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From transitioning energy systems to renewables to reimagining food systems to expanding the frontier of carbon capture technologies, the recipe to mitigate the effects of land degradation – which negatively impact the wellbeing of 40 percent of humanity – is constantly growing. But the crux of the issue remains restoring the degraded landscapes themselves.
Forest and landscape restoration (FLR), also known as ecosystem restoration, was the focus of a digital forum on restoration, held on 29 April by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) and hosted jointly by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) and the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (GPFLR). The half-day event brought together scientists, practitioners, policymakers, civil society and the private sector to address three key topics in restoration: climate mitigation and adaptation, enterprise and job creation, and biodiversity conservation.
“The beauty of restoration is that it considers human beings and ecosystems as components of one single unit, which has to be well balanced,” said Jochen Flasbarth, German state secretary for the Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), who gave an opening address.
Land degradation jeopardizes food security and increases the risks of violent conflict and migration. It is also exacerbating the climate crisis and leading to the loss of biodiversity and key ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling and clean air and water. In 2020, nearly 26 million hectares of tree cover was lost globally.
From Bhutan to Costa Rica, new initiatives have emerged around the world to protect and restore degraded and deforested lands. The 2 billion hectares of landscapes opportune for restoration will be the focus of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which launches in June and will run until 2030, issuing a massive call to action for halting land degradation and promoting restoration at a global level.
While governments have spent trillions of dollars on COVID-19 economic recovery packages, there needs to be a recognition that there can be no return to ‘normal,’ argued Bruno Oberle, director general for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Instead, humanity must learn to work within the Earth’s ecological limits, beginning with conserving and restoring ecosystems. This includes creating enabling policy environments for restoration, building local capacity, working with the private sector to secure financing, and developing monitoring systems to assess progress.
“Our society and now economics are fully embedded in nature, so that we use nature for all of our needs,” said Oberle. “We overuse the amount of nature that we have for our society, we’re diminishing the reserves and capacity of nature to regenerate and we’re not reinvesting into the natural capital… We have to learn to take less and to reinvest.”
Restoring a warmer world
According to the UN’s latest projections, the planet is set to heat up by 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Looking ahead to November’s COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, the event explored the potential role of restoration in climate mitigation and adaptation.
Reforestation could remove as much as 8 to 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year, but not all land is created equal: some areas of the world could store up much more carbon than others.
“Restoration encompasses more than planting trees – it covers productive landscapes, coastal grasslands, urban spaces and much more,” said Musonda Mumba of UN Development Programme (UNDP), who also serves as vice chair of the CPF and chair of the GPFLR.
Susan Cook-Patton of the Nature Conservancy introduced a tool to determine which sites offer the greatest potential for carbon storage. Similarly, Tor-Gunnar Vagen of World Agroforestry (ICRAF) presented a method to calculate soil organic carbon and assess progress toward national policy commitments, while Houria Djoudi of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) examined how different restoration methods can affect the capacity of local communities to adapt to climate impacts in Burkina Faso.
Green lands, green jobs
Land degradation costs the global economy USD 6 to 10 trillion each year, or about 10 percent of gross world product. The price of restoring and conserving ecosystems, meanwhile, pales in enormity. According to a report by the Nature Conservancy, it would cost about USD 600 to 800 billion per year to reverse the biodiversity crisis by 2030. Achieving the UN Sustainable Development goals in developing countries, which includes significant amounts of FLR, is estimated to cost USD 2.5 to 3 billion per year.
The forum examined the business cases to be made in order to attract private finance for restoration projects, as well as how restoration can help create millions of green jobs. Marco Boscolo of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) presented a new guide for forest producers and communities to develop bankable business plans, while Jonathan Gheyssens of UN Environment (UNEP) announced two new initiatives to incubate restoration projects and raise capital for them.
Local food systems can also serve as strong pathways between financial markets and restoration. Young Filipino chef, farmer and entrepreneur Louise Mabulo introduced her latest social venture, The Cacao Project, which seeks to cultivate sustainable and resilient livelihoods for farmers in the Philippines using nature-based solutions. The project has worked with over 200 farmers to reforest and restore water sources across 85 hectares of land to date.
“In order to sustain a green recovery for our economy through restoration, we first have to tackle a mindset change,” said Mabulo. “In countries like mine, farming is associated with poverty, unsustainability and failure. So we have to destigmatize green and agricultural jobs.”
Major Ved Prakash Sharma also presented Gratitude Farms, a start-up he co-founded that supports Indian military veterans, rural women and youth in taking up organic farming. The enterprise works to transform unused barren land into high-yield ‘food forests,’ providing both employment and food security for local communities.
Benefits for biodiversity
With biodiversity being lost at unprecedented rates, scientists have warned that the world now faces a sixth mass extinction. Part of this biodiversity loss is driven by land degradation and the conversion of natural habitats into other forms of land use. The forum’s third and final session discussed how restoration initiatives can be designed to tackle these issues.
Although tree planting is becoming increasingly popular in policy circles, it is just one of many methods to restore the planet, pointed out Victoria Gutierrez of Commonland. Other potential solutions include replacing missing species and promoting natural regeneration. Speakers noted that these techniques must be tailored to the local context by engaging stakeholders and supporting participatory governance, as small-scale restoration might not be enough to address all species needs. Restoration should also prioritize areas inhabited by critically endangered species, which can not only reduce their risk of extinction but also benefit other species that share the same habitat.
The digital forum closed with remarks from FAO’s Lina Pohl, who is credited with conceiving the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration during her time serving as El Salvador’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources. Echoing speakers and participants throughout the day’s sessions, Pohl called for strong collaborations between scientists, practitioners, policymakers and civil society to tackle biodiversity loss, land degradation and the climate crisis through restoration.
Powered by the traditional knowledge of local communities and well-funded through a combination of private and public sources, a worldwide restoration effort can sequester carbon, protect biodiversity and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“We need to inspire the people,” said Pohl. “It’s about our future – and not only our future, but our present. It is about how we can transform and recover.”