Story | 14 Jun, 2021

What is high quality ecosystem restoration?

Ahead of the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Decade’s science task force convened to answer this daunting question. This is what they said.

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Photo: IUCN

Ecosystems take many forms such as natural areas of wilderness, agricultural lands and urban zones. Together they form an interacting mosaic in the landscape. Water, sediments, pollutants and wildlife move through the landscape, so understanding connectivity between ecosystems is very important. Local ecosystem restoration needs to fit into the larger picture such as the river catchment or landscape. We need to think globally when acting locally.

IUCN brought together diverse ecosystem restoration experts from across multilple disiciplines to agree on and share the vital elements that go into ensuring high-quality ecosystem restoration. The bottom line is clear: everybody has a role to play.

On 1 June, the science task force presented their findings on the fundamental tennets of ecosystem restoration and took questions from a virtual audience. The event began by reminding us what ecosystem restoration should achieve: to prevent and halt ecosystem degradation and collapse, as well as reversing the loss of ecosystem integrity and species extinction. Restoration should result in the enhancement of the ecosystem functions and processes over time and space.

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Key messages

  • Effective restoration action needs to identify how, when and to whom the benefits of restoration accrue
  • Key enabling conditions tip the balance toward restoration
  • For effective ecosystem restoration, planning must be participatory, inclusive and balance priorities and trade-offs generated by the specific stakeholder needs
  • To leverage increased finance it is necessary to expand the focus from solely on financial returns to consider financial, environmental and social benefits in combination.
  • Monitoring and adaptive management are keys to effective and long-term restoration

Ecosystem restoration benefits and outcomes must be tangible, occurring at different spatial scales ranging from local supplies of water, food and medicines to global-scale regulation of our climate – see how land restoration helps to achieve all SDGs. These benefits should be long-lasting and maintain opportunities for future generations. To ensure long-lasting positive impacts of ecosystem restoration efforts, we need to carry out a solid planning and decision-making process involved when choosing where what and how to restore.

In reality, however, not all benefits of restoration can be maximised simultaneously. Critical tradeoffs between social and ecological benefits and outcomes might emerge in a restoration programme. Therefore it is crucial to develop a shared understanding of the needs to restore as well as the benefits and cost that each stakeholder group might face over time. This will motivate people to restore, maximising synergies and minimizing potential negative outcomes. Spatial planning helps strike the right balance for effective restoration, bearing in mind that it must be participatory, inclusive and address local communities and indigenous peoples’ needs. Ecosystem restoration must be cost-effective, optimized, fair and sustainable.

A critical consideration for the success of ecosystem restoration is the role of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). Because of the attachment to their lands, IPLCs possess invaluable ecological knowledge that can guide the restoration action. IPLCs are aware of where ecosystem restoration needs originate and count on the capacity, motivation and local knowledge needed for implementation. To maximise their role and contributions, communities and villages need to become empowered, receiving legitimate recognition as land stewards, property owners, right holders and local decision-makers. As beneficiaries at the local level, restoration efforts and mechanisms should meet and match IPLCs needs on various scales, which in turn will facilitate local results with global relevance.

Ecosystem restoration cannot be an environmental issue anymore. System-wide transformation requires embracing restoration as part of the social agenda, calling for collective action of the people. Pledges to action require institutional transformation at a national scale across political and regulatory levels, so that restoration becomes a national aspiration that supports social change. This is closely connected to the current and future leaders, who in order to spearhead change should be guided by a positive attachment and relationship with their communities and nature, seeing the potential of healthy ecosystems to be a harbour of human life, present and future. People with a growing awareness on this also have the responsibility of engaging with leaders and decision makers to translate a vision of living in harmony with nature in a way that seems relatable, that triggers action.

For this, sufficient finance and investment need to be catalysed. As of now, the investments needed to meet the restoration targets exceed available public resources, with various estimates pointing out the shortfall in global funding for nature - one recent estimate places the funding gap for restoration and conservation as high as US$824 billion per year. Thus, we need a combination of public and private capital flows for restoration to scale. A wide variety of public and private sustainable financial instruments are available that could support ecosystem restoration, including financing instruments that supply capital (equity and debt instruments including green bonds) and risk mitigation instruments (insurance, for instance). However, sustainable finance continues to be a niche offering within large financial institutions - so the scale of the use of sustainable finance within large institutions needs to grow. A few ways to do so are the scaling up of the use of the environment and social risk management (ESRM) tools across industries so these tools are fully integrated into investment decision-making. There is also a necessary alignment to occur between the perceived incentives for private sector investment with ecosystem restoration – this includes the creation of smart government incentives as well as the role that citizens can plan to influence companies actions through consumers’ decisions.

At the local level, stakeholders can be mobilised for restoration through jobs, business opportunities and sustainable supply chains. There are jobs in the restoration economy, just as we are seeing currently through growth in the renewable energy sector, but we need new business models and, most definitely technical capacity. Restoration jobs will be tied not just to local business but to sustainable supply chains – thus a larger market that will need to be harnessed. Traditional economic activities that need natural resources need to take responsibility and switch their supply chain operations to embed restoration and Nature-based Solutions as part of their long-term sustainability plans. Moreover, governments can invest in generating restoration-related jobs to address public risks generated by degradation and climate change (floods, fire, etc).

Finally, when implementing restoration activities, it is fundamental to have baseline information against which to monitor progress, a monitoring system that provides information on restoration progress, promoting investment and action and the capacity to adapt restoration plans to emerging changes in stakeholders, ecosystem dynamics or intended results.

The science task force will launch a think piece building on these key messages to answer the question ‘what is quality ecosystem restoration?’ in September 2021 during IUCN’s World Conservation Congress. Stay tuned!


Excerpts from the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration Webinar

Decade science task forcePhoto: IUCN

Q. What are the key conditions that will enable family farmers to be the agents of the change for the restoration of our planet?

We must recognize the legitimate claims of family farmers to their lands, territories and resources in compliance with international human rights standards. Second, invest in developing resilient livelihoods for family farmers – agriculture production relies on interaction with natural processes within the environment and climate, making it inevitable that family farmers need to adapt to inevitable consequences of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. This means that they are made key agents of change and need culturally relevant support. The third is supporting local markets, including informal markets, provide capacity building and offer financial mechanisms in collaboration with local authorities and the private sector to fund necessary infrastructures and services to the community institutions and organizations. Increase investment to promote institutional reform, to meet emerging needs and develop programmes understanding farmers’ demands, facilitate co-creation of innovative practices and knowledge and technologies to develop dynamism for family farming, including for the youth. Family farmers need to be involved in the policy process as well.
—Gam Shimray, Secretary-General, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

There is a clear nexus between sustainable agriculture and a healthy environment. Scaling up sustainable agricultural practices is critical, including crop rotations, diversification, agroforestry, picking the right crops and timing of planting etc. To achieve this, family farmers need to access financial resources and technology to implement ecosystem restoration. Importantly, the role of women, gender and equity needs to be placed at the centre when empowering family farmers’ management and restoration of their lands.
—James Kairo, Chief Scientist, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute

Q. What do you think are the most immediate strategies that the private sector, the producing, consumer good or finance side can undertake to accelerate the transformational change that is highly needed? 

Let’s think of two aspects of the private sector. First, focusing on financial institutions -- pension funds, insurance providers, mutual funds and so on. The focus on environmental and social risk management tools and their integration into investment decisions need to increase and scale significantly – although it is happening it is not at the scale that is required for ensuring steady support for conservation and restoration-related activities. Financial institutions can undertake positive or negative screenings across their capital investments so that there is a switch to investment decisions that support restoration. Institutions can also undertake environmental and social governance engagement, where capital investors can show their influence to change corporate governance structures.

The private sector can transform operations into sustainable supply chains following several critical actions, including building their technical capacity in environmental and social governance and critically create new business models for restoration. Across their activities, the private sector can implement monitoring and evaluation processes that allow for traceability in their supply chains and identifying how and where to reduce their impacts, including restoring and reversing them when necessary. Developing partnerships amongst peer industry companies can also help to create restoration-positive industry norms. Finally, large buyers with significant influence in supply chains can develop and implement green procurement policies and standards -- think Walmart, Costco etc.
Priya Shyamsundar, Lead Economist, The Nature Conservancy

Q. What is needed to develop a fungible market for nature-based climate solutions and ecosystem services and allow for businesses to integrate ecosystem restoration into their business models?

There are massive synergies but potential trade-offs between climate-focus nature-based solutions and other ecosystem services including biodiversity conservation. Therefore it is extremely important to consider them jointly from the start when planning interventions. As an example of synergies, the more biodiverse ecosystems tend to be more resilient to climate change – increasing the permanence of carbon sequestration. On the other hand, simplistic activities such as tree planting, in particular outside forest ecosystems can harm biodiversity.

Improving restoration-related knowledge, data, financial instruments and decision support tools, are some of the crucial elements to support businesses in integrating these considerations in their business models.

Equally important is the realignment of incentives businesses receive, being from government regulations, tax regimes, as well as influence from all of us, consumers, rewarding companies that are moving to the rights direction and penalizing the ones who are not. This might provide very powerful incentives to speed up the integration of restoration activities as part of business as usual.
Bernardo Strassburg, Executive Director, International Institute for Sustainability

Q. How can we improve incentive structures in the public and private sectors (i.e; tax incentives, intergenerational learning, etc ) to increase youth-led solutions and youth ecopreneurship for ecosystem restoration?

I would say that in parallel with developing incentives, you first need the youth interested in the topic and this means they have to be educated and informed about the issues. Then they need to be aware of opportunities as well as how they can become ecopreneurs. There are examples such as the youth innovation camps on the topic developed in Ontario, and the Kids Can! Innovation Camp. This would be a great step to have some of these camps and places to encourage innovation related to restoration. 

There are also experiences in adaptation projects, such as the Alta Montaña in Colombia, where participatory ecological restoration experiences have been promoted in the communities through local schools, involving children, youth, and parents. The young participants have not only received benefits but have also been interested in following technical studies associated with rural development issues. It would be good if governments can also start encouraging these types of initiatives in school through special programs, awards or even start-up funding. 

These actions that arise with seeds from GEF project funds, partner organizations from the government and communities must be scaled up with the participation of the public and private sectors.

In summary: First communication, then education and finally engagement and innovation programmes.
Angela Andrade, Chair of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management

What we will need are financial and non-financial incentives for the public and private sector Incentives to increase youth-led solutions and eco-entrepreneurship. For instance, tax exemptions, subsidies that promote sustainable investments especially from the youth. Also establish low-interest rates loans, green loans that allow entrepreneurs to start-up innovative activities in support of restoration. Incentives of higher returns for producing sustainable products such as eco-labelling and certification. On the other hand, paying for restoration outcomes has proven to be an incentive if designed adequately like payment for ecosystem services including REDD+ for instance.

Non-financial incentives to look at include permits for activities that promote restoration and conservation, provision of tenure rights which increase ownership over the land and resources and can incentivize sustainable use and restoration. This of course needs to be coupled with education and awareness.
—James Kairo, Chief Scientist, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute

Q. There is a deep-rooted need to shift our leadership from ego-centric to eco-centric leadership. My question then is, how do we cultivate solutions in ecocentric intentions and leadership?

I agree that a major challenge with ecosystem restoration is to convince leaders to embrace ecosystem restoration. It is critical to recognize that leaders have a range of backgrounds and experience, often in economics, law or politics; it is rarely in ecology. We must consider how they think and what drives them. It is unrealistic to expect them to drop their concepts and frameworks and embrace something new called an “ecosystem approach”. Instead, we need to show them how ecosystems can fit into their world and help them deliver their goals and expectations.
Mike Acreman, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

To provide a reference point to answer this question, I would like to mention the vision of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is living in harmony with nature by 2050. This won’t be achieved by decisions influenced by lifestyle choices or laws and programmes determining lifestyle choices. It is a call to elevate human well-being to a higher level that is a society living in harmony with nature. Such a call needs a motivational force that is driven from deep within that is shaped by a range of human emotions. This begins with a positive attachment to our homes, families, neighbours and the community, as well as an attachment to the rivers, forest, mountains, waters and all the living beings within; attachments that have crystalized into spontaneous reciprocal relationships within societies and with nature. A leader will have necessarily to act driven by these motivational forces and engage in sharing cultural values and good practices to nurture and embody reciprocal relationships and obligations that unite us, the past, present and future. This means extending our obligations and responsibilities not just to the present and humans, but also to our past, future and our surrounding nature.
Gam Shimray, Secretary-General, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

Q. What can be done if the indigenous peoples are dubious or not so willing to implement restoration projects?

First, we need to see what are the struggles and demands of indigenous peoples. If we are objectively understanding those issues and demands then we will start by having a dialogue point. This is precisely the point that I am raising, that we need to recognize them and their rights which in turn will transform into a critical incentive for them to become agents of restoration and change. Dialogue is always possible and there are reasons why in some cases there is resistance, connected perhaps with historical reasons, experiences and trust deficits. Understanding this is the first step to move forward.
—Gam Shimray, Secretary-General, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

Q. Restoration is expensive. Who must pay for it? Which are the best sustainable financial instruments?

Restoration can increase the availability of goods and services, for instance, timber, fish, tree products, etc. If we can create the systems so that these goods are less obtained from degraded forests and increasingly obtained from managed, restored forests and sustainable supply chains – then the supply chains themselves will pay for the restoration and can generate jobs and indirect economic benefits. On the other hand, there are services that restoration offers which are within the public realm, for instance, disaster risk reduction, flood mitigation, etc, that the public sector needs to pay for. Other ecosystem services like carbon for instance are in rising demand, where you can bring in the private sector’s finance. This of course should not reduce the biodiversity potential of restoration. There is no silver bullet for restoration financing although there are several options that need to be expanded and grow as enabling conditions and institutional systems are put in place.
Priya Shyamsundar, Lead Economist, The Nature Conservancy