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13 December 2015

Bring back the carbon: Why restoring degraded land is crucial for the climate

Four years ago in Bonn, world leaders set a goal of restoring 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands by 2020. By the start of the UNFCCC COP21, commonly known as the Paris Climate Change Conference, 20 countries had pledged to restore a total of 60 million hectares, about the area of Spain and Portugal combined. New pledges at COP will bring the total to 86 million hectares, or 57% of the goal.

Projects launched under the Bonn Challenge are expected to sequester 4.77 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2), and generate nearly US$16 billion in economic activity. Best of all, those benefits can be achieved regardless of the Paris outcome, researchers and advocates said at a session of the Global Landscapes Forum 2015.

The Bonn Challenge is built around the Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) approach, which aims to not only restore ecosystems, but also support human well-being by reducing poverty, improving food security, diversifying production and creating jobs. A key element of the FLR strategy is to integrate different land uses, so that conservation and agriculture can work together.

Restoration projects around the world are already showing the benefits of this approach. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program in the USA, for example, has treated 1.66 million acres of forested land on 23 sites across the country to reduce fire risks. The project cost $155 million in its first five years, less than half the $352 million cost of the damages from the 2012 fire in the Walde Canyon in Colorado. The programme has also created more than 4,000 jobs and improved wildlife habitats.

Large-scale landscape restoration efforts on China’s Loess Plateau, launched in 1999, had restored almost 40% of a degraded area the size of Afghanistan by 2008, while doubling the incomes of local farmers and reducing the risk of flooding and erosion.

Another example is Costa Rica, which has managed to dramatically increase its forest cover since the 1980s, after having cut down the majority of its forests. These inspiring examples show that we already have the knowledge and skills to implement large-scale forest landscape restoration projects.

Yet as noted above, the Bonn Challenge does not aim simply to restore forests – it also aims to benefit the people who depend on the land that is now being degraded. This means that instead of replanting forests, these projects involve a patchwork of different land uses. The patchwork method makes it possible to restore landscapes and use the land more sustainably without shutting down entire industries or compromising food security.

Achieving that vision is challenging, but there are projects which report success in terms of biodiversity restoration, invention of new sound business models and financing mechanisms and benefits for the livelihoods of local communities.

Scaling up these approaches requires political will on the national level and skillful facilitation of the project development and implementation processes.

Anticipating a demand for FLR methods, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have developed a toolkit for doing landscape restoration on a national level. The Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (ROAM) has already been piloted in Ghana, Mexico, Rwanda and Guatemala. ROAM is developed in a way that makes it possible to tailor restoration interventions for different contexts and can be used when only limited data are available. Countries can also match restoration efforts with the outcomes they want to achieve.

The FLR approach is a promising strategy for rural development and climate change mitigation and adaptation alike, using Existing knowledge and technologies. If done mindfully, it can deliver on several development goals at once. And by improving rural livelihoods, it may also help slow urban migration. At a time when so much hope is being placed on future innovations, it is encouraging to have concrete solutions already in our hands.

This blog is based on the Discussion Forum “Landscape Restoration Snapshot – potential for achieving old and new climate ambitions” hosted by International Union of Conservation of Nature, IUCN at the GFL 2015.