Study: Look beyond forests for cost-effective nature restoration

WETLAND: Birds are seen near an almost dried lake amongst smoke in the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, in Pocone, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on Aug. 30. Amanda Perobelli/Reuters

ROME – Efforts to halt and reverse catastrophic loss of nature and stem rising emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide should go beyond restoring forests and target key regions with the biggest benefits for the least cost, researchers said on Wednesday.

Most restoration efforts focus on forests but grasslands, shrublands, wetlands and arid ecosystems also play crucial roles in regulating the climate and protecting biodiversity, they said in a study published in the journal Nature.

The international researchers also identified "priority areas" where these efforts should be concentrated. Many are in tropical regions, including Southeast Asia, coastal parts of West Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

Restoring 30% of ecosystems in these areas could avert more than 70% of projected wildlife extinctions and absorb nearly half of carbon dioxide emitted since the Industrial Revolution, the study said.

'The world's urgent to-do list'

"If we're smarter about where we restore nature, we can tick the climate, biodiversity and budget boxes on the world's urgent to-do list," said lead author Bernardo Strassburg.

He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that islands "everywhere," from the Baltic Sea to Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, are also top priorities.

Restoration can be 13 times more cost-effective in developing nations, where land is cheaper, while also delivering biodiversity and climate gains, added Strassburg, executive director of Brazil's International Institute for Sustainability.

But many of the targeted areas are facing economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and will need financial support to do the environmental work, he added.

"It makes economic, ecological and climatic sense for rich countries to finance restoration in developing countries, where it is much more cost-effective," he said.

Expanded conservation areas

The United Nations is pushing for governments to set aside 30% of the planet's land and sea areas for conservation – up from about 17% currently – to halt and reverse shocking declines in animal and plant species due to human activities.

The new study also said restoration efforts need not cut into food production.

The researchers assessed almost 2.9 billion hectares of ecosystems worldwide that were converted to farmland in the past three decades or more, and found 55% could be returned to their natural state without jeopardizing food supplies.

This could be achieved through intensifying food production sustainably, reducing food waste and shifting away from animal products that need large amounts of land and emit significant greenhouse gases, they said.

Study co-author Thomas Brooks, chief scientist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said the benefits of restoring ecosystems go beyond storing carbon and saving animals, such as a threatened bird species indigenous to Florida's Everglades he has worked to protect.

The rehabilitation of the Everglades, a fragile wetland under pressure from agriculture and urban sprawl, could also help it act as a buffer against potential flooding, he said.


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