director of FAO’s “Climate, Biodiversity, Land and Water” department, have both shared the importance of such research in providing a wide and detailed scientific database for governments and the private sector to invest in reforestation projects.

The research is not focused on financing mechanisms of reforestation programmes. A recent study, conducted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Nature Conservancy (TNC) is closing the gap by mapping out past developments, current success stories and future opportunities of the so-called restoration economy. The research selected 14 amongst hundreds of analysed companies, representing successful scalable business models paying off investments, and regenerating agricultural and forest land.

If ten years ago such data was not available, the science behind ecosystem restoration is now clear, and regeneration is establishing itself as a crucial solution with which to alleviate climate crisis. Today we can safely claim that it goes well beyond temporary trends: the UN declared the 2021-2030 period as the ecosystem restoring decade, setting a global target of 350 million regenerated hectares by 2030.

One of the most influential and largest international marketing agencies, J. Walter Thompson Group, published a report with a telltale title The New Sustainability: Regeneration, in order to show how consumer behaviour in the world’s three largest economies is going through a paradigm shift towards regeneration choices. Managers, activists, scientist and writers signed an appeal launched by George Monbiot, a journalist for The Guardian, to ask governments to support nature-based solutions “with an urgent research programme, funds and political commitment.” Corporations such as Unilever and Danone are developing programmes to promote regeneration agriculture along the supply chain.

A new model that, having internalised the idealistic (but not very realistic) theoretical phase of sustainability, springs into action. A movement that talks again about the structural problems of the economic system, such as linear growth, profit maximisation and limitless commodification of natural resources for mankind’s survival. A generation retracing its steps by reviving and revamping the pillars of sustainable development: recycle, reuse and reduce. This time going past the first pillar, regarding them as one inseparable entity by adding even a fourth one: regenerate.

There is a risk that people may see this perspective change as rebranding sustainability, but it can be countered with adequate information based on scientific data. Starting from the involvement of local administrations in regenerating the connection with one’s own place of origin, by helping the creation of interregional networks and showing the relative need of each place within the world system, in what Wolfgang Sachs used to call “cosmopolitan localism”.

In order to achieve all this, we have to adjust our scale of values: dealing with natural resources beyond their market value, supporting payment for the ecosystem services they provide; rethinking diversity as a source of innovation and not as a limitation; reconsidering waste as a source of life and not as something useless; eliminating the artificial dichotomy between humans and nature, a key cause of many current crises.

What if we choose to prosper by collaborating instead of competing with one another? What if we choose to learn from nature instead of trying to dominate and manipulate it? The time for regeneration has come. 


AAVV, “The global tree restoration potential”, Science 5 July 2019, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76

Wri, The Business of Planting Trees: A Growing Investment Opportunity, January 2018, www.wri.org/publication/business-of-planting-trees

J. Walter Thompson Group, The new sustainability: regenerationwww.jwtintelligence.com/trend-reports/the-new-sustainability-regeneration

George Monbiot, A natural solution to the climate disasterwww.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/03/a-natural-solution-to-the-climate-disaster

Fao, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015: How Are the World’s Forests Changing?, 2015, www.fao.org/3/a-i4793e.pdf