Restoring forests, the lungs of the planet

Today, forests cover over 4 billion hectares of the Earth - almost a third of the global land area. However, since 1990, approximately 420 million hectares of forest have been converted to other land uses, as highlighted in the recent #GenerationRestoration report

The report, authored by a team including UNEP-WCMC experts for the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, gives an overview of eight different ecosystem types in need of urgent restoration: forests, farmlands, grasslands and savannahs, mountains, peatlands, urban areas, freshwaters, and oceans.  

For this first article in a new series exploring the restoration of each of these eight ecosystems, we examine the habitat often referred to as the 'lungs of the planet': forests.

Forests under threat 

As well as the millions of hectares of forests being converted each year, much of the world’s remaining forest is being increasingly degraded. Estimates reveal only 40 percent of remaining forests have high ecosystem integrity, meaning the ecosystem is functioning and largely free from human modification.  

When a forest is converted or degraded, we lose the valuable benefits that forests naturally provide, from carbon sequestration to air and water purification.  

For example, in the Amazon, the world’s largest remaining tropical rainforest, deforestation is reducing carbon stocks and altering the regional climate. By 2050, eastern Amazonia could see average temperatures increase by 3°C, a drop in rainfall from July to November of as much as 40 percent, and later starts to the rainy season. Combined, the effects of climate change, forest degradation and more forest fires could result in 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest disappearing by 2050.  

This trend is occurring across the world, with forest loss reducing rainfall across the tropics including Central Africa and Southeast Asia, while also increasing the risks of flooding and landslides. 

Uniting to protect the world’s forests 

Protecting and restoring the world’s diversity of forests requires action across all of society to address the driving forces of deforestation and degradation. From policymakers to religious leaders, to the private sector, UNEP-WCMC is working with partners across sectors to protect and restore forests and safeguard the important benefits they provide.  

One such initiative is the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, led by United Nations Environment Programme, Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), and Rainforest Foundation Norway.  

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative is a shared platform for the world’s religions, working to build an international, faith-based movement to protect rainforests and the rights of the indigenous peoples who safeguard them. The initiative involves five countries on three continents: Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, and Peru. Together, they host 70 percent of the Earth’s rainforests.  

Through mobilizing national and international faith-based networks to coordinate efforts to influence policymaking on forests, the moral authority of religion could become an important force in efforts to protect and restore the world’s rainforests.  

Turning ambition into action 

Restoring forests offers a whole host of benefits to human health, economies, and livelihoods around the world. For example, the #GenerationRestoration report states that investing just USD $4 per resident in growing trees could improve the health of millions of people by filtering and cooling the air. 

Because of the increasing recognition of the benefits of restoring forests, there is a multitude of national, regional and global initiatives aimed at halting deforestation and restoring degraded and deforested land. The Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact aims to double native forest cover by restoring 15 million hectares of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, for example. In Europe, the European Commission intends to launch an EU nature restoration plan by the end of 2021 which will include binding nature restoration targets for many ecosystems, including forests. 

Many such initiatives seek to reinforce commitments to the Bonn Challenge, an international goal to restore 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested forest and landscapes by 2030. To date, 61 countries have made 74 pledges totaling 210.12 million hectares. 

Megan Critchley, Associate Programme Officer at UNEP-WCMC says: “Fuelled by the recently launched UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the upcoming UN climate conference, and the anticipated agreement of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, there is now a heightened momentum for forest conservation and restoration. To harness this and ensure that ambitious targets are realized, we will need engagement and action from every sector of society.” 

This is the first in a series of articles examining eight ecosystems in need of urgent restoration. Subsequent articles will be published throughout 2021 to support the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. 

Photo by Steven Kamenar on Unsplash.

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