A remaining section of forest in South Sumatra, Indonesia, where illegal logging and forest fires have severely impacted natural ecosystems. Faizal Abdul Aziz, CIFOR

A decade to restore the health of ‘patient’ Earth

Restoration expert Tim Christophersen explains the new UN Decade

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This topic will be discussed at the Global Landscapes Forum New York 2019 on 28 September. Learn more about how to join here.

A year in the works, the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on 1 March as a global effort to bring deforested and degraded landscapes and seascapes into restoration on a large scale between 2021 and 2030.

Initially an idea put forward by El Salvador, a disproportionately powerful country leader in restoration relative to its size, the U.N. decade is being formally led by UN Environment and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) alongside, informally, an increasing number of countries, foundations, banks and individuals waking up to the need to fix the damage collectively caused.

Here, Landscape News spoke with UN Environment’s Tim Christophersen, who serves as chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, about why the world not only needs the decade but is readier than ever before to receive it.

Photo: Leona Liu, UN Environment

Why are countries, such as Russia and the US, that have been resistant in other climate talks supportive of the Decade?

The Decade has so many co-benefits for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that go way beyond climate change. Restoration includes measures to create green jobs, help biodiversity, help farm income, stabilize water supply for big cities, stabilize food supply. I think that’s why it’s found such broad support.

El Salvador first put the Decade forward about a year ago at a global Bonn Challenge event in Brazil. What was your first reaction to the idea?

I felt that if we really need to mobilize more than 800 billion dollars until 2030 in mostly private investment to restore the 350 million hectares of the Bonn Challenge, then we need a high-level awareness raising platform, like a UN Decade.

Obviously it depends a lot on the member states and what UN Environment and FAO make of it. If it will be a success, it will require a lot of hard work, but it is a great opportunity to build momentum and political will, awareness and technical capacity at all levels.

How will the Decade be different from the Bonn Challenge and other major non-binding restoration efforts?

I think there are many stars that are aligning now. There are popular protests for stronger climate action. There is clear understanding that if we are to stop biodiversity loss, we have to conserve what is left – stop the bleeding – but also give patient Earth, who is in the emergency ward, a blood transfusion. These things need to go in parallel. There’s a clearer understanding of that now, and the broad movement for restoration now has many years of experience.

Who will drive it forward?

Now, with the adoption by the General Assembly, it is no longer the responsibility of one country, but of the global community. El Salvador will remain a champion. Germany will remain a strong champion because of the Bonn Challenge and their clear, continued push for restoration. In India, there is a lot happening on restoration. Indonesia is leading on peatland restoration. We have regional initiatives like AFR100 and Initiative 20×20. And we believe China will step up because of the experience they have to share – there’s no other country in the world that has as much experience with large-scale ecosystem restoration. Also they’re hosting the CBD COP 15 in Kunming in 2020. The more leaders, the better.

Has there been talk of alignment with existing public campaigns?

Certainly we are not a political movement like the climate strikes, though anyone who wants to pick up the baton for restoration is welcome to do so. But we are happy if restoration becomes part of the ‘green’ in a Green New Deal; if restoration becomes a very specific target in the New Deal for Nature under the CBD; if it becomes a very strong action under Article 5 of the Paris Agreement. The UN Decade exists to raise awareness of the opportunities, and encourage people to act.

What do you see as the role of the general public in the Decade?

The nice thing about trees is that everybody can plant one. Even if you don’t have a garden, most people have access to a school or public park where the city could organize tree planting. We would like every citizen in the world to help us by planting the right tree at the right time and then nurturing that tree. Trees are a bit like children, you can’t just plant them somewhere and forget about them. They need care.

That’s one aspect of public involvement. But, as like in climate action in general, individual actions are not enough. We also need collective action. We want the general public to push for policy changes that would, for example, shift fossil fuel subsidies away from oil and gas and toward restoring ecosystems, and away from subsidizing production in agriculture and toward environmental services. We need a push from the public for better policies.

How will funds be mobilized to finance the Decade?

There are two things we need to separate: the amount of money that is needed globally to restore ecosystems at a large scale – that is a lot of money – and the amount of money we need to run the Decade, which is a little money. For the small amount, we will work with governments, as well as foundations and private philanthropies. For the larger portion, we hope to look at how to restructure fiscal policies to support restoration and by unlocking private finance. For example, UN Environment set up a USD 1 billion fund with the Dutch Bank called the Agri3 Fund, which invests in restoration of degraded agricultural landscapes. We will push other banks to invest in such funds, so we create a new asset class for restoration of degraded ecosystems.

Another big potential source of funding is municipal and local government public funds. Sometimes their investment in green infrastructure doesn’t require much money, but it does take some public push for political will.

There is no shortage of money, it’s just often being spent on short-sighted things right now, such as subsidies for oil, coal and gas.

Was there ever discussion about the Decade’s framework being binding in any way?

The UN Decades are never binding, but they do relate to many multilateral environmental agreements. For example, the restoration target under the Aichi framework, REDD+ under Article 5 under the Paris Agreement, the Land Degradation Neutrality target – these are much stronger international agreements that are sometimes binding, sometimes not.

It doesn’t matter if the Decade is not binding, but it matters that it reaches a lot of people that will speak with their governments and demand action, and that we can measure progress.

Now that it has been adopted, what are the immediate next steps?

We [UN Environment and FAO] will develop a plan for which agencies we’ll work and partner with, and for that we’ll immediately have discussions this month. Then we will reach out to all countries. We will organize a series of events this year and next to lead into the Decade.

And then it will depend on linking with existing policy processes that have targets and quantified goals that relate to this decade. We don’t want to duplicate those; we want to help them achieve what they agreed to do by shining a spotlight on what is needed – the political will, the money, the capacity – and how it all fits together. It’s not everyone working on their own on restoration, but it’s a global effort, a joint effort of humankind to restore planet Earth.



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