Restoring nature and the economy go together, UNEP report highlights

An aerial view of the Costa Rican tropical forest in May 2006, where major reforestation efforts have made the country a leader in ecotourism. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Jeffrey Arguedas)

The world needs to restore an area the size of China to fend off the “triple threat” climate change, the loss of nature and pollution, says the UN, while also ensuring future economic growth.

In a new report marking the start of the “decade of ecosystem restoration”, the global body warned that humans are already using 1.6 times the resources that nature can provide sustainably and had obtained many of its services “free of charge” without reinvesting in ecosystems.

Countries must deliver on their pledge to restore at least one billion degraded hectares of land by 2030, and make a similar commitment for oceans, to prevent further biodiversity loss. This includes farmlands, forests, savannahs, mountains, and other ecosystems.

“Restoration is vital as an engine to fix our relationship with nature,” said Susan Gardner, director of ecosystems division at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), at a press conference on Thursday. “Nature-based solutions are a very smart way to invest with sizable, tangible economic benefits.”

The report, published by UNEP in collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) finds that $1 invested in restoration can create up to $30 in economic benefits.  With global restoration costs estimated at $200bn a year, by 2030 potential gains amount to $6 trillion a year, or 0.07 per cent of world GDP.

The news comes after a previous report found that only 18 per cent of Covid-19 recovery spending by the world’s leading economies could be considered green.

Read also: Less than a fifth of recovery spending plans is green, UNEP report reveals.

“Investment needs to happen now, and it has to be bold, so we can leave to future generations a planet better than it is now,” said Eduardo Mansur, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) land and water division.

According to Mansur, a third of land surfaces throughout the world are already degraded at a certain degree – and the issue is affecting countries from both hemispheres.

The report therefore calls on the 115 governments who had committed to restoring 1bn hectares of land worldwide under the 1992 Rio Conventions on Biodiversity, Climate Change and Desertification to deliver on these pledges.

“A global movement is what we need to succeed, to go from committing to action to acting on these commitments,” Gardner added.

When looking for inspiration, the international community can turn to Costa Rica. Having doubled its forest cover since the 1980s through restoration, the country is now a leader in ecotourism, which accounts for six per cent of its GDP.

Even northern countries have the potential to follow suit. In the United States, for instance, investing in landscape-scale restoration creates twice as many jobs as a similar investment in the oil and gas industry.

But the matter goes beyond economics. Ecosystem services – which, like pollination carried out by bees, are naturally provided by ecosystems for free – are indeed not included in GDP calculations.

With the current rate of degradation, “every single year, we lose ecosystem services worth more than 10 per cent of our global economic output,” as stated by UNEP’s executive director Inger Andersen and FAO’s director general Dr. Qu Dongyu in the report.

And natural regeneration of ecosystems alone does not solve the issue. The planet currently needs a year and eight months to regenerate the resources and ecosystem services the world goes through in a year – meaning it would take 1.6 Earths to produce humanity’s yearly use of natural resources.

Halting the planet’s degradation, then, is precisely the focus of the UN decade of ecosystem restoration: “When the UN declares a decade, it’s for us to be bold, to be transformative, to act on the commitments that have been done,” Mansur said.