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Our Fraying Ecosystems

This blog was originally published by The Huffington Post on September 22, 2015.

When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched 15 years ago, the environment was largely an afterthought. The MDG goal that addressed environmental concerns was awkwardly designed and lacked ambition.

The forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a profound departure from this approach by placing sustainability at the core. The SDGs reflect the growing recognition that environmental, economic and social issues are inextricably linked and development strategies must take a more holistic approach if they are to succeed.

This shift is clearly illustrated by SDG 15, which aims to improve the management of forests, combat desertification, reverse land degradation, and preserve biodiversity. Importantly, it recognizes that poverty reduction, healthy land and vibrant ecosystems all go together.

Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed an alarming increase in the fraying of ecosystems. Between 2001 and 2014, the world lost on average 18 million hectares of tree cover per year (an area twice the size of Portugal), and many other ecosystems have been badly damaged. One-third of all land is moderately or severely degraded, and yet more than one billion people still rely on agriculture as their principal source of income.

If we don't radically change how we interact with the natural world now, how will we do so in 20 years when global GDP doubles and the middle class expands from two to five billion, with a corresponding rise in consumption patterns? Avoiding rapid degradation of ecosystems requires a decoupling of growth and consumption.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the agriculture sector. The irony is that agriculture expansion is one of the leading causes of land degradation, but productive agriculture depends on fertile land. In order to address extreme poverty among rural populations, we need to ensure the vitality and resilience of lands and forests.

What's the solution?

A significant opportunity lies in the restoration of degraded land. According to WRI research, at least two billion hectares of the world's deforested and degraded lands, an area twice the size of China, show potential for landscape restoration. Approximately 20 percent is "widespread" restoration consisting of intact forests over vast areas, while 80 percent is considered "mosaic" restoration, in which trees and forests are combined with smallholder agriculture, agroforestry and other land uses.

According to recent analysis from the New Climate Economy, restoring 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 could help feed 200 million people, raise as much as $40 billion annually, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Certainly, it won't be easy, but a growing number of examples demonstrate the link between restored lands and improved livelihoods:

In Niger, for example, more than one million rural households have protected and managed trees through a system called "farmer-managed natural regeneration," which does not primarily rely on planting new trees. Instead, farmers allow native trees and shrubs to naturally regrow, which enhances the fertility of the soil. This approach, which emerged in the 1980s, has generated multiple benefits with improvements in food security and household income, especially for women, for more than 2.5 million people living in some of the most challenging conditions on the planet.

In Latin America, home to some of the most ecologically diverse ecosystems in the world, 20 percent of forest lands have been completely deforested and another 20 percent badly degraded. This has deeply affected people's livelihoods where land-use activities account for 15 percent of employment. Fortunately, a number of countries in the region have come together around the goal of restoring more than 20 million hectares of degraded land by 2020 (called Initiative 20x20). Restoration at this scale will enhance water quality, soil fertility and food security while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Momentum for landscape restoration is growing. At the UN climate summit in 2014, a group of countries joined together to sign the New York Declaration on Forests, calling for the restoration of 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030. The NY commitment builds on an earlier goal, the Bonn Challenge, launched in 2011, that aims to bring 150 million hectares under restoration by 2020. New research suggests that restoring 350 million hectares by 2030 could generate $170 billion per year through a combination of enhanced productivity and function of watersheds, agroforestry and forest products.

Landscape restoration is but one of many innovation solutions that can be scaled up through public policies and institutions. Investments that can generate economic, social and environmental benefits reflect the new thinking contained in the SDGs – a shift where the environment is no longer viewed as being in conflict with the economy, but rather necessary for sustained growth.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development – including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others.

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