This post originally appeared in UNEP's Climate Leader Papers.

Imagine that we have the chance to cut greenhouse gas emissions, boost household incomes and increase crop yields, while making vulnerable areas more resilient to severe weather and improving the lives of people in some of the world’s poorest regions. The fact is, we could do all this and more by restoring the world’s degraded landscapes to productive, sustainable use.

As it stands today, deforestation accounts for as much as 20 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and an even larger share in regions such as Latin America. Yet WRI’s research finds that over 2 billion hectares of land – an area twice the size of Europe – have been degraded, making them ripe for restoration.

There is only one catch, but it’s a big one: we need the international political will to make it happen. As climate negotiators and government officials gather for COP20, there is an opportunity to build the political will and momentum to make large-scale restoration a reality.

Landscape Restoration as Part of a Paris Agreement

Protection of forests and restoration of degraded lands should be a fundamental part of a strong, universal climate agreement to be finalised at the COP in Paris in 2015. Standing forests and other plant-rich landscapes store climate-warming carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere, making forests an important component of both national and international efforts to curb global warming. Maintaining natural forests is only part of this plan; the other is restoring, managing and conserving degraded forest lands.

To do this, the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme aims to put a financial value on the carbon stored in forests, giving incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon sustainable development. REDD+ goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

Restoration of forest lands – by wholesale replanting, by so-called ‘mosaic’ replanting to pinpoint locations where trees can do the most good, or by moving agriculture and other industry to areas that are already degraded while leaving current forests standing – does more than lock carbon away. It also fosters biodiversity, strengthens the food supply, provides fresh water and helps form healthy soils and reduce pollution in waterways. Restoration can also contribute to improved living standards and job creation for rural populations.

In 2011, governments and stakeholders agreed on the Bonn Challenge, a commitment to restore 150 million hectares of degraded forest land by 2020. This climate-friendly change in land use will only last if it is part of sustainable economic growth that lifts people out of poverty, while restoring the biodiversity that fuels a healthy environment.

We are well on the way to fulfilling the Bonn Challenge, but we can do more. The world could commit to restoring an additional 150 million hectares by 2030. If we did that, it would put almost US$100 billion of increased income into the hands of poor people, creating a virtuous cascade of greater exports, more food security and higher amounts of carbon kept out of the atmosphere.

Experience on the ground in disparate parts of the world shows how restoration has worked and what more needs to be done to make this a truly international movement.

The Poignant Peruvian Case

The market for some of Peru’s most exotic forest products, notably mahogany, puts pressure on forest-dwellers who have agreed to protect these old-growth tropical hardwood trees under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The historically forested central portion of Peru lost more than 1 million hectares of woodland between 2001 and 2012.

More than 80 per cent of Peruvian mahogany is exported to the United States, suggesting that Peru is struggling to uphold the environmental and forestry obligations of its 2009 free trade agreement with the USA. This particularly poignant combination also means Peru is missing out on the environmental benefits of keeping their forests intact: natural water filtration, less soil erosion and greater biodiversity in one of the earth’s biodiversity hot spots.

There is another way, growing in a billion back yards around the world: trees and other plants. Modern restoration is a sophisticated strategy that aims to engage policy-makers, business people, farmers and consumers for mutual benefit by working with the specific environments to plant what works for the local economy and ecosystem.

Many countries face similar challenges and may have similar opportunities. In fact, the majority of Latin America’s greenhouse gas emissions come from land degradation and land use change. At the same time, the enabling conditions, including political will, capable institutions and clear economic benefits from restoration, may place the region at the forefront of global restoration efforts.

The Costa Rican Example

One good example of the restoration phenomenon is Costa Rica, which has built its economy by rebuilding its forests. In 1943, forests covered 3.9 million hectares, 77 per cent of the country’s land area.

By 1986, forests had contracted to just over 2 million hectares or 40.7 per cent, mostly owing to expanding agriculture and cattle grazing. With the forests gone, denuded hillsides threatened to accelerate sedimentation of hydropower reservoirs in a country where hydropower accounted for 80 per cent of electricity.

From 1986 onwards, however, Costa Rica has pursued forest restoration through a combination of natural regeneration on abandoned pastures and active tree planting. By 2005, forest area had increased by 2.4 million hectares to cover 48 per cent of the country, helping the establishment of nature-based tourism, a defining trait of the Costa Rican economy today.

African Successes

Successes in several African countries demonstrate how effective landscape restoration can be.

In southern Niger, an agroforestry practice called ‘farmer-managed natural regeneration’ has encouraged residents to let native trees and shrubs regrow from underground root systems that survived earlier cutting, or plant new trees amid crop fields. These woody plants have improved soil conditions, fertilising the surrounding ground and boosting crop yields, helping to bring this region back from the edge of desertification that threatened the area from the late 1960s through the 1980s.

Since 1985, more than a million rural households in Niger have protected and managed trees across approximately 5 million hectares, increasing food security and the amount and diversity of household incomes. In many cases, cereal yields per hectare doubled, with farmers producing 500,000 more tons of cereal per year than in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing greater food security to 2.5 million people. The new trees also buffer climate extremes that can affect crops.

Households that adopted farmer-managed natural regeneration had gross per capita income of US$167, compared to $122 for non-adopters. Extrapolating across the whole 5 million hectares in southern Niger means aggregate income benefits could reach $900 million annually.

This kind of farmer engagement has also proved effective in Ethiopia and Tanzania, where both countries built on existing natural infrastructure and traditional practice to bring back landscapes that had been ravaged by deforestation-induced drought.

In some of the cases in African countries, there were snags. For example, in Ethiopia, even as farmers saw improved yields and the return of native plants, they did not find the financial rewards they expected from the purchase of carbon sequestration credits. Involving many stakeholders in the process proved complicated and expensive. However, that very involvement was essential to making it work.

'Grain for Green' on China's Loess Plateau

China used a different method to restore 700,000 hectares of land in its Loess Plateau, south-west of Beijing. A massive World Bank-funded replanting effort from 1999 to 2005 was aimed at improving degraded soils and vegetation, spurring food production and cleansing polluted waterways and air quality in distant cities.

China’s ‘Grain for Green’ programme offered a payment for ecosystem services that engaged millions of rural households. As a result, more than 2.5 million people were lifted out of poverty, food supplies were secured, new land management practices yielded a 159 per cent increase in income over nine years in one watershed, and nearly 90,000 hectares of new farmland was created by terracing, according to World Bank figures.

However, the benefits of restoration were not well understood by the local population, possibly because of the top-down nature of the project. The technical design came under scrutiny as well, in part because of questions about whether planting trees across this arid plateau could be sustained, especially as the region’s climate entered a warming, drying period.

Getting Past the Restoration Tipping Point

In each of these successful cases, political mobilization has helped make the idea of landscape restoration a working policy, while local engagement and follow-through were key elements in putting it into practice.

The best estimates suggest deforestation is responsible for between 12 and 20 per cent of global emissions. That significant percentage of emissions could be reduced by practices that also quickly improve the lives of the people working and living in the restored landscapes.

Government, business and local stakeholders can act in their own self-interest to push past the restoration tipping point to make it a global reality.