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Unlocking Climate Action: Building a Landscape Restoration Movement from the Ground Up

This post is part of a series on how virtuous interdependency brings greater climate action when national governments and regional, state and local governments and businesses work together.

Global leaders have committed to start restoring 168 million hectares – 415 million acres, an area larger than Iran – of degraded land within the next 12 years under the Bonn Challenge, the world’s most ambitious restoration effort. Landscape restoration uses plants and soil to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which will be critical to keeping global temperature rise below potentially disastrous levels, according to the latest IPCC report. That makes transforming degraded land into healthy forests, grasslands and farms a key strategy. Government pledges to the Bonn Challenge and its regional counterparts, Initiative 20x20 for Latin America and AFR100 for Africa, aim to do just that, demonstrating countries’ commitment to seize this opportunity at a global scale.

While national and international efforts typically make the headlines, it’s equally important to recognize the role of regional, state and local governments in creating momentum and delivering results. National governments may find it politically challenging to enact far-reaching policies without substantial evidence that they work. Regional governments, however, can test out policies within their more limited jurisdiction, informing national dialogue and providing models for successful efforts that can be scaled up. State leadership can spur national action.

Brazil’s restoration commitments show how national and subnational climate action go hand in hand. The country’s Atlantic forest, originally spanning over 150 million hectares (370 million acres) along the coast, is the second largest rainforest in South America, a treasure trove of biodiversity and a major carbon sink. Yet, the forests have been under assault for decades by cattle ranching, farming and development with over 85 percent of the land deforested to date. The loss of forests has seriously harmed the natural systems that regulate water, exacerbating water shortages for major cities like São Paulo.

Joining Forces for Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

Beginning in 2006, actors throughout the region joined forces to build a restoration movement. An assembly of government representatives from several Brazilian states, NGOs, businesses and research organizations launched the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact (PACTO) in 2009. In 2011, the program pledged to bring 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) into restoration by 2020 through the Bonn Challenge.

While PACTO represents a successful coalition of subnational actors, federal representation – and funding – was conspicuously absent. The coalition adapted, focusing on regional commitments and building political momentum from the ground up. PACTO actively sought to put restoration in the limelight, producing a slew of reports and articles that emphasized the environmental, social and economic opportunity of restoration across the Atlantic Forest and Brazil more broadly.

These discussions soon bore fruit. In 2015, the Brazilian states of Espírito Santo, São Paulo and Mato Grosso announced their own restoration pledges, revealing their commitments at the Global Landscapes Forum to restore a collective 3.28 million hectares (8.1 million acres). Facing the pressure of state leadership from below, the federal government acted the following year, pledging to bring 12 million hectares of deforested land (nearly 30 million acres) into restoration by 2030 under the Bonn Challenge and Initiative 20x20, a commitment that expanded upon existing PACTO and state-level pledges. PACTO’s strategy was a success; to date, Brazil’s restoration movement is backed by national policy and support, with a comprehensive national restoration plan – titled PLANAVEG – issued as a federal decree in 2017.

 As country representatives gather in Katowice, Poland, for the COP24 international climate meeting in December, it’s important to keep the scale of the outcomes in mind. Even if state-level climate and forest policies cover a fraction of a country’s emissions and land use, they are valuable because they test and demonstrate the possibilities for the nation as a whole. The impact of state-level policies need not be limited to the state. As Brazil’s restoration movement has illustrated, they can spark something so much more.

On Wednesday, December 5, the World Resources Institute will host a discussion at COP24 on opportunities for enhancing climate goals, including more ambitious land use targets and clearer avenues for sub-national engagement. To find out more, visit our COP 24 events page.

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