Today (5 June) is World Environment Day and this year’s theme is “Ecosystem Restoration”.
Ecosystems support all life on Earth. The healthier our ecosystems are, the healthier the planet – and its people. From forests and farmlands to freshwater, oceans and coasts, the vitality and diversity of Earth’s ecosystems are the basis of human prosperity and well-being. Yet we are degrading these precious resources in alarming ways.
This year marks the official launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration which aims “to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean”.
Ecosystem restoration means assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact. Healthier ecosystems, with richer biodiversity, yield greater benefits such as more fertile soils, bigger yields of timber and fish, and larger stores of greenhouse gases.
Restoration can happen in many ways – for example through actively planting or by removing pressures so that nature can recover on its own. It is not always possible – or desirable – to return an ecosystem to its original state. We still need farmland and infrastructure on land that was once forest, for instance, and ecosystems, like societies, need to adapt to a changing climate.
Between now and 2030, the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems could generate US$9 trillion in ecosystem services. Restoration could also remove 13-26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The economic benefits of such interventions exceed 9 times the cost of investment, whereas inaction is at least 3 times more costly than ecosystem restoration.
All kinds of ecosystems can be restored, including forests, farmlands, cities, wetlands and oceans. Restoration initiatives can be launched by almost anyone, from governments and development agencies to businesses, communities and individuals. That is because the causes of degradation are many and varied, and can have an impact at different scales.
For instance, degradation may result from harmful policies such as subsidies for intensive farming or weak tenure laws that encourage deforestation. Lakes and coastlines can become polluted because of poor waste management or an industrial accident. Commercial pressures can leave towns and cities with too much asphalt and too few green spaces.
Restoring ecosystems large and small can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent a mass extinction. It protects and improves the livelihoods of people who depend on them. It also helps to regulate disease and reduce the risk of natural disasters. “In fact, restoration can help us achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals,” says the United Nations.
There has never been a more urgent need to revive damaged ecosystems than now. It will only succeed if everyone plays a part.