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Deal to restore nature can help climate and people – if done right

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As the COP15 nature summit in Montreal adopted a new global agreement to halt and reverse harm to the Earth’s biodiversity, researchers and officials said the deal could also play a vital role in boosting the world’s ability to combat climate change.

From the Amazon rainforest to mangroves in Southeast Asia, natural areas help to slow climate change by absorbing and storing vast amounts of planet-heating carbon dioxide.

But human activities like deforestation and mining have degraded 40% of the planet’s land, according to the United Nations, while rising temperatures worldwide are making it harder for plants, animals and marine life to survive.

“Nature and the climate emergencies (are) very closely related… both in terms of the problems and also in terms of the potential solutions,” said Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, a body that advises the UK government on environmental issues.

This is a “penny that’s dropped” as the separate U.N. processes on biodiversity and climate have included the links between the two crises in their recent decision texts, he noted in an interview as the COP15 talks wound up on Monday.

Conservation, restoration and better management of natural areas could contribute more than a third of the greenhouse gas emissions cuts needed by 2030 to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and ideally 1.5C, scientists say.

“If you look at the numbers and what we know about the pathway to (a limit of) 1.5 degrees, there really is no way we can achieve that without both halting the decline of nature and also investing in its recovery,” Juniper said.

Many so-called “nature-based solutions” aim to restore ecosystems such as forests and wetlands – hoping to both rebuild their ability to revive biodiversity and absorb CO2 emissions.

At COP15, the agreement adopted in Montreal early on Monday includes a target to restore at least 30% of degraded land, inland water, coastal and marine ecosystems by 2030.

That is in addition to the headline “30 by 30” target to conserve and manage at least 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by the same year.

Last week, the United Nations announced its top priorities for restoring global ecosystems, naming 10 flagship projects from cleaning up India’s polluted Ganges River to replanting trees and savannahs under Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative.

However, as projects start to proliferate, scientists have warned that restoration needs to be carefully planned to ensure the work is genuinely positive for the climate and biodiversity.

Paul Leadley, an ecology professor at Universite Paris-Saclay, pointed to a “frenzy” for planting trees, but said that using just one species or placing them in the wrong areas can lead to “perverse impacts”.

“The biggest problem is the planting of monoculture tree plantations, many times with exotic trees, and calling that restoration,” he said.

Researchers say, for example, that the creation of huge eucalyptus plantations may help suck up planet-warming greenhouse gases but can degrade soils, put pressure on local water supplies, and even harm biodiversity.

“Planting a large plantation of eucalyptus in a country where they’re not native so that you can store carbon is really bad for biodiversity,” Leadley added.

Social safeguards

Making restoration an all-round success means protecting both nature and people, conservationists said.

“It takes a lot of work to reforest or to grow ecologically appropriate species,” said Alfred DeGemmis, a policy expert at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Restoration projects need to account for things like the structure and functions of an ecosystem’s plants and animals, such as how species move and how they might respond to others being reintroduced or regrown, he added.

Initiatives should also gain the consent of local communities who may be impacted by the changes, he added.

“You need to ensure that there are robust social safeguards that are fully in line with international and national human rights law,” DeGemmis said.

Joined-up policy

Alice Ruhweza, Africa regional director at WWF International, noted that effective nature restoration also requires coordination at a national level.

Countries need policies and approaches that work internationally – as many cross borders – together with sufficient financial resources and scientific expertise to find projects that offer the best “bang for your buck”, she said.

One common barrier, she added, is that different government ministries such as those covering climate, nature and agriculture do not always cooperate effectively – and can learn from people on the ground who are better at collaborating.

“In my experience in working in Africa at the local level, the integration is always there,” Ruhweza said.

As time runs short to curb both biodiversity loss and climate change, conservationists at COP15 pushed hard for ambitious targets so that conservation can bring wider benefits.

But as countries move towards implementing the new nature deal, Leadley said they need to follow scientific advice.

“We’re very concerned about the perverse effects (of) trying to do too much restoration too quickly,” he said.

To make restoration plans effective, he said governments should take their local contexts into account and not simply apply the global 30% target to the national level.

“Every country should be taking that as a guiding light,” Leadley said.

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