When the United Nations adopted a proposal on 1 March to launch a new decade focused on ecosystem restoration, which will run from 2021 to 2030, German State Secretary for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety Jochen Flasbarth immediately stated his and his ministry’s full support.
Given his being an early champion of restoration’s potential to help defeat global dilemmas, this came as no surprise. His work bringing past restoration efforts such as the Bonn Challenge to light can be seen as evidential assurance that his support for the new decade will manifest not only in further words, but also in practical, tactical work helping transform such enormous ambition into measurable improvement.
Following the adoption, Landscape News spoke with the State Secretary on his role in the endeavor and why restoration is so integral to his own nature as well as the global future’s.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
When did you first hear about the idea for the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration?
I think it was just one year ago, when we had a meeting on the Bonn Challenge in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, and the [environment] minister of El Salvador Lina Pohl came up with this idea. Back home, here, we were immediately attracted by this idea, and we supported it, and we are happy that we are now on our way to establish it.
What are your hopes for what this decade will achieve?
These kinds of UN decades are always a very powerful tool to raise awareness among politicians, among society stakeholders. I really believe that global restoration of degraded ecosystems is of the highest importance. We have seen more than 100 years of destruction of ecosystems, especially forests, and now it’s time to enter into 100 years of restoration – and this might be the first decade.
You have been involved in conservation efforts since a young age. Growing up, what was your connection to nature?
I’m coming from a very highly industrialized region in Germany with a lot of steel production, coal mining. So I was not surrounded by nature, and maybe that’s the reason why at a young stage I liaised with others who were trying to hold a bit of nature in our surroundings. I was interested in birdwatching, and that brought me to bird protection, and from there to nature conservation, and from there to environmental protection.
In your political career, you have given so much legitimacy and support to restoration initiatives. Why?
It was back at the end of the last decade, and we had a discussion on reducing deforestation under the climate negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There was a lot of reluctance in the camp of the climate people here in the ministry, because they didn’t know if it was really a sustainable way to reduce carbon emissions. And also the biodiversity camp was suspicious because they were thinking about monoculture, and if this was something that really meets biodiversity interests and needs.
From there, we got an idea here in the house together with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and in collaboration with the World Resources Institute (WRI) to combine the idea of afforestation with the restoration approach to degraded landscapes. And once you go along this way, you can meet climate interests and biodiversity needs and merge these two issues together. And I was so attracted by this idea because it also creates possibilities to reintroduce means to generate local income for local people. So I think it’s my Sustainable Development Goals’ number-one example of how to merge different ideas and needs of our overall sustainability agenda.
Germany invests heavily in the environmental efforts of other countries as well. Why does the German Government feel this is an important thing to do?
I think we are talking about global challenges. It’s very well understood with the climate agenda. I think people around the world have understood that only in collaboration can we address the climate challenge. Many people understand… that biodiversity is a global issue. It’s not a national issue. We have to collaborate on that as well. And you have many other areas, like soil protection and water management, which need to be addressed on the global level, also with collaboration between countries. And we believe firmly that those who have the means – the industrialized countries, also some emerging economies – have the duty to help those that are in need. And that is the main driver of our engagement, especially in the field of environment.
You come from a background of diplomacy and successful negotiating. What can be done to garner more support for restoration among those currently turned to look away from it?
I think what we are doing with the restoration approach is something that is very easy to sell. People understand that it has some logic, to restore what has been destructed. And especially on the forest issues, people love to plant trees. And politicians love to plant trees because they know that people love to plant trees. But it’s very easy to make mistakes just by planting trees. You can’t use the wrong species; the ecosystem might not have the appropriate conditions for the trees. So, you need much more intelligence behind it. That’s what we’re doing with the Bonn Challenge. That’s what’s behind the landscape restoration approach, the ecosystem restoration approach, and I think it’s not so difficult to make people understand what we are doing and to attract them.
What landscapes are most precious to you?
Well generally I would like to say that each of the ecosystems has their relevance, so it’s difficult to prioritize. When it comes to my own passion, I’ve been a conservationist as a civil servant with 18 years in the Wadden Sea in the north of Germany. Whenever I’m there, I’m really touched. So that might be my personal number-one.
How has your hands-on experience with conservation and restoration affected your approach to policymaking?
As I mentioned, I started quite early as a young boy, being interested in conservation and environment protection as a whole. So I did a lot of ground work when I was young, really in the field. And I think this gives you a different sense, a better understanding, because of course once entering politics, you are on a different level, you need other skills. But it’s good to have this background.
Your education includes the fields of philosophy, economics and political science. How has this diverse foundation affected your approach to environmental policy?
I don’t know whether there is such a big influence from my university time. But I think when it comes to philosophy, there is an ethical damage in taking care of our planet. But on the other hand, it’s also an economic issue. And that is what we did when we held the presidency for the CBD. We were thinking of how to make politicians better understand that biodiversity is not only something nice to have, but it is of real relevance for policymakers. So we launched these studies on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity — the well-known TEEB studies — and in the focus of these studies, we looked at the economic dimension. What are the ecosystem services biodiversity provides? And I think that created a better understanding that it is really essential to look after our biodiversity.
How will you help bring the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to life?
I think basically we are going to continue what we are doing, but we will see a better surrounding with this UN decade, because we do believe this will create a higher awareness – also on the top level of states and governments. But we hope we will get a bigger group of those who join us to work on this exciting issue.