Pragmatics take precedence in scientific approach to landscape restoration

Putting radical ideas on the table at GLF New York
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Leigh Winowiecki, a soil scientist with World Agroforestry at Global Landscapes Forum New York City 2019. Winowiecki spoke about how readily available data is reshaping landscape restoration efforts. GLF/Justin Davey

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Landscape restoration and adaptation are a journey not a destination, said Ravi Prabhu, deputy director general of research at World Agroforestry (ICRAF), addressing delegates attending the Global Landscapes Forum at the United Nations in New York.

“We’re going to be doing this for generations as we adapt to changes and restore land,” he said, urging the international community to focus on meeting sustainable U.N. food security and climate goals through practical scientific solutions.

Scientists, climate activists, business leaders, policymakers and environmentalists met for talks and presentations in September to discuss options for the upcoming U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030).

Backers of the initiative estimate that land restoration and other natural options could contribute more than a third of the solution to the climate crisis. The aim is to support cleaning up and restoring land and waterways on an international level, to offer protection from global warming.

Its duration mirrors the timeline of the Paris Agreement, the outcome of U.N. climate talks in 2015, which aims to prevent post-industrial average temperatures from rising to 1.5 degrees Celsius or more and stop catastrophic climate change. Its target to restore 350 million hectares of land — an area roughly the size of India — piggy backs on the Bonn Challenge, part of the New York Declaration on Forests.

Susan Chomba, a social scientist with ICRAF working on Regreening Africa, a project to combat desertification in eight African countries, said that with 700 million hectares of degraded land, the continent beats all others for the biggest restoration potential.

And yet, there is no single solution for land restoration, she cautioned.

“It’s not just about tree planting, there are serious and different methods that we can restore land with, including social methods, like governance issues addressing aspects of livestock grazing, that can be used to restore degraded lands,” Chomba said.

Landscape restoration is about people. The needs of women – especially rural women who often already bear an inordinate burden—must be considered, she added.

Recognizing the value of often overlooked ecosystems is also vital to efforts for restoring land, said Daniel Murdiyarso, a principal scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who researches “blue carbon” — the term for carbon stored in mangroves, seagrass meadows and salt marshes.

Seagrass meadows and salt marshes cover about 2 million hectares each while mangroves cover roughly 15 million hectares, but all three ecosystems store carbon at a rate 20 times that of tropical forests, Murdiyarso said.

“We need to dive deeper to look at these very important ecosystems if we are talking about protecting the climate,” he said.

Their carbon storage capacity will soon be measured and included in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change through Nationally Determined Contributions, he added.

The U.N. decade will get a boost through effective implementation and monitoring of land restoration using data-driven networks, said Leigh Ann Winowiecki, soil systems scientist at ICRAF. Data is key for monitoring indicators of ecosystem health. Not only can scientists track soil erosion and effective restoration efforts but they can also measure soil carbon levels.

This decade will be different, said Winowiecki, who works on the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework. “We now have the data, we have the information to prioritize, to strategically implement and track our achievements over time,” she said.

Through creative thinking on climate energy and low carbon development initiatives, renewable energy projects can make significant contributions to landscape restoration, said Himlal Baral, a senior scientist with CIFOR.

“The world needs renewable energy,” Baral said. “We can’t continue with fossil fuels, and bioenergy is one of the alternatives that is widely available in solid, gaseous or liquid form. Two thirds of the total available energy comes from bioenergy.”

By adhering to the four “Rs” – planting the right crops in the right landscape, establishing the right business models and respecting rights of people, bioenergy can boost farm production and support climate and development goals, he said.

“The options presented by the scientists were complex but pragmatic,” Prabhu said. “They are radical and transformative, but actionable.”

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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