U.N. declares decade of ecosystem restoration to ‘make peace with nature’

  • The U.N. has declared the coming decade a time for ecosystem restoration, highlighting in a new report the importance of preventing, halting and reversing ecosystem degradation worldwide.
  • It calls on the world to restore at least 1 billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) of degraded land in the next decade — an area larger than China — warning that degradation already affects the well-being of 3.2 billion people.
  • The report also makes an economic case for restoration, noting that for every dollar that goes into restoration, up to $30 in economic benefits are created.
  • A key message of the report is that nature is not something that is “nice to have” — it is essential to our survival, and we are a part of it.

Earth’s ecosystems are stressed, and people are suffering the consequences. Experts say that conserving what’s left of the natural world is not good enough; we must also restore it — and the clock is ticking.

Last week marked the launch of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration led by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The goal: to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation worldwide.

A new report released alongside the decade launch presents evidence on the state of global ecosystem destruction and explains why restoration is critical for the economy, food security, clean water, health, climate change mitigation, security, and biodiversity.

“Degradation is already affecting the well-being of an estimated 3.2 billion people — that is 40 percent of the world’s population,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen and FAO director-general Qu Dongyu, wrote in the forward to the report. “Every single year we lose ecosystem services worth more than 10 percent of our global economic output.”

A felled baobab tree in Kirindy Forest in western Madagascar. The majority of Madagascar’s forests have been cleared. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Over the past five years, the world lost roughly 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forests per year, an area about three and a half times as big as Belgium. During the last century, 64-71% of all wetlands were destroyed. An estimated one-third of global fisheries are overfished, threatening 60 million fishers around the world. Agriculture alone has cleared an estimated 70% of global grasslands. And 20% of global farmlands are degraded.

The report calls on the world to restore at least 1 billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) of degraded land in the next decade — an area larger than China. Restoring nature at such an ambitious scale will require systemic changes, and will be costly, but the cost of inaction could be greater. Roughly half of global GDP depends on nature, and if ecosystem services decline at a steady rate, an estimated $10 trillion in global GDP may be lost by 2050.

Restoration is also a good investment. For every dollar that goes into restoration, up to $30 in economic benefits are created.

Commercial fisheries output, for example, could be increased by $1.9 billion to $3 billion per year by restoring mangroves to 40-100% of their pre-1980s extent. In the U.S., investing in restoration at a landscape scale creates twice as many jobs as a similar investment in oil and gas. Coral reef restoration in Mesoamerica and Indonesia could provide an extra $2.5 billion to $2.6 billion in ecosystem service benefits each year.

The economy exists within nature and has benefited from the “free” services it provides, such as carbon capture, water filtration, and fisheries. The exploitation of these services with no investment is unsustainable. According to the report, humanity is using nearly 1.6 times the amount of services nature sustainably provides. “In short,” the report states, “we need more nature than we have.”

Sargassum frog fish (Histrio histrio) in a mangrove forest. Commercial fisheries’ output could be increased by billions of dollars per year by restoring mangroves. Image by Lorenzo Mittiga / Ocean Image Bank.

Ecosystem restoration has also been recognized as a critical part of achieving the Paris Agreement climate targets, Aichi biodiversity targets, and many of the Sustainable Development Goals, including clean water, health, peace and security. Halting and reversing ecosystem destruction, for instance, could help to avoid 60% of predicted species extinctions. Agroforestry approaches alone could increase food security for more than 1.3 billion people. 

There is no formula for restoring nature on a global scale. The effort will require many methods, including landscape restoration, regenerative agriculture, and rewilding. These efforts will be aided by advances in remote monitoring, better methods for sharing knowledge, and improved on-the-ground practices.

While no methods are universal, the UNEP and FAO do offer a set of guiding principles. These principles include aiming for the highest level of well-being for people and ecosystems, addressing the drivers of degradation, promoting inclusive and participatory governance, tailoring approaches to local contexts, including plans for monitoring, and integrating policies for longevity.

Monitoring is a key guiding principle of the U.N. Decade. And to that end, the FAO and UNEP have also launched the digital hub for the U.N. Decade, which includes a framework that countries and communities can use to measure progress. Also within the hub is the Drylands Restoration Initiatives Platform, intended to share lessons and help people design restoration projects for grasslands, deserts and savannas.

Women planting seedlings in one of the oldest remaining dry Afromontane forests in Ethiopia. Photo © DVCorstanje via WeForest.

Time and again, successful restoration projects have demonstrated the importance of involving all stakeholders and communities throughout the process. And this inclusivity must extend to youth and women. Depending on the culture, men and women hold different knowledge about the environment and have different restoration priorities. Plans that ensure women and men can benefit equally from and fully participate in are often more sustainable.

“Restoration projects need to be more inclusive,” said Marlène Elias, a gender researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, said in a press release. “If you’re looking at major goals like restoring millions of square kilometers of land, planting a trillion trees, or rehabilitating marine ecosystems, you’re almost certainly not going to have success unless you put people at the center of the work.”

In a press briefing, Wanjira Mathai, vice president and regional director of the World Resources Institute, Africa, made the point that the average age in Africa is 19, so restoration efforts need to include youths and to create economic opportunity and hope.

The leadership and traditional knowledge of Indigenous people is also paramount. An estimated 37% of all remaining natural lands (28% of the world’s land surface) are managed by Indigenous peoples, and these lands protect a majority of intact forests and 80% of global biodiversity.

A key message of the report is that nature is not something that is “nice to have” — it is essential to our survival, and we are a part of it.  Restoring the planet will take a massive global effort, and that effort can happen at all scales, from a backyard to a country.

“Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century,” António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, said in a statement. “It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.”


United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Becoming #GenerationRestoration: Ecosystem restoration for people, nature and climate. Nairobi. Retrieved from https://www.unep.org/resources/ecosystem-restoration-people-nature-climate

Banner image: A baby orangutan in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Along with habitat loss due to mining, orangutans in both Sumatra and Borneo are threatened by fires and deforestation for oil palm and pulp plantations. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_

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