Carbon Neutrality: Back to the Woods

Published on Thursday, 18 March 2021

Dr. Echeverria in different ecological restoration projects

The right species, in the right place

The goal of ecological restoration is to recover ecosystems that have been destroyed, but unlike reforestation, it seeks to recover the species that previously inhabited the site.

Species are planted in both methods, but the difference is that restoration is guided by a “reference ecosystem,” a model to follow, which must be located near the site to be restored, and ideally with the least amount of human intervention.

“You monitor different parameters of the reference ecosystem; its composition, structural and functional attributes. We evaluate the complexity of the ecosystem in terms of its different altitudes, types of species, niches that are being recovered, for the purpose of determining if we are getting close to what was previously destroyed.”

– comments Dr. Echeverría

Since 2011, Dr. Echeverria has been working in an area of the Nonguen National Reserve. He says that just recently they saw before and after pictures, “and you're just like wow, it's recovered, where even the oaks brought back digüeñe, and hummingbirds came back to nest. All of these processes had disappeared. Last year we also planted Copihues, which are vines that can only grow with the support of the trees’ vertical structure.

Before and after pictures of the Nonguen National Reserve, Biobío Region (2011-2021).

Without restoration, these species would be lost in the long term, so this practice not only helps mitigate climate change, but also the biodiversity crisis, and helps prevent natural disasters.

These plants, in addition to providing us with the oxygen we need to live, provide “ecosystemic services,” a concept that encompasses all of the contributions offers to human life. This includes the regulation of water flows to avoid scarcity in drought periods, and provisioning, where trees provide food, cultural or recreational services, and scenic beauty.

“With ecological restoration, the goal is to recover multiple services, and when I say that, it's because we do it from the perspective of sustainability science.”

As Dr. Echeverria explains, during the last 40 years, the Maule and Bio Bio coastal zone has suffered one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America. However, he assures that “we're not that bad at the national level, compared to other countries, but don’t let that confuse you. The amount of native forest is also lower, thus the low deforestation rate.”

Forests are the key to carbon neutrality

During recent years, Chile has positioned itself as one of the countries with the greatest commitment to the fight against climate change and the achievement of carbon neutrality. In fact, in June 2019, the Chilean government committed to reaching zero emissions by 2050, with a roadmap where technology and innovation are just as important as forests.

It is estimated that by 2050, our country will have 50% fewer gross emissions thanks clean and renewable energy generation, energy efficiency, e-mobility, and the incorporation of green hydrogen as fuel, among other challenges. But what about the remaining 50% of emissions? Trees are the answer and are essential thanks to their great capacity to capture CO2, especially the native forests that have been recovered, which have a greater capacity to capture and store carbon dioxide.

“This is a unique opportunity for Chile (...) We know that it's not all about emissions reduction, but you also have to capture more.”

– says Dr. Echeverría

As this is a global matter, the efforts need to be aligned. The UN declared the period between 2021 and 2030,  “The Decade on Ecosystem Restoration,” with the goal of “massively accelerating global restoration of degraded ecosystems, to fight the climate heating crisis, enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity.”

In Chile, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture have created a “National Landscape Restoration Plan, which establishes the “country priority task” for 2030 as the recovery and maintenance of landscapes, which is also a “direct contribution to the mitigation goals established by Chile” and international targets, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This national plan must also go hand in hand with the efforts made by the private sector. This is why Enel Chile has been working since 2015 with the Universidad de Concepción to implement three projects.

One of these is an ecological restoration project that began in 2020 with the Environmental Qualification Resolution (RCA) of Ralco, which is aimed at recovery of three endangered species: the ciprés de la cordillera, lleuque and guindo santo.

This project started with the ecological restoration of 9.5 hectares in 2020, and the remaining 58 hectares will be covered in 2021. This positions Enel as a pioneer in Chile in the ecological restoration of such areas with these types of protected species. Al ser éste un problema mundial, los esfuerzos se han tenido que alinear. La ONU declaró el periodo del 2021 a 2030 como “La Década para la Restauración de los Ecosistemas”, con el objetivo de “incrementar a gran escala la restauración de los ecosistemas degradados y destruidos, como medida de probada eficacia para luchar contra el cambio climático y mejorar la seguridad alimentaria, el suministro de agua y la biodiversidad”.

“These are species that cannot be recovered without the recovery of their habitat; the guindo santo requires shade and a lot of moisture, and grows along riverbanks. Meanwhile, the ciprés de la cordillera grows in very dry areas, and the lleuque grows under the shade of other species. They have very specific habitat conditions, so we have to recover the complexity and integrity of the ecosystem in order to be able to establish these species.”

– explains Dr. Echeverría as one of the project's leaders

Additionally, there is the oak, rauli and coigüe reforestation project developed by Enel Chile along with the Universidad de Concepción, which has planted a total of 633 hectares of native species as of March 2021. This is a collaborative project, where the science demonstrated by the academic sphere led to concrete agreements and an important precedent for the challenges faced by Chile and the world.

Meanwhile, Dr. Echeverria confesses that it is a “major challenge, but I like challenges.”