New Study Suggests Healing Targeted Ecosystems Can Restore Earth’s Climate

Image: Jeremy Mikkola/Flickr

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer 

A study published yesterday in the journal Nature suggests that revitalizing ecosystems in a global, holistic way could be an immensely effective way to heal the Earth’s climate. In particular, forests, wetlands, and grasslands would benefit most from restoration — protecting just 30% of these priority areas could save the majority of mammals, amphibians, and birds under threat of extinction and would absorb about 565 billion tons of CO2, about half of the carbon dioxide that has been accumulating in the atmosphere since the industrial age. 

Restoring biodiversity and mitigating climate change are often treated as separate goals, yet global warming can’t be fully solved without also confronting the global loss of nature. Though environmentalists currently emphasize reducing the use of fossil fuels, healthy ecosystems are powerful carbon sinks that are often overlooked.

Why This Matters: As we’ve seen with the multitude of tree planting initiatives across the world, there’s a tendency among lawmakers to focus on singular ecosystems for rejuvenation. Yet this study shows that we can’t forget that nature is interconnected and we must restore its loss across a range of ecosystems in order to truly fight climate change. 

It’s also a reminder that there’s no silver bullet in stopping the loss of nature or the climate crisis and we must think strategically and holistically. Science must guide our decision-making for goals like 30 by 30 and beyond.

The Timeline: According to the study, about half of the above-ground carbon-storing plants can be restored in 20 years, and tropical forest ecosystems could be restored in 70 (grasslands and scrublands could be restored much more quickly). While the effects of this restoration take much longer than say, shutting down fossil fuel plants, these effects still matter in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement

The Benefits of Restoring Ecosystems: The researchers in this study mapped 10.8 million square miles of forest, grass, and wetland ecosystems across the world that were destroyed and made into farmland. Then they evaluated their value as a habitat for endangered species, their carbon storage potential, and how much it would cost to restore them. 

The study suggested that holistic, global ecosystem restoration could be 13 times more cost-effective when it takes place in high-priority locations. 

The researchers also confronted an important question: how to make sure that restoring ecosystems doesn’t prevent agriculture, because over half of the ecosystems they studied had been converted to crop and grazing lands. 

The authors of this study suggest that the way to protect ecosystems without sacrificing food production is to farm more sustainably, reduce waste, and cut down on meat and dairy production, which requires the most land and emits the most greenhouse gasses. A recommendation that was echoed in another report released from the World Wildlife Fund earlier this week. 


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