An exciting – and scary – time for ecological restoration
Vast areas of the world are due to be restored under international agreements. Are we ready for the challenge?
“Recovery” means the recreation of the plant and animal communities historically associated with a degraded site. Photograph: Getty Images
"Our planet’s future may depend on the maturation of the young discipline of ecological restoration,” an unusually upbeat editorial in Science declared in 2009. “In its short life it has assumed a major role in sustainable development efforts across the globe.”
Just eight years later that role has again grown exponentially, if – and this is a big ‘if’– we can accept the intentions expressed in several recent international declarations at face value.
With the obvious and troubling exception of the current US administration, governments, corporations and international institutions are increasingly aware of the dire consequences of globalised environmental degradation. They are especially conscious that climate change is driving many of these degraded landscapes towards catastrophe.
This has persuaded many of them to rather abruptly adopt the innovative conservation strategy of ecological restoration on scales far beyond the previous dreams – and actual experience – of most of its advocates.
The Bonn Challenge (2011) committed world leaders to the restoration of 150 million hectares of degraded forests by 2020, and this was expanded to 350 million hectares by 2030 in the New York Declaration (2014).
The UN’s Convention on Biodiversity has set a target of restoring 15 per cent of the world’s degraded land by 2020. The Paris Climate Change Agreement (2015) promises a multimillion euro mitigation fund, much of which could go to restoration projects that store carbon in plants and soil to reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
But what do we mean by “ecological restoration”, and does everyone mean the same thing when they use the phrase?
And does this adolescent science have enough theoretical knowledge, and are there enough people on the ground with practical know-how, to mature rapidly? Can it meet the unprecedented demands of restoring landscapes on the scale these commitments suggest?
These were the recurrent questions at many sessions of the recent international conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) in the dramatic setting of Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil, attended by more than 1,000 delegates from 55 countries.
“It’s a very exciting time, and also a very scary one,” leading restoration scientist Katharine Suding told a plenary session. “Can we deliver? And what should we do to be able to deliver? We are a young science, and we haven’t got everything figured out.”
The SER Primer (2004) defined ecological restoration as “assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed”.
“Recovery” means the recreation of the plant and animal communities historically associated with a degraded site. This challenging process is intimately linked with the even trickier one of restoring the dynamic ecosystem processes – the cycling and transformation of energy, nutrients and moisture, for example – that these communities have produced in the past.
Given the vast complexity of the simplest ecosystems, this has always been a radically ambitious enterprise. It is also an inherently hopeful one, running counter to the widespread environmental narrative of inevitable decline and loss.
It dares to suggest that humanity may indeed be capable of healing some of the wounds we have inflicted on our planetary home. Whether homo sapiens has the will to do so is a more difficult questions still.
To even raise the hopes inherent in restoration carries a heavy responsibility, a theme echoed in different ways and in different contexts by many speakers at the conference. There was sometimes a wry sense of “beware of what you wish for” in response to the rapid multiplication of global mega-restoration goals. But there was also a widespread resolve to ensure that restoration science and practice measure up to the remarkable opportunity that these goals offer.
“Restoration is becoming mainstream, but implementation and effectiveness is inconsistent at best,” warned Bethanie Walder, executive director of SER. “The world is entering a restoration era. This our challenge right now. If we don’t do that work well there is a real threat to restoration as a tool in the future.”
So how effective has restoration been so far?
In a wide-ranging presentation that was neither starry-eyed nor doom-laden, Suding quoted surveys that suggest that while restoration is often successful at increasing biodiversity very significantly on degraded sites, most projects still fall short of restoring the full biodiversity that flourished on them in the past.
“We are not there yet,” she said, and warned that the impacts of climate change are making the restoration target ever harder to hit with any accuracy.
In some cases, she argued, “it may be more realistic to consider alternative solutions that still bring ecological and social benefits”.
“We must be upfront with stake-holders and policy-makers about the problems we face,” she continued. She suggested that a code of restoration ethics is needed, something similar to the ones used in medicine.
This seems a helpful analogy: doctors cannot predict the outcomes of treatments with anything approaching total precision. Likewise, the potential risks and benefits of attempting to restore a degraded system should be set out to policy-makers and the public just as the risks and benefits of treatments are explained to chronically ill patients.
Such a code is already implicit in a new and comprehensive set of international standards for restoration published by SER late last year, and discussed at several sessions in the conference (see panel).
Many speakers raised another issue: there is a big risk of “greenwashing” under the new international initiatives.
The serious money now on offer may tempt governments and corporations to attach the feel-good brand of “restoration” to schemes that make a mockery of restoration’s high aspirations. For example, industrial forestry companies may abuse the label, just as they already abuse “sustainability”, to justify (and subsidise) monocultural plantations of trees with no ecological link to the local landscape. This will result in more, not less, degradation.
That’s the nightmare scenario. But many contributions to the conference, from many countries suggested that the dream of restoration has more support and better science than ever. It won’t be easy – in fact it will be very difficult for all the reasons outlined above – but there is now a real prospect that the new international initiatives can be channelled to turn that dream into a landscape-scale reality.
Paddy Woodworth co-organised and chaired a symposium, Big Ideas, Big Practice, at the SER conference, and presented on peatland restoration in Ireland at another symposium.
SETTING STANDARDS FOR A RESTORED WORLD
The new SER International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration define a clear and practical spectrum of options for the recovery for degraded landscapes, ranging from minimal damage limitation to the “five-star” option of full ecological restoration.
According to the authors, “protecting remaining intact ecosystems is vital to conserving our natural and cultural heritage”, but “protection alone is now insufficient given the extent to which degradation has proceeded and continues to expand”.
“To ensure the sustainable flow of ecosystem services and products, the world must work to secure a net gain in the extent and functionality of native ecosystems by investing in environmental repair activities including ecological restoration.
“This repair must be implemented at large enough scales to make a difference whether the goals include carbon sequestration, livelihoods, ecosystem services or biodiversity.
“Ecological restoration, therefore, seeks the highest and best recovery outcomes practicable to both compensate for past damage and to progressively effect an increase in the extent and healthy functionality of the planet’s imperilled ecosystems.”