By Robin Gomes
Saturday, June 5, is the annual United Nations World Environment Day. This year, it will kick off the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The theme of this year’s World Environment Day, “Reimagine. Recreate. Restore.”, indicates the over-arching mood of the plan of action of the coming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
Following a proposal for action by over 70 countries, the UN General Assembly in March 2019 decided to proclaim 2021–2030 the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the Decade aims to build a strong, broad-based global movement and promote efforts to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.
Launch of UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
A virtual gala event on Friday, the eve of World Environment Day, will welcome the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. It will feature several world leaders and figures such as Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, the host of this year’s international celebration of World Environment Day, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen and FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.
Pope Francis, an ardent champion of the environment and the planet, “our common home”, is scheduled to deliver a message on this occasion. In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato si’ – on care for our common home”, the Pope denounces unbridled consumerism and irresponsible development that lead to environmental degradation and global warming, and calls all to take "swift and unified global action."
The UN Decade is also the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals and the timeline scientists have identified as the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change. With thousands of initiatives on the ground, it will raise awareness of the importance of successful ecosystem restoration in order to put the world on track for a sustainable future.
Through communications, events and a dedicated web platform, the UN Decade will provide a hub for everyone interested in restoration to find projects, partners, funding and the knowledge they need to make their restoration efforts a success.
World's depleting ecosystems
Healthy ecosystems will enhance people’s livelihoods, counteract climate change, and stop the collapse of biodiversity. Ecosystems can be large, like a forest, or small, like a pond. According to UNEP’s classification, there are 8 main types of ecosystems: farmlands, forests, lakes and rivers, grasslands and savannahs, mountains, oceans and coasts, peatlands and urban areas. Many are crucial to human societies, providing people with water, food, building materials and a host of other essentials. They also provide planet-wide benefits like climate protection and biodiversity conservation. But in recent decades, humanity’s hunger for resources has pushed many ecosystems to the breaking point. Their restoration can take many forms, such as growing trees, greening cities, rewilding gardens, changing diets or cleaning up rivers and coasts.
For too long, humanity has been exploiting and destroying its planet’s ecosystems. Every three seconds, the world loses enough forest to cover a football pitch. Over 4.7 million hectares of forests – an area larger than Denmark – are lost every year.
Wetlands are being drained for agriculture, with some 87 percent lost globally in the last 300 years. Over the past century, we have destroyed half of our wetlands. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged to our oceans and rivers without treatment. As much as 50 percent of our coral reefs have already been lost and up to 90 percent of coral reefs could be lost by 2050, even if global warming is limited to an increase of 1.5°C.
Present in more than 180 countries, peatlands are vital, super-powered ecosystems. Though they cover only 3 percent of the world’s land, they store nearly 30 percent of its soil carbon.
Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown for three consecutive years and the planet is on the way to a potentially catastrophic climate change.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how disastrous the consequences of ecosystem loss can be. By shrinking the area of natural habitat for animals, we have created ideal conditions for pathogens – including coronaviruses – to spread.
Pakistan leads the way
According to a UNDP report, Pakistan is particularly suspectable to increased variability of monsoons, receding Himalayan glaciers and extreme events including floods and droughts. These will lead to an increase in food and water insecurity. Bloomberg estimates that only 5 percent of the country has forest cover, against a global average of 31 percent, making it one of the six countries most suspectable to climate change.
The environmental problems in Pakistan are exacerbated by its large population: it is the fifth most populous country in the world, which puts increasing strain on the environment. Additionally, according to the World Bank over 24 percent of Pakistan’s population lives in poverty, which puts people at greater risk to impacts of climate change. This is largely because they have a higher dependency on natural resources and are less able to cope with climatic variability.
However, the South Asian nation, which is the global host of the June 5 World Environment Day this year, has shown it is prepared to lead the way in ecosystem restoration with its Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Project. The ambitious plan of action, which is backed by UNEP, aims to plant ten billion trees by 2023.
Launched in 2019, the project recently reached a new milestone – the planting of the billionth tree. On May 27, Prime Minister Imran Khan planted the billionth tree - a Deodar cedar sapling - at Makhniyal Forest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
“Large scale restoration initiatives such as The Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Project are central to Pakistan’s efforts to support the UN Decade and to increase ecosystem restoration,” said Dechen Tsering, UNEP’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, “We are at a point in history where we need to act and Pakistan is leading on this important effort.”
The Ten Billion Tree Tsunami is not only helping restore ailing ecosystems and improve natural capital; it is also supporting livelihoods. The project is expected to create jobs for almost 85,000 daily wagers. In addition, Pakistan’s protected areas initiative will create almost 7000 long-term jobs.