Many of the world’s largest companies have voluntarily planted trees and taken other actions to meet climate goals and restore ecosystems, but a “near total” lack of transparency makes it impossible to assess the quality and results of those restoration projects, a team of researchers concluded in a Policy Forum paper published today in Science.
The researchers analyzed public sustainability reports from 100 of the world’s largest businesses and found that more than 90 percent of corporate-led restoration projects fail to report a single ecological outcome. About 80 percent of projects do not disclose how much money is invested in restoration, and about a third fail to state the area of habitat that they aim to restore.
None report how restoration work affects people and communities in the project areas.
If corporations want to live up to their environmental promises and avoid greenwashing allegations, the researchers said, they should report their efforts “centered around scientific principles that determine ecosystem restoration success.”
“It is increasingly the case that the damage that we’ve done to the world’s ecosystems is now so extensive that it needs outside help,” said Tim Lamont, lead author of the paper and a marine biologist at Lancaster University. “Ecosystems have become locked into degraded states and we need to find ways to accelerate recovery.”
The biggest global companies operate at such large scales and across such big geographic regions that they have a huge ecological footprint, for good or bad, he said. And the first step is to stop the damage.
“That’s important,” he said. “And that’s the first principle of good practice in our paper, that there’s no point doing restoration if you’re still damaging the area through pollution or through something else.”
“The challenge for global restoration is to scale up, and if there’s one group of organizations in the world that are experts at scaling up, it’s the big corporations,” he said. “If they can lend resources and logistics expertise to restoration efforts, if they can get this stuff right, then that’s exactly the sort of input that the global restoration movement needs.”
A World Awash in Greenwashing
The new study is an ambitious effort to survey corporate ecosystem restoration, said Carlos Gonzalez, a carbon and climate economist at Universidad De Burgos in Spain, who was not involved in the study.
“It confirms that a lack of rigor characterizes corporate reporting in this arena, and that guidance provided by organizations such as GRI is insufficient to address corporate impacts on biodiversity,” he said, referring to a flagship effort to create a standardized framework for measuring restoration efforts called the Global Reporting Initiative.
He said the study’s focus on the 100 largest corporations is important because they “are essential to govern global supply chains, so their effects straddle well beyond their size, disproportionately affecting global ecosystems.”
Lamont said the research team set out to summarize the contribution of big corporations to global restoration work.
“I think people haven’t particularly thought of businesses as being central in the global restoration narrative until recently,” he said. But in the past few years they have moved into a “space of restoration,” specifically with voluntary projects “that purport to address global goals” like emissions targets under the Paris climate agreement, he said.
So they set out to try and measure the corporate contribution to global restoration targets in terms of total area and spending, and then compare them to governmental, regional and nongovernmental efforts.
But the comparison turned up very little useful information. “We can tell that two-thirds of the organizations we evaluated are saying that they’re doing restoration work, so we know that there is interest. And we also know that there’s a real lack of reporting. They’re saying stuff like, ‘We planted 2 million trees,’ or whatever, but they’re not telling you what the outcome of that was.”
Mostly, the reports they assessed in the study described project starts, with no mention of whether these trees are surviving, whether this restoration is actually having a positive impact or whether there’s any increase in diversity. What’s more, he said, ”none of them are giving social outcomes, whether people in the area, who lived in or rely on the ecosystems, have seen any benefits to their lives.”
Ariel Brunner, a nature restoration expert with Birdlife International, said the study is another warning about “a world that is awash with greenwashing.”
“Nice claims won’t save us,” he said. ”If we are to survive the climate and biodiversity crisis, let alone maintain a market-based economy, massive restoration efforts need to actually happen. That requires honesty, measurability and accountability.”
Don’t Forget Grasslands!
The study helps inform global restoration efforts in the context of climate targets, said Henrik Österblom, an environmental scientist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, who was not involved in the study. Until recently, research has focused on understanding emissions mitigation and adaptation.
“I think increasingly, it’s clear that we need functioning ecosystems to rebind carbon,” he said. “I think we’re able to quantify the amount of carbon that’s being trapped in functioning grasslands and soils and forests and ocean ecosystems and coral reefs. We’ve done the science to understand what the biosphere does for the climate system.”
“It makes sense to plant trees and restore degraded habitat,” he said, adding that it has to be about more than just planting a few trees to compensate for a flight. “Ten years ago, the whole conversation about rewilding and having big animals to graze and trap carbon was like a super far out kind of a wacky, hippie approach, with a few people saying, ‘Well, it’s actually a carbon thing.’”
Corporate involvement in nature restoration, even if still imperfectly documented, reflects the way “in which wild ideas become legitimate and increasingly mainstream, and I think that that’s exciting,” he said. “It’s a really big shift in our perception about the many different ways that we have to go about dealing with climate change.”
Holly Jones, co-author and restoration ecologist at Northern Illinois University, noted that global restoration efforts also need to include grasslands, whose importance to biodiversity and climate is often overlooked, because of something she described as a “biome awareness disorder,” which is basically the idea that many international policymakers don’t actually understand that there are many more biomes beyond forest and oceans, which hinders progress on restoration.
“Too many people conflate restoration with planting trees,” she said. “About a quarter of Earth’s land mass are grasslands, however, and they’re some of the most endangered ecosystems in the world because they often make for good agricultural land.”
By comparison, a similar tract, about 31 percent of Earth’s land area, is forested, “but you don’t see ‘buy a shoe, plant an acre of prairie grass’ campaigns,” she said. “This underscores the importance of understanding the local needs for restoration, rather than relying on a feel-good sound bite.”
The recent corporate emphasis on ecosystem restoration also shows a cultural rebalancing in the relationship between humanity and nature.
“As colonization happened, Indigenous ways of living in concert with the land fell by the wayside,” she said. “Everybody moved to cities and they lost connection with nature. Now, many people view themselves as separate from nature, to our own detriment.”
She said corporations have a lot of power and with that power comes a lot of responsibility.
“They are significant land owners with a large say in how things are made, recycled, disposed of, and used, which gives them much more power for shaping our planet’s future than most non-profits and governmental organizations that are doing more transparent versions of restoration,” she said. “They can use their significant resources to ensure that they track restoration projects and report back on results … both failures and successes.”
The paper describes some of the existing legal mandates that are partly driving corporate restoration efforts, including the 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which outlines that governments must implement requirements for large corporations to “regularly monitor, assess, and transparently disclose their risks, dependencies, and impacts on biodiversity.”
As a result, many countries, including the United States, have set goals of restoring 30 percent of land and water areas by 2030 during the U.N. Decade of Restoration.
Jones said companies are already “signaling they want to help to protect nature and are attempting to do so in many cases. But without a full accounting of their impact, we will never know if they’re helping, hurting, or neutral.”