Ecosystem and species restoration to benefit people and the planet

Underwater wild world with tuna fishes

Hazel Thornton, Senior Programme Officer in UNEP-WCMC’s Nature Restored team, explores the benefits of ecosystem restoration and the urgent need to act, as well as key campaigns and political opportunities for progress.

From forests to farmlands, mountains to oceans, our ecosystems – both modified and natural – provide multiple environmental, economic and social benefits for people and for nature.

Our forests support an estimated 80% of all amphibian species, 75% of all bird species and 68% of all mammal species. Our freshwater bodies are home to an estimated one-third of vertebrate species and 10% of all known species. Mountain ecosystems host roughly half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, while our oceans provide 90% of the world’s life-supporting space. These diverse ecosystems and their species provide us with a range of essential ecosystem services – from biodiversity and climate change adaptation and mitigation, to support for our economies, health and security.

However, these ecosystems and their ability to deliver these ecosystem services are being damaged, degraded and destroyed – causing a direct impact on people and nature. Between 2015 and 2020, we lost around 10 million hectares of forests per year, and globally more than two thirds of our ocean ecosystems are now damaged, degraded or modified. On a finer scale, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species lists over 8,400 species as critically endangered and nearly 30,000 species endangered or vulnerable.

This loss of ecosystems and species leads to the loss of benefits for people and nature. From an economic perspective, it is estimated that 10 trillion in global GDP could be lost by 2050 if ecosystem services continue to decline. One third of commercial fish stocks are now overfished, which threatens the livelihoods of over 60 million fishers globally. Furthermore, an estimated 1.4 billion livelihoods, ranging from food and drinks to energy and water, are directly reliant on access to fresh water.

In order to benefit from the multiple environmental, economic and social benefits, we need healthy and productive ecosystems. Ecosystem restoration offers the opportunity to effectively halt and reverse degradation, improve ecosystem services and recover biodiversity. It is estimated that 60% of expected species extinctions could be avoided through the effective restoration of 15% of converted lands. Furthermore, the protection of existing intact ecosystems and the restoration of degraded ecosystems has the potential to contribute to over one third of total climate change mitigation required by 2030.

Around the world there are growing number of examples of the environmental, economic and social benefits of restoring ecosystems and species. In Mobile Bay, Alabama, US, restoration of oyster reefs led to a 53 – 91% reduction in wave height and energy at the shoreline, while the local economy has benefited from improved seafood and fish stocks. And, looking forward, the Great Green Wall initiative aims to combine restoration of 100 million hectares of degraded land with the promotion of peace and security across Sahel.

This year will host various crucial political moments to compel and catalyse action for the recovery of our key species and the restoration of our ecosystems, including meetings on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and Stockholm+50, amongst others. Discussions, commitments and implementation throughout this year will contribute towards the recovery of species and ecosystems, as well as the achievement of multiple international goals and targets. Such efforts align directly with the ambition and vision of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, set to run until 2030. Stemming from strong political will and backed by the private sector, NGOs, scientists and practitioners, this campaign aims to build a new global momentum around the core ambition of ecosystem restoration at regional, national and global scales.

2022 also forms a key year for several other pivotal International Decade campaigns that aim to support the recovery of species and ecosystems. The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, for example, calls upon actors to address degradation of our ocean and coastal ecosystems and improve science for decision making. The International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development drives us forward on the conservation, management and restoration of our freshwater ecosystems and its unique freshwater flora and fauna. And, overarchingly, the UN Decade for Action drives us to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the full breadth of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

All of these efforts demonstrate how the international community is working to ensure positive outcomes for people and nature, at the same time, everyone has a role to play. From local efforts to plant trees and restore intricate waterways, to immense multi-national restoration efforts that involve huge swathes of our land and seascapes, there is an opportunity for us all to act now to support, engage and implement change.

This article was originally published via the UN Chronicle, as part of global celebrations for World Wildlife Day on 3 March 2022.

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