Restoring the ecosystem – Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

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Back in 1987, ‘Our common future’, also known as the Brundtland Report, proposed the three main pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality.

A group of deniers, including former US president Donald Trump, challenge the need for coexistence in harmony with nature. They ridiculed the scientific evidence and doubts that ecosystems on planet earth, if not managed properly, can run out of water, oxygen, or reach their spatial limits to accommodate further habitation.

Till last year, many of us have been ignoring the warnings of a pandemic. However, poorly struck with Covid-19, today we know that despite global economic development and technological advancements, a pandemic can cripple us.

Unlike Covid-19, we don’t have to wait for a climatic apocalypse to believe that living in disharmony with nature would be disastrous. Those who followed the frantic calls for oxygen for Covid patients in India last month can imagine the helplessness of losing loved ones due to lack of oxygen. Fast forward the scene, a few decades down the road, the way we are consuming natural resources beyond the planet can replenish, many parts of the world would not be livable anymore.

The rat race of economic growth sans ecosystem restoration may lead us to a stage where future generations of humans may have to carry personal oxygen devices to breathe, just like now we have had to adapt to facemasks. If we don’t mend our ways, then living on Earth and Mars, or any other planet, may be a similar experience one day. Imagine our future generations drinking laboratory-prepared water, using synthetic oxygen for respiration, and wearing airconditioned clothes to ward off climate vagaries.

Scary, isn’t it? That is why the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is launching a decade of ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ from today.

Why today? Because today is the 5th of June, and it is World Environment Day (WED). This year Pakistan is selected to be the global host for WED. I will come to it later, but first, let us see what a decade of ecosystem restoration signifies? We are only a decade away from the deadline set for achieving sustainable development goals. The UNEP invites us to become #GenerationRestoration and restore our ecosystem for people, nature and climate during this decade; otherwise, most sustainable development goals would get missed.

Over-exploitation (by 1.6 times) of natural resources (than the planet can replenish) is embedded in economies and governance systems. The resulting degradation is undermining hard-won development gains and threatening the well-being of future generations. From oceans to forests to farmlands, the world’s ecosystems are being degraded, in many cases at an accelerating rate. According to the UNEP, people living in poverty, women, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups bear the brunt of this damage, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened existing inequalities.

While the causes of degradation are various and complex, one thing is clear: the massive economic growth of recent decades has come at the cost of ecological health. It is not about choosing between development and conserving the natural resource bases. It is about development, ‘and’ environmental conservation, protection, restoration, ‘and’ working towards social equity. It is not a zero-sum game. We have to take care of this tridimensional developmental objective through our policies and practices. The three are mutually nonexclusive and cannot be dealt with in isolation.

While warning about the severity of the problem, experts also give us the good news that nature has an extraordinary capacity for renewal. While some ecosystems are approaching a tipping point from which they cannot recover, many others can flourish again if we stop the damage and restore their health, biodiversity and productivity.

What does it require to replenish nature? The UNEP and FAO ask world governments to deliver on their existing commitments, under the Rio Conventions and the Bonn Challenge, to restore one billion hectares of degraded land and make similar commitments for marine and coastal areas.

Why should the world governments act on this advice? The UNEP and FAO experts describe that restoration is essential for keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, ensuring food security for a growing population (restoration through agroforestry can improve the food security of 1.3 billion people) and slowing the rate of species extinctions. In fact, it is one of the most important ways of delivering nature-based solutions for societal challenges. Let us see how.

Half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature, and every dollar invested in restoration creates up to $30 in economic benefits. Restoring marine fish populations to deliver a maximum sustainable yield could increase fisheries production by 16.5 million tonnes, an annual value of USD 32 billion.

Actions that prevent, halt and reverse degradation are needed if we are to keep global temperatures below 2 C. Such actions can deliver one-third of the mitigation that is needed by 2030. This could involve action to better manage some 2.5 billion hectares of forest, crop and grazing land (through restoration and avoiding degradation) and restoration of natural cover over 230 million hectares.

Moreover, with careful planning, restoring 15 percent of converted lands while stopping the further conversion of natural ecosystems could avoid 60 percent of expected species extinctions.

It is not governments alone that would have to take care of the ecosystem. The call for ecosystem restoration is made so all of us play our role. Restoration activities can be done in a backyard plot, a city park, a river valley, a national forest, or a globally threatened ecosystem. This means that everyone can get involved.

Let me also touch upon the honour that the UN system conferred Pakistan: to be the global host of World Environment Day this year. This is in recognition of our latest efforts towards ecosystem restoration, especially our afforestation efforts through billion (and now ten billion) tree plantations. Referring to the prime minister’s personal attention to this plantation drive, the UNEP specifically mentioned that natural restoration in countries like Pakistan, China, and Costa Rica had been driven by political will.

However, political will sans financial resources would not help us achieve the objectives of the UN decade of restoration. Like many other developing countries, Pakistan is one of the least polluters and carbon emitters in the world. Under the principle of “Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”, countries like Pakistan require help from the developed world (whose share in global CO2 emission is much larger) to take the agenda of restoration forward.

On the global front, the public and private financial institutions (including bilateral and multilateral development partners) and regulatory bodies should, in line with the call of the UN, develop and strengthen instruments and mechanisms to ensure that finance flows support restoration efforts.

On the domestic front, we would have to ensure that we don’t put our environmental stability and sustainability at stake while pursuing economic growth. Otherwise, our growth would not be clean and green. It goes without saying that even clean and green economic growth is not sustainable until it takes care of social equity, the third pillar of sustainable development.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

Twitter: @abidsuleri