The theme of this week’s Earth Day on 22 April is “Restore our Earth”.  This chimes with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration which is officially launched in June and, of course, our own Revive our World campaign.

There are a series of events building up to the day itself on 22 April coinciding with the Biden Administration’s climate summit which is being live-streamed and will include a focus on nature-based solutions.

Given the ongoing destruction of the planet, there are some that argue, rather than restoration, the focus should remain on protecting our remaining natural habitats e.g. our rainforests[1], our mangroves[2], our grasslands[3].  It’s abundantly clear that we shall fail to halt the loss of biodiversity and protect our own species unless we protect our remaining critical ecosystems.  It’s why what happens in countries like Brazil or Indonesia matters.  It’s why we campaign to protect our ancient woodlands, chalk grasslands and peatlands in this country.  And it’s why the greatest challenge of our time is to transform our global economy to ensure growing prosperity of a growing human population does not result in further destruction of the natural world. 

That said, we must retain the ambition to restore the natural world where we can.  This can provide a lifeline to species and resuscitate essential services for humans – from clean water to carbon storage, flood protection, sustainable food production and inspiration.

I remain a conditional optimistic .  The optimism comes from…

…knowing that conservationists are not just documenting wildlife declines but are already successfully taking steps to Restore our Earth.  This was demonstrated at the series of virtual Earth Optimism events around the world (including at Cambridge) earlier this month.  I profiled the work that we have done restoring the uplands of the UK (but could have chosen any number of our international projects such as Gough, Gola, Harapan or Altyn Dala) while others profiled the incredible impact of the Endangered Landscapes Programme across Europe and Central Asia.   All the stories shared from around the world are still available here

…the growing belief that the political rhetoric about nature restoration will be back by substantive action (especially laws and money) at least in some parts of the world.  There is genuine political momentum (reflected in the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and the High Ambition Coalition) that is growing in the run up to the two crucial global summits on nature and climate change which are still due to be held at the end of this year.

The conditions to justify that optimism include...

…political leaders agreeing the new global plans for nature and for the climate.  We have been awaiting the UK summits for so long that it is easy to assume that everything we need will fall into place.  We now know that crucial preparatory talks will take place online this summer and there is still confidence that the meetings will, despite the restrictions created through the pandemic, still take place in Kunming in October (for Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity) and in Glasgow in November (for the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change).  We continue to do what we can through our networks to ensure the ambition and commitments in the emerging plans help to deliver a nature positive and net zero world.

translating the global agreements into national action.  Some nations are already moving on this. The European Union is currently consulting on a new nature restoration law to which BirdLife and WWF members have responded in large numbers.  Equally, governments across the UK are at various stages in committing to setting legally-binding targets for nature’s recovery with the Westminster Government the subject of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s State of Nature campaign to get a make sure the Environment Bill sets a legally binding target to begin to reverse nature’s decline by 2030.

…ending perverse subsidies that harm nature for example by reforming agriculture incentives to reward wildlife-friendly farming and ensuring all overseas development assistance support rather than undermine environmental protection objectives.   The UK Government has made some progress here for example in pledging to end support for the fossil fuel energy sector overseas, but (like the European Union) seems to be increasingly shy about reforming farm subsidies within the UK.  This remains the simplest and cost-neutral lever for governments to pull.

…influence private sector investment to help rather than hinder efforts to tackle the nature and climate emergency.   There is rightly, an increase focus on shifting the trillions of investment to finance genuinely environmentally sustainable development and within the UK the Broadway Initiative, Finance Earth and the Green Finance Institute has come up with a roadmap to unlock private investment in nature.  But there are many potholes to be avoided along the way.  For example, it has been alarming to see how European Union rules for sustainable finance may be heading in the wrong direction.  The EU is establishing a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities to help implement the European Green Deal supposedly to create security for investors, protect private investors from greenwashing, help companies to plan the transition to a green economy.  Yet, a leak from the Commission suggests that it will fail to meet these objectives because the criteria for forestry, bioenergy, and fossil gas contradict climate science.  We’ll probably know this week whether this new rules will encouraging or rule our further greenwashing.

…ensure growing public sector finance for nature drives action at home and abroad.  In addition to subsidy reform and driving private sector finance in the right direction, governments must create bespoke funds to drive nature’s recovery.  The UK Government’s £650m Nature and Climate Fund and the EU Life funds (€5.45 billion for 2020-2027) are designed to do just that while the UK government’s commitment to invest £3 billion of climate finance in nature-based solutions internationally is another welcome intervention.  The twin challenges will be to grow these funds to meet the need but also for the nature conservation sector to grow capacity and capability to spend the money in ways that have the biggest impact.  We (and I mean both NGOs and governments) should be as interested in sector capability as in the size of the funds.  If this was any other industry, I think the government would have jobs and skills programme.  We don’t have one and I think we need it.

This week’s Earth Day is chance to bring these issues into sharper focus.  The window of opportunity to act is fast closing and we need to do everything we can to get these conditions in place right now.  And that's the final condition for optimism: none of this will happen unless we change our own behaviour, change what we consume, change the way we travel and unless we maintain pressure on decision-makers to do the right thing and help revive our world. 

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* Image (from rspb-images.com) shows RSPB Forsinard which, covering 21,000 hectares, is the RSPB's largest nature reserve.  Since 2001, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry and Land Scotland, Plantlife and private land owners have been working together remove to restore 2,600 hectares blanket bog by removing the wrong trees planted in the wrong place. 

[1] The area of rainforest lost in 2019 was >3.75 million hectares

[2] 20% of mangroves has been lost in the last 25 years

[3] Nearly half of temperate grasslands and c16% of tropical grasslands have been lost to intensive agriculture

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