In early 2019, The United Nations General Assembly declared 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
Convened by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the plan is to remove up to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by bringing at least 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes under active restoration by 2030.
So it was with optimism that a September Global Landscape Forum meeting in New York began with Germany’s Director General for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety at the German Ministry (BMU), Christiane Paulus, announcing financial support for the decade’s activities.
Next, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersenpraised the “phenomenal leadership” that Germany has shown in committing to the decade, and warned that change must be galvanized for action among all for restoration.
“It is so very clear we need to shift our ways and change our interaction with nature,” she said. “In this room you have energy, commitment, solutions. We can do this. Let’s just do this,” she said.
She noted the importance of both conservation of remaining forests and other natural habitat, and the need for restoration: “two hands clapping, both are critical” to take the restoration agenda forward, she said.
“Nature is our greatest ally. Nature is under threat,” she said. Already, 3.2 billion people are affected by land degradation. Every year, 10 per cent of Gross Domestic Product is lost soil erosion, pollution and biodiversity loss, mostly caused by unsustainable agriculture.
UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen giving opening remarks at the Global Landscape Forum New York 2019. Photo by UN Environment / Georgina Smith
There is a human, environmental and economic cost to land degradation, she said, yet nature is also the solution.
“Fasten your seatbelts,” she said. “We hold in our hands this frightening responsibility, this awesome responsibility, to forever change the very trajectory of our planet.”
Planting trees and decarbonizing go together, and action is needed within every sector to green cities and bring down temperatures. “Because when we protect nature, nature protects us,” she said.
Scientists say that restoring the world’s forests by planting a trillion trees is by far the most promising--and cost-effective--means of tackling climate change. But this has to be done right, with the right trees and the right place and time.
Beyond sequestering carbon, these trees can guard against extreme weather events; protect endangered species; and bring shelter, food, money and cultural preservation to communities around the world.
Yet ecosystems also include wetlands; the Arctic peatlands, which make up some 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface and store 8 percent of all below-ground carbon, as well as the oceans, mountains and drylands.
Restoration includes creating green jobs
“The decade on restoration must include co-benefits for the Sustainable Development Goals that go way beyond climate change,” said Tim Christophersen, head of UNEP’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch and focal point to prepare the UN Decade.
Restoration includes creating green jobs, helping restore biodiversity, helping farmers make better incomes, stabilizing water supply for big cities, and stabilizing food supplies, he said.
“The UNEP Executive Director has made it clear that US$800 billion to restore 350 million hectares sounds like a lot of money, but it really isn’t,” he added, speaking at the Global Landscape Forum.
“It’s two years’ worth of fossil fuel subsidies. So, we have to help countries to redirect public money into this and encourage more private money to flow in the same direction, towards nature and towards restoration.”
“The same could be said for agricultural subsidies. The world spends about 1 million dollars per minute on agricultural subsidies that are often driving biodiversity loss and driving climate change. We can re-programme those subsidies to regenerate agriculture and restoration.
“There is amazing new technology which helps large funds to help small farmers, through blockchain for example. So, we have the architecture now to enable even smallholder farmers to access capital, but all kinds of investments are still needed. The unique power of the UN is to convene, give very clear policy guidance, encourage market signals and the shifting of fiscal policies.”
Philippe Zaouati, Chief Executive Officer of Mirova, an investment banking firm which helps companies target global investment to minimize risk with increased responsibility, said:
“We need to look at the macro and micro level. We used to look at big investments and corporates. In the face of new economic models which have not yet reached the level of maturity… we need public players, private sector to work together.
“Today, the bulk of money is still going to traditional investments,” he added. “We have to create new indices, new benchmarks and new targets, and invest in the world that want to see in the coming decades.”
Others pointed to massive efforts and action on solutions already under way. Susan Chomba, a social scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre, said research is needed to provide policymakers with “hard evidence” on restoration potential.
“It’s not just about tree planting, but restoration includes livestock management… to restore degraded land. Land restoration is about people… we can capture their livelihood needs and aspirations… bringing women to the table--or under a tree.”
Stephen Fern, Chairman of the Board of G9 Ark, spoke of the Grand African Savannah green-up programme, a US$85 million project to support two million households to restore two million hectares over the next 5 years – the biggest grassroot restoration project in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Greta [Thunberg] asked my generation to act like the house is on fire,” he said. “Well the fire brigade is here,” he said.
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