Nature beyond biodiversity: why restoration matters

The call to restore nature is urgent and non-negotiable: the key time frame of 2020-30 is slowly lapsing and to effectively tackle both the biodiversity and the climate crises, it is fundamental not only to act timely, but also adequately. A nature-positive approach has only benefits to offer in every dimension considered: biodiversity, climate, people, economy and more.

In the last few years, the climate breakdown has slowly been receiving more attention, but it is not the only planetary emergency we are facing. 

The biodiversity crisis, also happening right now even if not so prominent, is just as important and closely interconnected to climate; which is why the two phenomena are often referred to as twin crises. Protection of nature is not a sufficient strategy in itself anymore, so the mandatory next step for both biodiversity and climate, and ultimately our own well-being, is clear: restoration. 

Restoring means bringing back nature and helping it thrive again, so that we, humans, can thrive in harmony with nature. 

As demonstrated by the EEA Report on the State of Nature, Europe’s biodiversity is not at all in good condition. Over 80% of our habitats are in poor condition and only 23% of species monitored under the EU Nature Directives are in good health.

In June 2022, a proposal for a new Nature Restoration Law was published by the European Commission to tackle this dire situation. The proposal sets out an overarching objective for restoration measures to cover 20% of the EU land and sea area by 2030 and entails ecosystem-specific targets for Member States. While the draft proposal is a good start, some of the targets are insufficient to tackle the urgency and scope of the climate and biodiversity crises. EU Member States and the Parliament need to quickly agree on a solid law that treats both biodiversity loss and the climate breakdown like the emergency they are and tackles them accordingly. 

Image Source: State of nature in the EU – Results from reporting under the nature directives 2013-2018 EEA Report No 10/2020

Restoration: a climate strategy

Nature restoration is the key win-win solution to tackle both the biodiversity and the climate crises. But how does restoration affect the climate?

First, our climate is influenced by biodiversity and vice versa. Take carbon, the root of the climate crisis. Carbon emissions and carbon storage depend on different ecosystems – some can either store carbon or emit it, depending on the state they are in. Therefore, if we help nature come back, we will increase the carbon storage capacity that it offers us, which will help us tackle the climate crisis.

Healthy marine ecosystems for example, capture and lock-in carbon, acting as nature based solutions to the climate breakdown; in fact oceans are the largest planetary carbon sink, removing around one-third of CO2 emitted by human activity. Forests are also a large and crucial ecosystem in Europe, covering 40 % of EU land: they play a key role for biodiversity, while protecting our atmosphere and being home to many species.

By creating synergies and focusing on biodiverse ecosystems with potential for carbon storage and sequestration, restoration actions have the potential to contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation. In fact, reducing and reversing biodiversity loss and land degradation can provide more than one third of the most cost-effective climate mitigation needed to keep global warming under 2°C by 2030. Nature restoration can therefore be seen not only as a strategy to address biodiversity loss, but also as a climate mitigation strategy. 

Peatlands, which occur in most EU Member States, covering around 350,000 km2 in the EU, are great carbon sinks. However, 50% of them are degraded by drainage because of the their excessive usage for agriculture, forestry and peat extraction. This damage turns peatlands in carbon emitters instead, making the EU the second largest global emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) from drained peatlands (approximately 7% of EU’s total GHG emissions). By restoring drained peatlands through full rewetting, not only are GHG emissions reduced, but soil sinking, eventual flooding, and saltwater intrusion in coastal areas are prevented. 

Of course, we also need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions and rapidly move away from fossil fuels. Nature-friendly renewable energy is crucial to get us there. When done well, they can be another example of a win-win for nature as well, with the climate crisis being one of the big drivers of biodiversity loss (and vice versa). 

Ecosystems adapted to the climate emergency 

Another important interconnective element is climate adaptation: we need ecosystems that are resilient to the extreme events that are the consequences of the climate breakdown and, at the same time, that are able to help us adapt to it.

Restoration aims to make all the ecosystems thrive again so they can be strong enough to face the future we are going towards. For example, peatland restoration lowers the risk of peat fires, soil erosion, and desertification; healthy marine and river environments enhance the ecosystems’ resilience and ability to mitigate the effects of droughts, floods, sea-level rises; and other weather events with extreme consequences on communities such as forest fires can be prevented by forest restoration.

Restoring natural features and processes in rivers for example generates microclimates that help to deal with heat waves, favoures nutrient cycling and reduces pollution.

Nature’s health is our health

Social and economic benefits are also an important argument in favour of nature restoration: sustainable jobs for local communities, recreation opportunities and an overall improvement of communities’ health and wellbeing are benefits of nature restoration.

Climate change is a huge threat to human health all over the world, and Europe is not the exception as the EEA has observed. As we consider it so urgent to take care of ourselves, what better way to do that than by improving the sources of the air we breathe every minute of our life? In general, our health depends deeply on nature. For example spending just 20 minutes in nature can significantly reduce the levels of cortisol, aka the stress hormone. Ecosystem services, like tourism, can create new job opportunities especially in economically marginal areas. 

A high-yield investment

Some people are doubtful about the costs of restoring nature on such a lange scale, but even according to the World Economic Forum nature restoration is a great economic investment.

The economic value added by investing in nature restoration is between €8 to €38 for every €1 spent, as stated in the Commission’s own assessment for the restoration law proposal. In short, the benefits of restoration are on average 10 times higher than the costs of the measure. Ecosystem services delivered by biodiversity, such as water purification or carbon sequestration, are worth an estimated €102-115 trillion per year.

In the case of sea areas, for example, practices like the creation of no-take zones increase the number and size of fish outside these areas as well, bringing along economic benefits as well. A healthier, more resilient and more attractive landscape provides us with opportunities of recreation and financial flows for local economies.

Long-term food security

Farmland is also a key human-made ecosystem: according to IPBES, land use change and unsustainable land management are the main drivers of biodiversity loss.

At the same time, agriculture and food production rely greatly on pollination and other ecosystem services, like soil productivity, water supply and quality. Nature restoration actions can contribute to making farming systems more resilient and productive for the long run, as a recent IEEP report shows, for example by reversing the decline of pollinators and ensuring the abundance of farmland birds. Restoration can contribute to enhance the ecosystem services needed for sustained growth and reduce the impacts of extreme events, which have intense consequences on crops, while also reducing GHG emissions from agriculture. 

Restoring is caring 

The state of nature is not something we can afford to ignore: we depend on it and we are part of it. There is no humanity without nature as well. Caring about the wellbeing of our ecosystems means caring not only about the biodiversity and climate of our (only) Earth, but about ourselves and the future of us all. 

Damage has been done at the hands of humankind, so it is time to take responsibility and start to reverse this process by restoring ecosystems, so that people and nature can thrive together again, within the short time we have left before it is too late.