Robert Nasi is Director-General of Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR,) Tony Simons is Director-General of World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF.)
At the beginning of this month the UN announced they will be pulling in political support and financial muscle to back a decade long program of ecosystem restoration.
This announcement rides a growing realisation that degradation is damaging for all living things, including – to use a term coined by UN Environment’s Tim Christophersen– “patient Earth.”
Just since the start of this year, research papers from multiple disciplines have crossed over from science journal to mainstream media, and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.
First, was the EAT-Lancet report. In it the food industry could lay unenviable claim as the biggest emitting sector of greenhouse gases, and a leading driver of killer diseases- with the number of obese people now more than doubling that of those going hungry.
Hot on its heels was the world’s first global study of insects, announcing a sobering estimation that insects could vanish within a century. It threatened the collapse of nature in its worst case scenario. Without pollinators, there is no food.
This was then followed by UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s report last month, that warned how the loss of biodiversity is threatening our global food supply. Over-exploitation of the soil and seas, a heavy use of damaging pesticides, land-use changes where forests make way for farmland and meadows for cities- make up some of the top reasons global biodiversity is in steep decline.
In the last two decades, 20 percent of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive. Thanks to efficient mono-cropping techniques, two thirds of the world’s crop production can now be attributed to just nine species: sugar cane; maize; rice; wheat; potatoes; soybeans; oil-palm fruit; sugar beet and cassava.
More than 7 million hectares of tropical forests are cleared and degraded each year, and 2 billion hectares of degraded land worldwide are contributing to climate change and species extinction.
By 2050 degradation and climate change could reduce crop yields by 10 per cent globally and by up to 50 per cent in certain regions. In the Sahel region of Africa- which is already battling many crises- it is projected that temperatures will rise 1.5 times higher than that of the global average. Already 80 percent of Sahel is affected by degradation, its forests stripped and soil eroded. In recent decades the droughts have become more intense, the floods more severe, the heat more stifling. Tensions in the region have been exacerbated by these challenges. Conflict is heightening. Migration the only option for some. There have been reports of young shepherd boys joining ‘groups with guns,’ but when your herd is dying, where do you turn?
One thing is clear: Patient Earth simply cannot keep this pace of destruction.
These clarion bells ring to the scientific community to work across their disciplines. Climate change, biodiversity loss and land degradation are part of the same problem, with each factor exacerbating each other as they continue to grow. And complimenting each other as we work to repair the damage.
The Decade of Ecosystem Restoration paves the way for this closer collaboration, which is why the merge between CIFOR and ICRAF is timely and right. Food and forests are inextricably linked- with agroforestry and forests protection and restoration all providing a chunk of the answer to the problems facing us and our living planet. The tying of two science brains to answer the demands of climate change, food insecurity and land degradation, will only be a positive force in supporting knowledge-based global action.
The Decade can realise the objectives of other global commitments, be the link between them and capitalise on their existing successes. The Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems by 2030, will now have additional weight and support behind it. So far some 57 countries, subnational governments and private organizations have committed to restoring 170 million hectares of degraded land. It builds on regional efforts such as Initiative 20×20 in Latin America and AFR100, the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, which aims to bring 100 million hectares of degraded land under restoration by 2030.
Ecosystem restoration underpins The Sustainable Development Goals, a set of ambitious world objectives to make life better for all- leaving nobody behind. Its rewards will tick many a global target box- fulfilling those focused on climate change, poverty eradication, food security, water and biodiversity conservation.
Now. The 300 billion dollar question.
The World Resources Institute have estimated it will cost USD 350 billion a year to restore the world’s degraded lands. USD 50 billion of that is already met with a mix of largely public, and also private finance. So how about the remaining USD 300 billion?
This may seem an impossible figure, but not nearly as eye watering as the USD 6.3 trillion lost through land degradation every year.
USD 6.3 trillion.
This is a mind boggling amount of money.
It is clear that achieving restoration at scale is a no-brainer, and could result in trillions of net benefit and a significant return on investments. Restoring degraded forests generates an estimated USD 7 – 30 dollars in economic benefits for every single dollar invested. Imagine those stocks flying off the shelves if it were on the market! So, we have a huge cost to society and the prospects of hefty returns… but we still do not do it. Why not?
Currently our price system is skewed. The value of our natural world, woefully underestimated. Bees for example are essential to our food system, yet we do not count them in monetary terms, and what it would mean if these hard-working pollinators were lost.
We need good research and development funding. With it we can innovate and lower the costs of restoration per hectare. The future of restoration is an industry that creates jobs and serves society, using blended finance and active participation from the private sector. Crucially, we need a bottom up approach, from the people it serves.
Never has a UN announcement felt more fitting. So, from two scientific hubs soon to be one, Happy International Forests Day! It’s going to be an exciting Decade ahead.
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