Report: Review of Global Assessments of Land and Ecosystem Degradation and Their Relevance in Achieving the Land-based Aichi Biodiversity Targets

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T. Caspari, A. Alexander, B. ten Brink, L. Laestadius
Global figures on ecosystem conversion and degradation are available. Our review shows that all major ecosystems and landscapes have been the subject of global assessments of degradation and loss, either directly or indirectly. While some biomes are monitored regularly (e.g. forests by FAO, wetlands by Ramsar), some others (e.g. grasslands) have no international organization responsible for the assessment and reporting on their global state.
Wetlands are the most degraded of all major ecosystems. Globally, it has been estimated that half of the global wetlands has been converted with a quarter of the remainder being degraded. The world’s forests are close to these figures, whereas the planetary damage done to grasslands appears somewhat lower.
The “truth” on global degradation figures does not exist. Every global assessment comes with its own set of assumptions, definitions, data generation and interpretation techniques. And with its respective limitations that are often equally important to understand. Thus, existing estimates vary widely. Compiling a synopsis of existing assessments does therefore not necessarily have an added value or allow for a closer proximity to the “truth” of global degradation figures. It is equally valid to use the data from one existing global assessment such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Degradation is in the eye of the beholder. Land degradation is a context-specific and value-laden concept. A plantation forest may be a prime asset for the paper industry, but perceived as degraded by the ecologist or by native people of the area. If there is no agreement on the local level, finding consensus on what is degraded will even be harder on landscape, national, or global scale decision making. A potential solution to this problem could be to think in terms of land-use change, and only label those lands “degraded”, where all ecosystem services have been lost.
Aichi Biodiversity Target 15 may need some tweaking. Target 15 is aiming at restoring at least 15% of degraded ecosystems until 2020. Now that a straightforward and unambiguous estimation of the 100% degraded ecosystems from which 15% are to be restored does not exist, there is a need to amend or re-interpret this target. Member countries could, e.g., be encouraged to use their own degradation definition. Also, the target could relate to the somewhat more reliable estimates of “converted” rather than “degraded” ecosystems.
The global potential for ecological restoration is substantial. However, its proper determination is not a technical but a political task. The findings of this report support the notion that there is substantial land in all major terrestrial ecosystem types available for ecological restoration. In the context of the Aichi Targets, a straightforward and unambiguous estimation of the 100% degraded ecosystems from which 15% are to be restored does not exist. In fact, it is less a scientific or technical but rather a societal and political task to discuss the multiple trade-offs involved in re-converting certain landscapes under use (or abandoned) to more natural states.
Restoration benefits are high-yielding investments in sustainability. Ecological restoration is naturally a bottom-up approach, and at this stage global estimates for restoration benefits do not yet exist. Recent meta-analyses of dozens of large-scale efforts prove that restoration efforts yield net benefits and should be considered not only as profitable but also as high-yielding investments. By fostering a healthy relationship between humans and the environment, the restoration of degraded ecosystems and rehabilitation of production landscapes promotes both economic growth and social cohesion for current and future generations.