Earth Day 2021 challenges us to restore our Earth

This year, Earth Day calls for us to restore damaged ecosystems, a challenge embraced by the UN through the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

It’s the issue that unites Earth Day 2021 and the United Nations’ entire 2021-2030 decade. We’re talking about ecosystem restoration, a challenge that the UN summarises as “preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems worldwide”.

The state and consequences of ecosystem degradation

“Restoration is an urgent response to the poor management of land, that most fundamental of resources,” states the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (GPFLR).

On the one hand, there’s land degradation caused by erosion, pollution, and the depletion of its resources. Even now, some 20 per cent of the planet’s cultivated land is showing a decrease in productivity, and by 2050 agricultural yields will fall, on average, by 10 per cent, with peaks of -50 per cent in certain territories. On the other hand, there’s deforestation, which, between 2004 and 2017, ate up 43 million hectares of forest, or about the same area as Iraq. In 2020 alone, we lost an area of primary tropical rainforest the size of The Netherlands.

Today, these two phenomenons have an impact on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, contributing to the notorious sixth mass extinction, and compromising ecosystem services whose value amounts to more than 10 per cent of global GDP. And, as climate change advances, things are only going to get worse.

deforestation, brazilian amazon
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon © Mario Tama/Getty Images

What is ecosystem restoration?

This is where ecosystem restoration comes into play. Its mission takes different forms depending on the characteristics of the land in question.

Farmland, for example, has been depleted over time due to intensive monocultures, overgrazing, fertilisers, pesticides, nitrate contamination, tree removal. We need to look to nature to find methods for restoring healthy farmland. Therefore, restoration involves the use of natural fertilisers and anti-parasite solutions, crop rotation, the introduction of increased agricultural biodiversity, and letting livestock graze on the land after harvest.

If food security depends on healthy farmland, peatlands are crucial for the mitigation of climate change. This is because, while they cover just 3 per cent of all land, they are responsible for 30 per cent of CO2 absorption into the soil. The restoration of mountain ecosystems, meanwhile, means increasing forest cover, protecting waterways, designing infrastructure in respect of habitat balance, and providing safety measures against avalanches, landslides, and flooding.

Rewilding is an even more radical approach, involving the reintroduction of animal and plant species that were driven out by human activity, ensuring they have the right conditions to prosper, and then simply letting nature take over, without trying to control it.

Some examples of ecosystem restoration

One of the most prominent projects for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is the Great Green Wall, a vegetation corridor that spans from Senegal to the Horn of Africa, 15 kilometres wide and 7,800 kilometres long. The aim is to stop the advance of the Sahara, contributing to the food security and economic well-being of people in the Sahel region. At a wider scale, in Africa alone, there are opportunities to restore some 700 million hectares.

ecosystem restoration, Senegal, great green wall
Senegal is one of the countries that is spending the most on the Great Green Wall project © Vince Gx / Unsplash

2010 saw the launch of the Canopy Project, a massive reforestation programme to be carried out across four continents. Meanwhile, the German government and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) launched the Bonn Challenge, with the goal of restoring 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020, and 350 million by 2030. This would correspond to capturing 13 and 26 gigatonnes respectively of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. According to the most recent update, over 70 organisations across 60 countries have committed to a total of 210 million hectares. Another excellent example of ecosystem restoration, this time on a more local scale, is the work being carried out in Italy’s Veneto and Trentino regions to give life back to the forests that were felled during the Vaia storm in October 2018.

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