Nature and Biodiversity

Restore land the size of China to meet climate and nature goals, U.N. says

Workers water recently planted trees outside a village near the edge of the Gobi desert on the outskirts of Wuwei, Gansu province, China, April 15, 2021. Tree-planting has been at the heart of China's environmental efforts for decades as the country seeks to turn barren deserts and marshes near its borders into farmland. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins     SEARCH "SAND RAWLINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES - RC27WM92C17Z

Workers water recently planted trees outside a village near the edge of the Gobi desert. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Michael Taylor
Asia correspondent and sub-editor, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Future of the Environment

  • Nature needs to be restored on a land area equivalent to the size of China by 2030, a U.N. report says.
  • The report highlights ways to reverse the destruction of nature - such as reforestation, re-wetting peatlands and coral rehabilitation.
  • Existing nature restoration pledges include the Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 350 million hectares of degraded forest by 2030.

The world needs to restore nature on land areas equivalent to the size of China by 2030 if it is to feed a fast-growing population, curb pollution, halt species loss and meet global goals to tackle climate change, U.N. agencies said on Thursday.

Launched ahead of World Environment Day on June 5, a U.N.-backed report on restoring ecosystems highlighted ways to reverse the destruction of nature, such as reforestation, re-wetting peatlands and coral rehabilitation.

The report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Food and Agriculture Organization urged governments, businesses and communities to make good on pledges they have already made under previous agreements, to restore degraded lands covering at least 1 billion hectares (2.4 billion acres).

Those lands include farms, forests, savannahs, mountains and even urban areas.

The report, tag-lined #GenerationRestoration, said similar commitments should also be made for marine and coastal areas.

Tim Christophersen, who leads UNEP's nature for climate branch, said rehabilitating 1 billion hectares would require "a completely different mindset ... away from small projects to a scaled-up effort".

"It's essential for our biodiversity and climate change targets, but also for many of the sustainable development goals," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nature restoration can happen at any scale, be it a backyard plot, a city park, a river valley, a national forest or a globally threatened ecosystem, the report noted.

But, it warned, humans are using about 1.6 times the amount of resources the planet can replenish, meaning conservation efforts alone cannot prevent large-scale ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss.

Forests Environment and Natural Resource Security Climate Change pollution species loss climate change
The report warned humans are using 1.6 times the amount of resources the planet can replenish. Image: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Political will

Better conservation, restoration and management of natural areas, such as parks, forests and wildernesses, are seen as key tools for nations to meet targets to reduce planet-heating emissions and reverse the loss of plant and animal species.

Cutting down forests - often to meet rising demand for commodities such as palm oil and beef - has major implications for global goals to curb climate change, as trees absorb about a third of carbon emissions produced worldwide.

Existing nature restoration pledges include the Bonn Challenge, launched in 2011, which aims for 350 million hectares of degraded forest land to be under restoration by 2030, with commitments made for about two-thirds of that already.

Communities living across almost 2 billion hectares of degraded land worldwide include some of the poorest and marginalised people, the U.N. report said.

Land degradation affects the wellbeing of an estimated 3.2 billion people, or 40% of the world's population, it added.

Have you read?

Global annual spending to protect and restore nature on land needs to triple this decade to about $350 billion by 2030 and rise to $536 billion by 2050, another U.N. report said in May.

Half of the world's economic growth is dependent on nature, the latest report said, adding that for every $1 invested in land restoration up to $30 is created in economic benefits.

Agroforestry alone - where trees are planted among crops on farms - has the potential to increase food security for 1.3 billion people, the report said.

Investments in agriculture, mangrove protection and water management will help people and nature adapt to climate change, with benefits about four times the initial investment, it noted.

Andrea Hinwood, chief scientist at UNEP, said the COVID-19 pandemic had boosted public interest in nature protection, and economic recovery packages were an opportunity to invest in it.

Yet so far, just under a fifth of stimulus spending can be characterised as green, the U.N. report said. Companies and financiers should also review their activities and investments to make supply chains more sustainable, it added.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

"There is a coalition of the willing from communities up to governments and (we must) capitalise on that," Hinwood said.

Christophersen said successful natural restoration in countries like Costa Rica, China and Pakistan had been driven by political will.

"With political will, all these other obstacles can be overcome," he added.

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Nature and BiodiversityGeographies in DepthClimate Action
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