“The planet will be fine. It’s survived five mass extinctions. But we might not be.”
Never in the history of the planet, has nature declined at such an alarming rate. We are in the throes of a sixth mass extinction that has been directly caused by human activities. 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. The amount of land animals has fallen by 20% since 1900 and more than 40% of amphibians and a third of reef-forming corals as well as all marine mammals are threatened.
Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost, mainly through agricultural expansion. Large-scale commercial agriculture (primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and palm oil) accounted for 40% of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010.
The UN estimates the degradation of land and marine ecosystems undermines the well-being of 3.2 billion people and costs about 10% of the annual global GDP in loss of species and ecosystems services. In short, it makes social and economic sense to save and protect nature. If, for instance, we restore 350 million hectares of degraded land between now and 2030, we could generate £6.9 trillion in ecosystem services and take an additional 13-26 gigatons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Head of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Nature for Climate branch, Tim Christophersen is currently involved in a UN masterplan to restore the planet. But, Christophersen told The Skylark, if we are to have a fighting chance at resetting our relationship with nature, we must have the humility to confront our mistakes and the imagination to see that a different world is possible.
In 2019, the world received two major scientific reports, from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the biodiversity equivalent, IPBES. They were both wakeup calls that showed the planet’s boundaries. Both biodiversity as a boundary and climate change as a boundary that will impact how humans can live on Earth.
According to those reports, we are already losing about 10% of our global economic output due to biodiversity lost. Which means that biodiversity loss has a much bigger impact on the economy than Covid-19. It’s just happening relatively gradually and hidden because those costs are not truly accounted for.
It’s the same with climate change. The cost that that is already causing, and will cause, is much larger both in terms of human lives and of the economic damage than the current pandemic. But because it is always seeming to be around the corner we have put climate change mitigation off. That has to stop.
So clearly things like having a UN wide agreement of all countries on Earth – or all UN member states – to call out a UN decade on ecosystem restoration, to call out a UN decade on action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), is vital. They all point to the same fact: this is the decade, it’s now or never. We have to repair some of the damage we’ve done and we have to find our way back to a sustainable pathway.
The biggest challenge we face right now is mostly a challenge of imagination
There is good news, in terms of both public and private investments into nature. But I think the biggest challenge we face right now is mostly a challenge of imagination. The human mind works in fabulous ways and we can think and talk things into existence. In particular, social constructs like the economy. The economy is a social construct based on what people agree is important and what is fair. But the economy needs a rethink.
The current pandemic is a great opportunity to come back better and have a green recovery that is good for people, for nature and for the climate. And it’s entirely possible and entirely up to us, but we need the imagination to be able to see that a different world is possible.
So in essence the SDGs are a kind of blueprint. I wish they were a bit less technical and perhaps told in the form of stories but they are, in terms of what they say and the picture of the future we want, very good. Imagining that a different world is possible is dearly lacking and we have to share both positive stories of what change is already happening, what is possible and positive stories of where we want to go.
What is the narrative of the future of humans on this planet? One story is of runaway climate change that will lock us for thousands of years into an ever-degrading planet; spiralling biodiversity loss that could quickly get out of control. Or there’s a picture where we take the past few climate shocks we’ve seen, like this pandemic, as the warning signs that they are and say right now is the time to do things differently.
If we undermine nature too much we will come crashing down
And doing things differently does include resetting our relationship with nature. We have shifted as humankind – as human civilisation – from being a part of our natural world to viewing nature as the enemy. It was once the frontier, when you had to clear forests to create agricultural land for thousands of years. But now we’ve come to a stage where we are more indifferent than anything else. Nature is just there; it’s something we control, we dominate, something we sometimes protect but it’s sort of there even if it provides us everything we need for free.
We have to create a new relationship with nature where we understand whether we like it or not, whether we think it or not, we are part of nature. And if we undermine nature too much we will come crashing down. This is not about the planet. The planet will be fine. It’s survived five mass extinctions. But we might not be fine and we have to come to a positive relationship with nature where we nurture nature and nature provides for us.
A new humility
The first step to that is a new humility. And the kick in the shins that we’ve just received from nature is maybe the starting point for that new humility. There are so many things we still don’t understand in nature and biodiversity and how it works. Taking a wrecking ball to the world’s web of life is foolish and we need the humility to recognise it.
And the second step is the imagination we need to rebuild a positive relation with nature and restoration of ecosystems. This UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration can do that. It’s part of a strategy we have designed for the decade and the movement that we want to build around that vision.
I’ve had a fascinating six months as we have drafted the strategy for the UN Decade. We’ve received about 2,000 comments on the draft strategy since we put it online in February. And the picture that emerges is that restoration is starting to happen everywhere. There are so many initiatives – from primary schools to municipalities, cities, local governments, national governments, heads of states – who are recognising we need to restore nature.
So, we are in a fantastic position right now to be able to collect all this information and hopefully we’ll be making that available soon on a digital hub that everyone can link into, share their information, find projects, find funding and invest in projects on restoration. So, there are positive examples everywhere.
It’s more than just about sticking trees in the ground
In Ethiopia, where they had mass tree planting, they’re starting to learn their lessons that it’s more than just about sticking trees in the ground. We have to grow and nurture trees, it has to be the right tree in the right place, with benefits for the local communities. But these things can be learnt. What’s important is that the political will is there. And you have somebody like the [Ethiopian] Prime Minister willing to step up, even willing to admit that the first time, when they broke the world record on tree planting, many of them died afterwards, so they have to adjust their approach.
But the technical challenges can be overcome if the political will is there. We see that political will emerging and it’s the first priority of the strategy for the UN decade, that we need more of it. We also see it emerging in the EU, with the new biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies and the ambitious restoration plan for the EU that they want to draw up. We see it in communities, in municipalities, along the great Green Wall for Africa. These eleven countries immediately south of the Sahara are re-greening and rebuilding their economies based on nature and natural climate solutions.
Look immediately around you
Anyone can help. First, we need to build the political momentum. Pick up your phone, call your local congressman, member of parliament, mayor – make them aware of the need to reset our relationship with nature and restore nature. Secondly, look immediately around you – in your community, in your garden if you want to start there if you have one. But even if you live in a city, find out where your green spaces are, where your clean drinking water comes from, where your fresh produce comes from. Explore what the ecosystems are around your city and think about how you can be a part of restoring those. And the last one, check out the Trillion Tree Campaign where you can look up any number of volunteer and community projects around the world and make a donation.
For more information on the UN Decade on Restoration click here.
If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 12th June 2020