Countries have committed to restoring up to 1 billion hectares of land lost to development, an area roughly the size of China, according to a new study released ahead of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030).
If implemented, the commitments made under various international agreements could go a long way to addressing climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss as well as achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including those on dignified work, and food and water security.
According to the study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 115 countries have made commitments to restoring land under at least one of three major international environmental conventions – the Land Degradation Neutrality targets, Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans – along with the Bonn Challenge, an effort to restore degraded and deforested lands.
Some of the commitments may overlap. Still, the Dutch agency estimates that the area currently earmarked for restoration is between 765 million and 1 billion hectares. Almost half of the area to be restored is in sub-Saharan Africa, with significant commitments also in Asia and Latin America. Restoring forests and farmland accounts for three-quarters of the area pledged. And not all commitments have been quantified or officially announced.
“At the onset of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration in 2021, the plans and commitments are there,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. “Restoration is an idea whose time has come; investing in land restoration is generally economically profitable, socially acceptable and environmentally desirable.”
The upside of restoration
Restoring the health and productivity of land on this scale would bring massive benefits for people and nature. The commitments roughly match an estimate of the global land area that is becoming less productive. And it is double the amount of land that may be converted to agriculture between 2010 and 2050.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is an opportunity to turn existing and new commitments into urgently needed action on the ground. The 10-year effort will involve individuals, communities, businesses, organizations and governments undertaking restoration at all scales and in all types of ecosystems on land or in water. About US$ 1 trillion would be needed between now and 2030 to implement restoration at a truly planetary scale, based on all the existing commitments.
A restoration economy will create millions of green jobs and enhance humanity’s resilience to future shocks and stresses, say experts. Revitalizing terrestrial ecosystems, such as farmlands, grasslands, forests, wetlands and peatlands, rebuilds their ability to store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Done well, it can also protect habitat for biodiversity, build soil fertility and reduce water scarcity. Well-functioning natural ecosystems are also key to combating zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19.
“We have seen a spirit of positive competition when it comes to restoration. More countries and people want to grow more and more trees,” said Tim Christophersen, Coordinator of the UN Decade with the United Nations Environment Programme. “But what is important to ensure now is that the right trees are planted at the right time, in the right place, and with the support of local communities. And that we uplift the ecosystems that are still somewhat undervalued in these global restoration commitments – for example our coasts, seas and rivers.”
The Rio Conventions, which emerged from the Earth Summit in 1992, are the main vehicles for international action on our critical environmental problems. In a demonstration of how fixing ecosystems can bring multiple benefits, many countries have made restoration pledges under all three agreements. Below are brief descriptions of the conventions and the Bonn Challenge and how they support the UN Decade’s vision.
The climate convention bundles the massive international effort to slow global warming and adapt to its impacts. After the burning of fossil fuels, emissions from deforestation and unsustainable land use are a main source of greenhouse gas emissions. Restoring healthy and resilient ecosystems is important to our chances of keeping global heating to well below 2°C, a key target of the Paris Agreement, and for adapting to unavoidable climate change.
Under the biodiversity convention, countries work to protect and sustainably use the astonishing diversity of life on Earth, including through the restoration of degraded ecosystems and the protection of natural habitat. Governments are currently negotiating new targets for 2030 that are expected to ramp up international ambition.
A major focus of the desertification convention is to promote sustainable land and water management practices to achieve land degradation neutrality by 2030 (SDG target 15.3). The convention helps countries to identify priorities and plan restoration activities that can both prevent land degradation and recover the health of soils, farmlands, forests and other terrestrial ecosystems.
Launched by Germany and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2011, the world’s largest landscape restoration initiative aims to bring 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land into restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares into restoration by 2030. The challenge is supported by several regional initiatives, including Initiative 20×20 in Latin America and AFR100 in Africa.