Recently, I read an alarming headline which indicated that the ‘world’s tropical forests are a huge carbon emission source,’ according to latest science. My immediate thought was that perhaps we had finally reached the tipping point where tropical forests and other ecosystems have been so heavily impacted by climate change that they are now leaking carbon, and are no longer providing key ecosystem services. Earlier studies had suggested that this could happen to the entire Amazon basin and other forest ecosystems if the remaining forests are further fragmented by logging and affected by fire and drought.
On closer reading, however, while the situation is alarming, it also gives rise to new hope. A study published in Science has revealed that tropical forests are now so degraded by human activity that they have lost up to 75 percent of their biodiversity and biomass. While the tree canopy looks intact for the satellites that we increasingly rely on to monitor the state of the world’s forests, the forest below the canopy can be literally empty of key plants and wildlife. The reason I see some hope in this rather bleak assessment is that almost all this forest degradation is man-made, and it can be reversed quickly, and relatively cheaply, if we begin to act decisively.
Image from Morguefile.com
Tropical forests are amazingly resilient and can recover much of their original biodiversity and carbon storage capacity without expensive restoration investments, as long as there are sufficient remnants of intact forests nearby, and as long as the factors that drive forest degradation are removed. Restoration of degraded forests and other ecosystems is possible, and it is one of the most cost-effective climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.
Restoring degraded landscapes into productive, resilient ecosystems with clear economic and social benefits for local communities – and with clear benefits for the global climate – can give developing countries a way out of the vicious circle of rural poverty, rapid urbanization, and uncontrolled migration. In fact, nature-based solutions to climate change are rather underestimated, and definitely untapped: a recent study published in the Proceedings of the American National Academy of Sciences finds that nature could provide 37 percent of all emission reductions we will need by 2030. Yet, only 2.5 percent of climate finance is currently channeled towards conserving and restoring forests, agricultural landscapes and other ecosystems!
The Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration is actively supporting a growing number of countries and local governments to tap into nature’s potential for climate action, and sustainable growth. Over 30 countries have now committed to restore more than 150 million hectares of degraded forests and other landscapes, and action on restoration is underway from Rwanda to Brazil to Viet Nam. Even industrialized countries are starting to recognize the benefits of large-scale landscape restoration. The United States has committed to restore 15 million hectares by 2020, and they are well on track to achieve this target. The result will be thousands of new jobs in rural areas, and improved recreation options, water catchment areas, and wildlife habitat.
But more needs to be done, and time is running out. We quickly need to scale up land restoration into a global movement that captures every country, every local government, and every local community, as well as the private sector. The challenges and opportunities are huge: restoring 150 million hectares could cost over 30 billion USD per year between now and 2030, and it could also generate more than 80 billion USD each year into local economies through ecosystem services such as clean water, food production and tourism.
This is a phenomenal return on investment!
If we can successfully build a business case for public and private investments into land restoration, the restoration agenda will take off as the ‘next big thing’ in climate action and sustainable development. During the forthcoming Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn in December 2017, we will launch a coalition of actors who want to be part of this movement, including faith-based and religious organizations, that want to invest on the right side of history, even as we are beginning to see historic divestment from fossil fuels. The time to act and change the world is now…
Tim Christophersen is the Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration; and Coordinator of the Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch of UN Environment. He is based in Nairobi.