Photo by David Clode

The world must restore at least one billion degraded hectares of land in the next decade – an area about the size of China – or face disaster, UN experts have warned.

Last week the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), jointly launched the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

The report, #GenerationRestoration: Ecosystem restoration for People, Nature and Climate, highlights that humanity is using about 1.6 times the amount of services that nature can provide sustainably. 

Describing the urgent need for restoration and the financial investments required, experts argued that conservation and protection alone are insufficient to address the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. 

They called on nations to meet their collective commitments under existing multilateral environmental agreements by 2030 and add similar commitments for restoring oceans. 

Basically, the world needs more nature, they said at their press launch videoconference.

Tackling climate, biodiversity and food security at the same time

Speaking at the launch, one of the report’s lead authors Barney Dickson said, “it is no longer enough just to protect and conserve the healthy ecosystems we still have because of the ecosystem degradation we have caused.

“We now need to restore at scale ecosystems of different types, if we are to address the interconnected challenges as climate, biodiversity and food security. 

“One third of commercial marine fish populations are currently fished unsustainably. Since 2000 the number of city inhabitants without access to safely managed drinking water has increased by more than 50 per cent.”

The huge growth in productivity in the last thirty years has been at the cost of the decline of nature.

“Those two facts are connected,” Dickson said. “We produced capital because of the misuse of natural capital. This is an imbalance we need to address.”

Over the last 50 years produced capital (economic growth) has increased by 100 per cent, improving human well-being by almost 20 per cent, but it has been at a cost of 40 per cent decline in natural capital. Source: UNEP

Grow nature to grow the economy

Environmentalists have long argued that economic growth is unsustainable. Yet, according to Eduardo Mansur of the FAO, investment in nature restoration can improve the economy.

“They cannot be dissociated. Harmony of people and nature doesn’t mean development will not come – in Costa Rica and Africa as a whole for example, the preservation of water springs for fresh clean water underpins clean economic growth. This decline of fresh water globally is one of the biggest challenges we face. And it’s not just in the developing world, New York City is also provided by springs. 

“In the FAO, we say positive nature actions transform the way we do things to sustainable practice.”

“Carbon sequestration in soil improves productivity for agriculture,” agreed Susan Gardner, UNEP’s director, ecosystems division. “All of this enhances job creation.”

Mansur cited the example of tackling single use plastic pollution as an economic opportunity. “How can we economically find a way to replace this? We should never see it as a conflict between economic growth and restoring nature.

“We can recarbonise nature to decarbonise the economy. And we can grow nature to grow the economy.”

The investment will return up to 30 times the value

Global terrestrial restoration costs – not including the costs of restoring marine ecosystems – are estimated to be at least US$200 billion per year by 2030. 

But the investment is worthwhile. For every US$1 invested in restoration up to US$30 in economic benefits is returned, their new report estimates.

Recarbonise nature to decarbonise the economy

Photo by Vicky T

“Unfortunately, currently only about 18 per cent of the post-covid recovery plans of all countries around the world are contributing towards green improvement; many more are just continuing bad practices that contribute to the decline of nature,” said Gardner. 

“But half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature, and investment in nature-based solutions produces immense returns. 

“We therefore need to expand awareness of the importance of healthy ecosystems. It is going to take a concerted effort to restore the planet.”

“Restoration also requires deeper changes in society. This is why this report is calling for the adoption of inclusive wealth, which includes green capital. This doesn’t exclude nature and is a more accurate measure of economic progress,” said Dickson.

Dickson also called for the elimination of perverse subsidies that encourage nature’s destruction.

“It’s not just about planting trees,” says Mansur. “Farmlands, forests, freshwater, grasslands, shrublands and savannahs, mountains, oceans and coasts, peatlands, urban areas.

“Here, it’s not about making these environments pristine, but working in harmony with nature instead of against it.”

One billion hectares have already been restored. That’s the good news.

“The science is clear and we have the power and the knowledge,” said Gardner. “And we can do it at any scale, from huge farming tracts to the backyard, anywhere in the world. This conveys a message of action and hope.”

Scale of the challenge

Communities living across almost two billion of degraded hectares of land include some of the world’s poorest and marginalized.

“This report presents the case for why we must all throw our weight behind a global restoration effort. Drawing on the latest scientific evidence, it sets out the crucial role played by ecosystems, from forests and farmland to rivers and oceans, and it charts the losses that result from a poor stewardship of the planet,” says UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen, and FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu.

“Degradation is already affecting the well-being of an estimated 3.2 billion people – that is 40 per cent of the world’s population. Every single year we lose ecosystem services worth more than 10 per cent of our global economic output,” he added, stressing that “massive gains await us” by reversing these trends.

Ecosystem restoration is the process of halting and overturning degradation, resulting in cleaner air and water, extreme weather mitigation, better human health, and recovered biodiversity, including improved pollination of plants. 

Restoration encompasses a wide continuum of practices, from reforestation to re-wetting peatlands and coral rehabilitation.

It works towards the realisation of multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including health, clean water, and peace and security, and to the objectives of the three ‘Rio Conventions’ on Climate, Biodiversity, and Desertification.

Additionally, the sequestration of atmospheric carbon would help to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius.

It may also help avoid 60 per cent of expected biodiversity extinctions

In summary, it can be highly efficient in producing multiple economic, social and ecological benefits at the same time.

For example, agroforestry alone has the potential to increase food security for 1.3 billion people, says the report.

Investments in agriculture, mangrove protection and water management will help adapt to climate change, with benefits around four times the original investment. 

Photo by Elizabeth Gottwald

The Framework for Ecosystem Restoration Monitoring

Reliable monitoring of restoration efforts is essential, both to track progress and to attract private and public investments. 

In support of this effort, FAO and UNEP simultaneously launched the Digital Hub for the UN Decade, which includes the Framework for Ecosystem Restoration Monitoring.

The Framework enables countries and communities to measure progress of projects across important ecosystems, which helps to build vital ownership and trust in restoration projects.

The Framework also incorporates the Drylands Restoration Initiatives Platform, which collects and analyses data, shares good practice, and assists in the design of drylands restoration projects.

Additionally, it contains an interactive geospatial mapping tool to assess the best locations for forest restoration.

UNEP and the FAO say the evidence shows that successful restoration must involve all stakeholders. This includes individuals, businesses, associations, and governments. 

Crucially, it must respect the needs and rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and incorporate their knowledge, experience and capacities to ensure restoration plans are implemented and sustained.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

This is a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly.

It is building a strong, broad-based global movement to ramp up restoration and put the world on track for a sustainable future with the required political momentum for restoration as well as thousands of initiatives on the ground.

UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment, and the FAO leads international efforts to defeat hunger and transform agri-food systems, making them more resilient, sustainable and inclusive. 

David Thorpe is the author of‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.