International Mother Earth Day is a chance to reflect on how humanity has been treating our planet, and let’s face it: we’ve been poor custodians. And while a steady stream of IPCC reports has painted a legitimately worrying picture of the current state of the planet, don’t lose hope – here's why: there are more innovative ideas for serious climate action than ever and around the world, people are working together on solutions to help repair the damage that’s been done to our fragile home.
But before we get to the exciting stuff, there’s no denying the gravity of the problem.
The Earth is facing a ‘triple planetary crisis’: climate disruption, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
“This triple crisis is threatening the well-being and survival of millions of people around the world. The building blocks of happy, healthy lives – clean water, fresh air, a stable and predictable climate – are in disarray, putting the Sustainable Development Goals in jeopardy”, the UN Secretary-General warns in a video message for Earth Day 2022.
The good news is that there is still hope, António Guterres stresses, reminding us that 50 years ago, the world came together in Stockholm for the pivotal UN Conference on the Human Environment, which kickstarted a global movement.
“Since then, we have seen what is possible when we act as one. We have shrunk the ozone hole. We have expanded protections for wildlife and ecosystems. We have ended the use of leaded fuel, preventing millions of premature deaths. And just last month, we launched a landmark global effort to prevent and end plastic pollution”.
We have proven that together, we can tackle monumental challenges.
The positive developments have not stopped there, the recently recognized right to a healthy environment is gaining traction and young people are more engaged than ever in the combat to take on our planetary threats.
“We have proven that together, we can tackle monumental challenges”, Mr. Guterres says.
Of course, much more needs to be done – and more quickly – to protect our home, but to celebrate Earth Day, we want to highlight five projects being implemented around the world right now aimed at repairing the damage we have caused.
These solutions are just some of the founding initiatives of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global rallying cry launched last year to heal our planet. It aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and ocean.
So here are 5 ways that we (humans) are working to restore our ailing Earth:
1. Converting coal mines into carbon sinks
In Appalachia, a geographical and cultural region in the eastern United States that includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia and is named after the Appalachian Mountains, the NGO Green Forests Work (GFW) is restoring forests on lands impacted by coal surface mining projects.
Surface mining is a technique used when coal is less than 200 feet underground. Large machines remove the topsoil and layers of rock and expose coal seams. Miners might also dynamite the tops of mountains and remove them to access the seams.
Once the mining is completed, what was once a forest is often converted into grasslands often composed of non-native species. This means, of course, the loss of large tracts of forested areas and the displacement and even loss of species.
To reverse this incredible damage, since 2009, Green Forests Work has been restoring mined lands by planting nearly 4 million native trees across more than 6,000 acres.
“Many mined lands are among the best places to plant trees for the purposes of mitigating climate change. Because the soils of reclaimed mined lands initially have very little organic carbon, they can serve as carbon sinks for decades, if not centuries, as the forests grow and build the soils,” Michael French, GFW Director of Operations explains to UN News.
He adds that by restoring native forests to these lands, they are restoring the ecosystem services they provide to society, including clean air and water, improved wildlife habitat, climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration, as well as a sustainable economic resource base.
“We at GFW hope that everyone is able to get out and experience the wonders of the natural world and make their own contribution to improving the world around them this Earth Day and every day,” Mr. French highlights.
2. Restoring ecosystem connectivity
Twenty years ago, a satellite photograph of Australia’s south-western corner showing the vast extent of natural vegetation lost due to human activity since the European settlement inspired a group of activists to form Gondwana Link.
The image showed how two-thirds of the vegetation in the region had been cleared across thousands of kilometres, and, over much of the agricultural region, many areas had less than 5-10 per cent of their original bushland (natural undeveloped areas) left.
They realized, however, that many biodiversity hotspots remained intact in conservation areas, although disconnected, across 1000 kilometres.
Even the largest patches of natural habitats are unable to guarantee the survival or continued evolution of species if they remain isolated from each other. Many bird and animal species are being reduced to small, isolated populations that are under stress, for example.
Unless these areas are reconnected, many species could be lost, something Godwana Link is working to prevent.
“Habitats are protected, managed, restored and reconnected throughout the climate gradient that wildlife will move along in the face of climate change, from semi-arid woodlands to tall wet forests. This work is being achieved in ways that support the aspirations of the Noongar and Ngadju people, who were dispossessed in colonial times but are now regaining the right and the ability to be land managers once again,” CEO Keith Bradby explains to UN News.
Mr. Bradby describes how significant gains have been made with the work of a broad range of groups, businesses and individuals contributing a 16-million-hectare habitat area now recognised as the Great Western Woodlands.
“Over 20,000 hectares of farmland has been purchased in the critical habitat gaps, with large swathes under restoration plantings and wildlife already returning. Our state government has announced the end of logging in our native forests”, he adds.
The work of the organization has been recognized globally as an example of what large-scale ecosystem restoration looks like.
“Every day can be Earth Day. We can do it – and the more the merrier”, says Mr. Bradby.
3. Transplanting ‘survivor’ coral fragments
The image above is from Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Belize. It shows a restored coral reef previously victim of a bleaching event and in danger of death.
Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth, harbouring 25 per cent of all marine life.
They are in danger of disappearing by the end of the century all over the world due to the rising temperature and acidity of our ocean’s consequence of climate change.
Their loss would have devastating consequences not only for marine life, but also for over a billion people globally who benefit directly or indirectly from them.
Fragments of Hope is successfully re-seeding devastated reefs by planting genetically robust, diverse and resilient corals in southern Belize.
As a diver, Lisa Carne, the organization’s founder, explains that besides massive coral bleaching events and hurricanes in the region, she saw some corals bouncing back.
“These are the stronger survivors that we are propagating and replenishing the reef with,” she tells UN News.
Since the early 2000’s, Ms. Carne and other women divers and marine biologists from the NGO have been growing healthy corals in nurseries and them transplanting them by hand in shallow water.
“Our work is important because we are striving to prevent the extinction of the Caribbean acroporids corals which are listed as critically endangered which is one step away from extinct in the wild. We think it is also important to educate and inspire people to do more to understand reefs and the threats to them such as climate change,” she explains.
Today, over 49,000 nursery-grown coral fragments have been successfully out-planted in Laughing Bird Caye National Park, turning it once again into a vibrant tourism destination with thriving corals and abundant marine life. These corals have over six years survivorship and are considered the longest documented in the Caribbean.
New nursery and out-plant sites include Moho Caye (over 11,000 corals out-planted) and South Silk Caye (over 2,000 corals out-planted).
“Our message for this Earth Day 2022 is that we as a global society need to do better. What we’ve been doing so far is not working for our planet. We often think about ecosystems and biomes on a small scale but on a larger scale, business as usual is not working, so we all need to do our part to radically change our ways to protect our planet earth,” urges Ms. Carne.
4. Restoring watersheds affected by the climate crisis in the Andes
Another example of large-scale restoration and conservation efforts is happening in the Andes mountains in South America where local communities across five different countries are working together to grow and plant native trees and protect their water sources.
“Native forests have been largely lost in the Andes over the last 500 years following the Spanish conquest. With the last Andean glaciers melting rapidly, water security is now becoming a major issue for local communities and even major South American cities,” Constatino Aucca Chutas, co-founder of the NGO Acción Andina tells UN News.
Mr. Aucca explains that native forests, especially the Polylepis species [shrub and trees that are endemic to the mid- and high-elevation regions of the tropical Andes] and wetlands help create and store large amounts of water around their roots, soils and moss.
“They are our best allies to adapt to climate change and will help secure water for our livelihoods in the next decades to come. But we have to bring them back”, he highlights.
And that’s exactly what Accion Andina is doing: by the end of 2022, they will have planted more than 6 million native trees across the Andes. Their goal is to protect and restore one million hectares of high Andean forests in the next 25 years.
“We have found a unique way to do so: we are reviving the ancient Inca traditions of “Ayni and Minka – which stands for collaboration and community services in our local Quechua culture. With our growing network of local NGO partners, we help communities protect remaining forests; we invest in local nurseries to grow new native forests; we organize community planting festivals – our renowned Queuña Raymi – to plant up to 100,000 trees in a single day; and we are supporting communities to make an additional living from these new restoration opportunities,” Mr. Aucca explains.
He says that while world leaders are still just talking about possible solutions to climate change, thousands of people are already acting on the ground.
“Mobilizing thousands of people to restore forests and achieve immediate climate action is possible… Our Mother Earth is tired of seeing all this hypocrisy, comfort and ego of the leaders who can decide and put on the ground the solutions to have a healthy planet. Local communities and the planet claim for more action, is time to take action for the sake of all of us,” Mr. Aucca urges in his message for Earth Day.
5. Restoring carbon absorbing seagrass
Seagrass provides food and shelter for many marine organisms. They are multifunctional ecosystems and are often referred as nursery habitats because they usually harbour young fish, smaller species of fish and invertebrates.
Because they are plants, seagrasses photosynthesise in the same way terrestrial plants do, using sunlight to synthetise nutrients from carbon dioxide and water and releasing oxygen.
This means that they are an essential tool in combating climate change, on top of their biological functions.
In the last 40 years, the world has lost one third of seagrass meadows due to sustain pressure from coastal development, water quality decline and of course, climate change.
Project Seagrass in the United Kingdom has been working for a decade to reverse that trend.
With the help of over 3000 volunteers, they have been able to plant over a million seagrass seeds and create awareness of the importance of these plants.
“With two full hectares of seagrass successfully restored, our organization has proved that large-scale seagrass restoration in the UK is possible. We are using a mix of cutting-edge technologies to assess sites and plan field trials”, the organization explains.
That’s not all folks
These are just five examples of the more than 50 projects registered with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. There are thousands of people and organizations already on the ground and making a difference to protect our Earth.
When the UN General Assembly meets this September, we will find out the first 10 World Restoration Flagships, the most promising examples of large-scale and long-term ecosystem restoration.
Bringing back ecosystems from the brink of degradation and loss is possible – and people around the world are already making it happen.
“Because we have only one Mother Earth. We must do everything we can to protect her”, the UN chief reminds us.