When experts meet to discuss climate change mitigation strategies, the dialogue tends to be dominated by technological solutions like carbon capture and geoengineering, making it easy to forget the equally important role that ecosystem restoration can play in slowing global warming.
This neglected remedy, though, has recently been given a massive boost by the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which will run from 2021 to 2030. As this decade draws ever nearer, a panel of experts sat down earlier this month to discuss ways to restore the planet’s degraded landscapes at a digital summit hosted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in collaboration with the Global Landscapes Forum.
The announcement of the decade is a culmination of growing public concern over the global ecological crisis, said Tim Christophersen, head of the Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch at UN Environment. “There are tipping points in nature, but clearly, there are also social tipping points, and we’re very close to one or several of those now on climate action,” he declared, citing the Fridays for Future youth climate strikes and other social movements.
“People are aware of the magnitude of the combined biodiversity and climate crisis and want to take action. But they don’t know what to do or how to engage,” said Christophersen. “This is the momentum that we’ll be tapping into with the U.N. decade.”
The key to encouraging public participation, he believes, is delivering a message of hope rather than doom – which in turn necessitates focusing efforts at the local level, where results are much more visible. “All of us, in a sense, are at some level of denial about the magnitude of this challenge, because the human psyche has defense mechanisms against trauma,” he conceded.
“The way to bridge [the gap between denial and action] is by making it positive – do something you can invest in – and by making it local.” Climate and biodiversity action at the global level is too abstract and distant for most people to relate to, Christophersen argued, posing an alternate set of questions: “What are your neighbors doing? What are your children learning at school? Then you get beyond that level of abstraction and the denial.”
Yet the message has to be not only inspiring and engaging but also well backed by numbers, said Thomas Crowther, professor of Global Ecosystem Ecology at ETH Zurich. “In order for people to really feel engaged in the message, you need to know: what’s the size of the problem, what’s the size of the solution, and what’s my part – what can I do in my garden or hectare of land?” he said.
As founder of the Crowther Lab, an interdisciplinary research group aimed at finding scientific solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss, Crowther has focused his research on generating quantitative data on forest restoration potential around the world – a task far less mundane than it sounds. “There’s 300 gigatons of extra carbon in the atmosphere; there are lots of climate change solutions out there.” The most effective ones, he pointed out, might surprise a few people.
“Project Drawdown lists refrigerant management as the top one, with the potential to save 89 gigatons of future emissions [by 2050].” The potential of forest restoration, he said, was not yet clear – but his team’s preliminary findings are highly promising: “The results quite clearly place restoration far, far higher than the next best climate change solution, with considerably more than 100 gigatons of drawdown.”
Engaging public participation at the local level is all the more important given the many difficulties in implementing restoration at the national and international level. Mathilde Iweins, an agronomist at FAO, pointed to complex bureaucracy as a particular obstacle. “We see in many countries that there is a lack of coordination between different stakeholders, governments and entities within the same ministries,” she said. “We have to support more integrated planning that is done with the community in a participatory way.”
Financing is another major hurdle, as restoration can cost up to USD 1,500 per hectare – an amount beyond the means of the governments of many low-income countries. This makes private-sector investment a must, Iweins believes. “[Another] thing that hasn’t been done very efficiently is the cost-benefit analysis of restoration. FAO has just embarked on a consortium to start working on the economics of ecosystem restoration to prove that there is a case.”
Still, history provides a number of valuable lessons that the decade can learn from – and reasons for optimism. “We have some historical examples of when the kind of change we’re looking for now did happen in a relatively short time, in a decade,” said Christophersen, citing the Space Race of the Cold War as well as the Dust Bowl in North America in the 1930s. “The types of changes of the magnitude we’re looking for have happened before in history, so studying how that was possible is useful for us.”
What these successful examples share in common is steadfast political will – and Christophersen maintains that nothing short of mass public awareness, or even a mass movement, will be needed to drive such action on climate and biodiversity. “The best thing the decade can do is get as many volunteers as possible,” he said, to spread awareness of how society “depends on ecosystem services for water, clean air and food from intact landscapes.”
“The awareness that can be built by the decade will hopefully help build the political will to overcome the challenges we’ve heard about.”
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