Ecosystem restoration key to future of people and planet, new report

Tropical thickets mangrove forest on the island of Sri Lanka. Traditional fisherman in dugout canoe in Sri Lanka.

Humanity is using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to maintain our current lifestyles and ecosystem restoration is key to a better future, highlights a new report from the UN Environment Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization. The depletion of nature at this rate means conservation efforts – while vitally important - are by themselves insufficient to prevent large-scale ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss. 

We cannot afford to simply conserve nature.  We must also devote efforts to restoring it.  

#GenerationRestoration: Ecosystem restoration for people, nature and climate was written with the support of a team of experts at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Published today in the run up to World Environment Day on June 5th, the report marks the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Ecosystem restoration is the process of halting and reversing degradation, resulting in improved ecosystem services and recovered biodiversity. Ecosystem restoration encompasses a wide continuum of practices, depending on local conditions and societal choice.

 The new report outlines how human activity is damaging the world’s ecosystems, why we must restore them, and how we can catalyse a global movement for restoration whose impact outlives the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration itself.  

“From cities to seas, our ecosystems are being degraded. We are losing the ecosystem services we rely upon. We need to halt and reverse these losses. Ecosystem restoration is a critical way to deliver nature-based solutions for our societal challenges,” said Lera Miles, Principal Technical Specialist at UNEP-WCMC and one of the report’s lead authors.  

“We hope that the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will provide a catalyst to increase the scale, scope and pace of effective ecosystem restoration.” 

The need for restoration

 As the global economy has prospered, our planet’s ecological health has suffered. Diverse ecosystems are depleted, from the 20 per cent of croplands showing stressed or declining productivity, to the 66 per cent of ocean ecosystems that are now damaged, degraded, degraded or modified.  

Degraded ecosystems can have a major impact on human health. 50 per cent of city inhabitants, for example, are without access to safe drinking water and 80 per cent live in areas of unsafe air quality. What’s more, the brunt of the burden of rapid ecosystem degradation is being unequally borne by marginalised groups such as women, indigenous peoples and people living in poverty, says the report, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. 

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration focuses on eight ecosystem types in urgent need of restoration: farmlands, forests, grasslands and savannahs, mountains, peatlands, urban areas, freshwaters, and oceans. If we want to keep global temperature rise below 2°C, ensure food security and slow the rate of species extinctions, effective and sustainable for each of these ecosystems are essential.  

Nature’s capacity for renewal 

Fortunately, nature has an extraordinary capacity for renewal, say the report’s authors.

Carefully planned and targeted restoration could help to avoid 60 per cent of expected biodiversity extinctions. To achieve this, we would need to restore 15 per cent of converted lands and stop further conversion of natural ecosystems. Key processes such as photosynthesis, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and filtration of water must also be safeguarded.  

The restoration agenda is fundamentally intertwined with tackling climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Preventing, halting and reversing degradation are needed if actions can deliver one-third of the mitigation that is needed by 2030, while restoration through agroforestry alone has the potential to increase food security for 1.3 billion people.

A crucial decade for nature 

The coming decade offers us all an opportunity to re-establish our relationship with nature. Thriving ecosystems of all kinds can be our allies in combatting the triple climate, nature and pollution crises. To meet these pressing challenges the world must deliver on its current commitment to restore at least one billion hectares of degraded land in the next decade – an area about the size of China.  

Major climate and biodiversity conferences are scheduled for later this year where world leaders are set to agree ambitious environmental targets. To translate this ambition into action that is equitable for all, governments must ensure their post-pandemic economic revival incorporates allocations for ecosystem restoration as a key means to deliver a green, sustainable and just economic recovery. 

“To achieve successful restoration at scale will require action by all kinds of actors, from governments, to investors, to local communities,” said Hazel Thornton, Programme Officer at UNEP-WCMC and one of the report’s lead authors.  

“Effective, evidence-based decision making can help us to achieve national, regional and global goals, targets and commitments - on all scales and by all sectors. Everyone can play a role in ecosystem restoration.” 

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