WHAT IS THE UN DECADE ON ECOSYSTEM RESTORATION?
Meaghan Weeden | January 1, 2021 | 7 min read
A Global Compact to Restore Our Ecosystems
Today, January 1st, 2021, marks an opportunity to shift away from the heaviness of 2020 and into a new year that can be whatever we make it. It also marks the beginning of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which runs from 2021-2030. Because scientists have identified this time as humanity’s last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change, we really need to make this decade count.
Led by the UN Environment Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration serves as “a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature.” This is our chance to halt the degradation of ecosystems, restore previously degraded areas, and step into a new reality — one where we’ve truly done everything we can to reduce our climate change impact.
On June 5th 2021, World Environment Day, the UN will officially launch the initiative and will provide a digital gathering place for everyone that’s interested in + working on restoration. Here, they'll be able to find projects, partners, and funding — and if needed, learn everything they need to know to ensure the success of their efforts. We’re honored and excited to join with other organizations around the world to restore our planet, one tree at a time!
Here Are the Key Focus Areas for Ecosystem Restoration
Forests are our specialty, but we aren’t the only ones concerned about them. According to the UN, “we are losing about 4.7 million hectares of tropical forest every year, an area the size of the Dominican Republic or Slovakia, often to make space for agricultural commodities such as palm oil and beef.” What remains can be further degraded by logging, firewood cutting, pollution, wildfires, and the onslaught of native pests — and, of course, the pressures of relentless human expansion + dramatically shifting climatic conditions.
Trees do so much for us — it’s time to return the favor. Restoring forests can involve anything from supporting natural regeneration in an area that has been degraded to planting native trees, conserving land, protecting wild plants and animals, reducing erosion + runoff into waterways, and nurturing woodland fragments in or near human settlements.
And the benefits are profound: healthy trees + forests sequester carbon, filter and absorb air pollutants, release oxygen for us to breathe, provide wildlife habitat, hold the soil together, grow food and medicine, protect us from UV rays, slow the flow of stormwater, and so much more. Want to help us restore forests around the world? Plant a tree today!
You may not think of farmlands as ecosystems, but in many ways they are — and they now cover over 1/3 of the Earth’s land surface. In addition to “supplying us with food, fodder, and fiber, arable fields and pastures host a bewildering variety of organisms from bats and birds to beetles and worms as well as considerable tree cover.”
As essential as farmlands are, the way we’re managing them is degrading the integrity of our soils and the environment. Modern farming practices like planting monocultures, over-grazing, clearing trees, and intensive plowing and cultivation, are just a few culprits. Fertilizers pollute nearby waterways and further reduce soil quality — and toxic pesticides are harming wildlife and pollinators.
Adopting more restorative agricultural practices like reducing tillage, using natural fertilizers + pest control methods, rotating crops + increasing diversity, re-planting trees, and creative grazing practices are essential to revive farmland + rebuild our soils. Around the world, we help establish sustainable agroforestry by working with smallholder farmers to restore their lands and plant food-producing trees. Over time, we’ve learned that addressing the issues that face rural farmers + communities is essential to sustained ecosystem restoration.
Freshwater ecosystems range from mangrove forests that protect coastal communities to wetlands that absorb carbon and filter water to inland lakes and rivers that provide recreation and wildlife habitat. Together, they supply food, water, and energy to billions of people around the world, protect us from climate-induced droughts and floods, and provide a home for thousands of plant and animal species — including 1/3 of all vertebrates.
Unfortunately, these ecosystems are some of the most degraded, facing pollution via chemicals, plastics, and sewage outflows, overfishing, and draining to irrigate crops + generate power. Rivers are dammed, mined for sand and gravel, and canalized. Wetlands are cemented over, drained to create farmland, and degraded by construction and heavy industry – and over 87% have been lost in the last 300 years (50% since 1900). As a result, a whopping 1 in 3 freshwater species face extinction.
To protect our freshwater ecosystems, we first need to stop polluting them, manage fishing and mining more effectively, remove or improve dams, restore wetlands, and reduce the amount of water we extract from them. One Tree Planted has several projects that involve restoring freshwater ecosystems, most notably our Orca project in the Pacific Northwest, where degraded inland streams have depleted salmon stocks, an essential food source for Orcas downstream. To address this, we’re working with local conservation officials to restore forests + riparian zones accross the Pacific Northwest region.
Grasslands, Shrublands, and Savannahs
Grasslands, shrublands, and savannahs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Home to an incredible range of wildlife and insect species, including iconic lions, giraffes, rhinoceros, and kangaroos, they also provide important grazing lands for livestock.
Unfortunately, these vital ecosystems have historically been degraded through a combination of over-exploitation and poor management. Riparian zones and oases with nutrients and water are converted into cropland, overgrazing increases soil erosion and leaves them vulnerable to invasive species, and human-wildlife conflicts dial up the pressure exerted on these incredibly important regions.
Restoring these areas can involve clearing invasive vegetation and re-seeding native grasses, re-introducing native flora and fauna, and planting trees where they naturally would grow to restore wildlife habitat. This requires strengthening governmental protections, respecting the natural character of the land, and only extracting sustainable resources.
Covering about 1/4 of the Earth’s land mass, mountains supply freshwater to an estimated 1/2 of humanity and contain most of our biodiversity hotspots, home to iconic species like snow leopards, mountain gorillas, and brown bears.
They are especially vulnerable to degradation from human activities, and experience accelerated climate change impacts. When their steep slopes are cleared for farming, settlement, and infrastructure, unique habitat is lost and severe soil erosion can occur, dramatically reducing water quality downstream. And thanks to climate change, rapidly rising temperatures are forcing alpine species + ecosystems to adapt faster than many are able. This trend is allowing lower-altitude "invasives" to extend their ranges, forcing out important endemic (native and restricted to a certain place) species.
Adopting more sustainable farming systems (like agroforestry) and careful infrastructure planning can make a big difference. And reforesting mountain slopes can protect the soil, conserve water flows, and reduce natural disasters like avalanches, landslides, and floods that destroy ecosystems and threaten communities. In the Andes Mountains of South America, we’re working with local and indigenous communities to restore vital Polylepsis forests that have historically experienced intense deforestation. The watersheds tied to these forests drain into the Amazon basin, suppling water to hundreds of communities and cities downstream.
Oceans and Coasts
Oceans and seas cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface and harbor incredible biodiversity ranging from whales to phytoplankton in a wide range of habitats. They provide nutritious food, generate most of the oxygen we breathe, and play a big role in regulating our climate.
Unfortunately, oceans and coastal areas are threatened by millions of tons of plastic waste that harms aquatic wildlife, climate change that damages coral reefs and other vital ecosystems, coastal clearing, overfishing that dramatically depletes fish stocks, nutrient pollution that creates dead zones, and wastewater discharges — over 80% of which is untreated.
Saving our oceans means, first and foremost, reducing the pressure we put on them so they can begin to recover by adopting sustainable fishing practices, treating pollutants, properly recycling (and shifting away from) plastic, and carefully managing coastal ecosystems.
Although they cover only 3% of the global land area, peatlands store around 30% of its soil carbon and provide important ecosystem services like preventing floods and droughts, producing food and fuel, and providing a home for endemic plant and animal species.
Despite this, they are systematically drained and converted for agriculture, infrastructure development, mining, and oil and gas prospecting. They are also burned, overgrazed, and their peat harvested for use as fuel and soil amendment. But the destruction of peatland comes with a high cost — drained peatlands are responsible for around 5% of our carbon emissions — and significantly more when they burn.
Because peatlands store so much carbon, protecting them is absolutely essential if we want to slow the dangerous rise of global temperatures. It’s also important to restore peatlands that have already been drained or degraded to stop these damaged ecosystem from emitting greenhouse gases + to recover some of the benefits they provide. In Denmark, we're working with local forestry experts to plant trees and protect wetlands from eutrophication (when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients, causing an algae bloom + suffocating aquatic life).
Though urban areas account for only 1% of the Earth’s land area, they are home to more than 50% of our global population. And while the urban jungle may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an ecosystem, they can have a profound effect on human health. When they’re well-managed, they can improve air quality, reduce the UHI (urban heat island) effect, protect us from hazardous materials and conditions, house a surprising amount of biodiversity, and provide ample recreational activities.
To restore urban ecosystems requires proactive urban planners that are willing to work with both citizens and policymakers to green up cities and reduce their environmental impact. Volunteers and city officials can work together to clean up waterways, plant trees, and create urban woodlands and wildlife habitat in public spaces. And adopting new technologies like permeable sidewalks and green rainwater catchments can protect against flooding and pollution.
As you can see, we have a lot to do, but we’re excited to roll up our sleeves and get to work! Want to join us as we plant trees to restore vital ecosystems around the world? Plant a tree today!