A ‘vaccine’ for tropical forests?

  • Article type Insights
  • Publication date 21 Mar 2021

International Forests Day, 21 March

Elon Musk tweeted earlier this year that he would be "donating $100 million towards a prize for best carbon capture technology”. Out of 600 thousand likes and retweets, twenty thousand corresponded to a brilliant solution: “A tree”. The Tesla boss responded that trees were, indeed, part of the solution, but that we may require something that is “ultra-large-scale industrial in 10 to 20 years”. The sense of acting ‘urgently’ and at ‘scale’ are clearly central to the concepts of innovations announced in his offer. 

Ultra-large scale. Is 1.8 billion hectares large enough? This is the area equivalent to the global tropical forests. What about 800 million hectares? This is the size of the Amazon biome. While Musk’s offer was obviously referring to carbon capture, utilization and storage innovations (CCUS) for clean energy transitions; technologies brought to us through nature, are probably some of the most difficult ones to mimic and upscale at cost.

Urgency, the clock keeps ticking. In 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we learnt from the first large-scale evidenced study that the carbon uptake by the world’s tropical forests was declining faster than expected, with the Amazon carbon sink capacity weakening first; followed by the African forests. It was clearer than ever: Climate change impacts are eroding the capacity of our world’s tropical forests to deliver, through their ‘natural technology’, the carbon capture services, plus immeasurable ecosystem services such as biodiversity and water, have not been valued and internalize in our economic systems.

The Pandemic has taught us that our health is sacred. The amount of oxygen produced by tropical forests is enormous, but its consumption is also unquantifiable. If we think about the role many tropical forests play as gas exchange systems between the land and the atmosphere, then we might be describing an analogue to how our lungs function. Despite the multiple efforts to prevent and contain tropical forest loss, we are still far from deploying the logistics needed to deliver the “shots” for protecting our natural green lungs. 

Covid-19 has also exacerbated our nervous system. When we are nervous, we get heated and our bodies find the way to cool down: We sweat. Now imagine the tropical forests under an intense equatorial heat, with their leaves drying up water. Every time a molecule of water evaporates, it absorbs energy and it cools down. Multiply that cooling capacity by 1.8 billion hectares of tropical forests around the globe. You got it right: This natural cooling system has the capacity to change the behaviour of the global water cycles. The message is clear: We need tropical forests as global cooling systems. 

Innovative, ultra-large-scale industrial solutions for carbon capture need to encompass forest restoration. Young trees capture carbon at a higher speed as they need it to build strong trunks, branches and roots. Like any other living being, saplings need care as our toddlers do. It is not just about counting the number of trees or hectares we planted, it is about the care we give them for their strong establishment. We struggle to restore human health as nature struggles to restore soils and forests.

As we celebrate International Forest Day, let us spend some minutes to appreciate tropical forests. The thematic focus of this year’s Forest Day is Forest Restoration, through which the natural carbon uptake of degraded forests be enhanced. However, the climate mitigation and adaptation benefits of forest restoration are not easily evidenced. While GCF’s impacts on restoration and conservation of tropical forests are yet to be fully seen, our portfolio brings a mix of paradigm shifting alternatives tailored to each context. From Argan trees in Morocco to Mauritius Palms in Peru, the different flavours of restoration are present in our investments. And we are working on more programmes, to increase our impact. Amongst others, the Green Climate Fund is currently working on an Amazon umbrella framework with partners, for action in the Amazon biome. 

It is easier to bring the tropical forests into our lives if we understand our connection to them. They breathe, they sweat, and they thrive as we do. While we might not be able to develop a ‘vaccine’ for tropical forests, the value of keeping them standing and healthy needs to be adequately reflected in our societal behaviours and economic and financial systems. 10-20 years might be too late to keep our ultra-large-scale solution standing.


Verónica Gálmez

Ecosystems Management Senior Specialist