10 years to boost ecosystem restoration for people and planet

Photo: Damedias/Adobe Stock

The next 10 years are both the UN Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration. This is fitting because the two are intrinsically connected: achieving the SDGs relies on the restoration of ecosystems.

Restoration is the process of reversing the degradation of ecosystems to regain their ecological functionality, for the benefit of nature and people. Ecosystem restoration is a nature-based solution for a range of global issues, from climate change mitigation and adaptation to sustainable development, poverty alleviation and improving human wellbeing.

In accordance with the mitigation hierarchy, protecting valued ecosystems should be prioritised in the first instance. However, where this is no longer possible, restoration will be needed to recover lost ecosystem functions and services.  

Most ecosystem types, be they terrestrial, marine or coastal, are in need of protection and restoration. The Bonn Challenge sets the target of bringing 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2030. This is a significant challenge; success depends on government, private, and grassroots initiatives delivering efficient and lasting solutions. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the importance of this work. The outbreak is causing widespread distress, and the world is rightly focused on tackling the immediate crisis. In the long-term, recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will be a collective challenge. The global process of building back better will need to recognise the inextricable link between people and nature. For example, habitat fragmentation can lead to greater exposure to pathogens - an issue that can be addressed by restoration.

Why restoration?  

Ecosystem restoration can bring benefits to the environment, the economy and society - healthy ecosystems support healthy people. 

With respect to the environment, restoration helps reverse biodiversity loss and mitigate climate change. Through protection and restoration, we can reduce the pressures on threatened animal and plant species both on land and underwater. Ecosystem restoration is also a natural climate solution to reduce global warming, with ecosystems already absorbing around half of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Restoring and rehabilitating 12 million hectares of degraded land per year could help close the emissions gap by up to 25 per cent by 2030. Some analysts conclude that the restoration of converted and degraded wetlands alone can offer 14 per cent of the mitigation potential needed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Restoring degraded ecosystems can support local and global economies. Marine and coastal ecosystems are currently estimated to generate benefits for people and nature to a value of USD 47 trillion. Restoring 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes by 2030 would be a boost of up to USD 9 trillion in ecosystem services, contributing to alleviating poverty and supporting rural economies.   

Restoration can bring benefits to society. 3.2 billion people around the globe are affected by the impacts of land degradation. Two-thirds of the world's population already experience water scarcity. Restoring land has the potential to raise groundwater levels, and healthy soils can store more nutrients and produce higher quality plants, improving food production and reducing agriculture pressure on natural systems.

Finally, healthy ecosystems also support healthy people. The risk of zoonotic disease transmission is increased when ecosystems are degraded by activities like deforestation, landscape fragmentation, habitat encroachment and destruction, and unsustainable or illegal wildlife trade. We are currently facing accelerated pathogen pathways for zoonotic diseases. Restoring ecosystems and strengthening their sustainable use and management can contribute towards preventing this. Building capacity for restoration practices is one of the key components of this process. 

The challenge ahead

Around 25 per cent of the world’s land is degraded. We collectively need to restore 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes to meet the global target (SDG 15.3). This is a significant challenge, but there is reason to be optimistic.  

Restoration is cost-effective; restoring 350 million hectares will cost around USD 800 billion - the same amount spent on fossil fuels subsidies in under two years. In the long-term, restoring 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes could generate USD 9 trillion in ecosystem services and absorb between 13 and 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.   

As an international conservation community, we have the knowledge we need to boost restoration practices. There are hundreds of restoration projects working on all scales around the world, forming a vibrant and valuable knowledge community for learning lessons and sharing successes. Through partnerships, we can mobilise resources, build capacity, and mainstream restoration into development planning at all scales. We must share knowledge, expertise and resources to achieve these ambitious but necessary targets. 

However, restoration is a process, rather than a quick solution. As well as highlighting the importance of restoration to delivering multiple SDGs, the coming decade should also feature a long-term movement towards restoration as part of the mitigation hierachy. Efforts must have long-term visions, and approaches must be climate-resilient and sustainable.

Restoration efforts must also continue beyond 2030. Some ecosystems can be restored more quickly than others either due to the speed at which species can colonise or grow or due to the wider context in which restoration efforts take place, for example with other ongoing pressures such as climate change. The recovery of healthy ecosystems is a process measured in years and decades. Globally, we must work consistently and collaboratively across sectors, disciplines and geographies in the decades to come to ensure successful restoration at all scales.  

The role of UNEP-WCMC 

The UN Decade of Action on SDGs and the UN Decade on Restoration go hand in hand. Throughout this decade and beyond, UNEP-WCMC will continue to support ecosystem restoration to help the world mitigate and adapt to climate change and to progress across the SDGs.

The Centre is already leading, carrying out a dozen restoration-related projects, from Restore+ which aims to maximise the social and environmental value of degraded and marginal land through restoration in three tropical basins, to Algal Forest Restoration in the Mediterranean Sea (AFRIMED). UNEP-WCMC is also strengthening its work with strategic public and private-sector partners to support the design, implementation and monitoring of ecosystem restoration efforts and nature-based solutions.  

We will continue to play our part, working with partners to develop and use crucial knowledge and tools to better understand the ecosystems on which we all depend, and to ensure they are conserved, sustainably used, and restored in the years to come. 

Learn more about our work on ecosystem restoration here

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