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Climate Change and the Scaling Up of Restoration: Welcome the Opportunities, Recognize the Dangers

Contributed by Paddy Woodworth, author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Ecological restoration works -- when sufficient financial and scientific resources are committed to it. The jarrah forest in SW Australia, before and after restoration, where up to 98% of species are recovered in 20 years in Alcoa Aluminium's award-winning project (Photo: Alcoa Aluminium).


The world ecological restoration movement finds itself at an unprecedented moment, as we approach our next international SER conference in Brazil. 

We are moving into unfamiliar territory, territory that offers bracing opportunities but also poses disturbing threats, both of them on a scale that we could hardly have imagined at the beginning of this century. This new territory is increasingly shaped, both physically and conceptually, by human-generated climate change. And climate change is still accelerating, despite the Paris accord, in a political context shaken by the recent eruptions of right-wing, anti-science populism. The decision this month by President Trump to pull the US out of that accord casts a dark shadow over the fragile hope that Paris offered us.

Nevertheless, a series of major international agreements over the past decade, including the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests, are a welcome sign that the restoration concept has reached the global policy mainstream. These commitments to ‘restore’ millions of hectares of degraded ecosystems, while not legally binding, are game-changers for the theory and practice of ecological restoration. The new game will bring great challenges, and very real dangers.

As we attempt to find our bearings in this rapidly expanding landscape, we can find a powerful compass in the new International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration. These standards have been elaborated by our colleagues George Gann, Tein McDonald, Kingsley Dixon and Justin Jonson, and were publicly introduced in December 2016 at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 13th Conference of the Parties, and then again, more in depth, in the previous issue of SERNews. It is very helpful, in such a rapidly changing world, that the authors stress from the outset that these Standards are “a living document that will improve and expand as the family of restoration practitioners makes use of and provides feedback on this and future editions.”

In the paragraphs that follow, I will discuss some of the challenges of maintaining these ecological restoration standards in the context of scaled-up restoration targets and climate change.

It’s important to state at the outset that very few volunteer groups, businesses, or agencies have any experience in restoring on the kinds of landscape scale envisaged by the aforementioned recent international commitments.i So scaling up is going to stretch the technical capacity of restorationists at unprecedented levels.

This is, of course, a ‘good’ problem, as it reflects the mainstreaming of the restoration idea in international policy, something SER has worked towards for decades. And therefore, as Justin Jonson argues in his article in this issue, SER members should be at the forefront of resolving the difficult issues that will arise from this mainstreaming, in many different global contexts.

You might think that demands on SER members’ technical skills would be challenge enough. But we also need to be aware of an insidious danger that could, if not judiciously addressed, tarnish the unique promise of the restoration movement. The root cause of this danger is that this recent mainstreaming of ‘restoration’ is not primarily driven, and sometimes driven not at all, by any commitment to, or understanding of, ecological restoration in the holistic sense set out originally in the SER Primer, and developed so comprehensively in the International Standards.

No, the impetus is driven largely by the desire of governments to meet climate change treaty targets, and also to regenerate agriculturally productive lands to meet ever-rising demands for food. These are absolutely legitimate, indeed absolutely necessary, aspirations for humanity’s future welfare. But governments will naturally want to meet both goals at the lowest cost possible in expertise and funding.

This means that the focus of most large-scale ‘restoration’ projects funded through the new commitments may be very narrow, unless we find effective ways to communicate the need for a much broader approach. As things stand, ‘restoration’ in these commitments often seems to mean the recovery of a single ecosystem service. It could be carbon sequestration, usually through the planting of trees with little regard to appropriate native species, or the recovery of fertile, stable soil for agriculture through revegetation, again without reference to local native biodiversity.

So it is very important that SER uses every local and international opportunity to clarify that such a narrow focus falls far short of the broad and complex vision, and the correspondingly much greater rewards on investment, of ecological restoration.

The distinctive promise of ecological restoration is to be a cutting-edge conservation strategy for the 21st century, with the vision of restoring biodiversity on degraded sites: “The process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed,” as the SER Primer expressed it, and as restated in the International Standards. To distinguish ecological restoration from other remedial land strategies is no mere semantic or academic quibble.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of biodiversity may depend on our making these distinctions clearly understood in the global public sphere. And if we fail in this endeavor, then many environmentalists, and citizens in general, will rapidly become confused and disillusioned with the restoration concept; it will become irrevocably associated with, for example, industrial forestry.

Furthermore, while this distinction between restoration and other remedial land management strategies is being made, we must also cast a critical eye on how these latter strategies are carried out. For example, we must be very wary of commercial enterprises, or state agencies, jumping on the bandwagon of payments for scaled-up ‘restoration’ to plant alien invasive trees in diverse native shrublands, therefore increasing degradation instead of reducing it.

Ecological restoration has a very important contribution to make in the struggle to decelerate climate change and reduce its impacts: restored landscapes generally sequester more greenhouse gases than degraded ones, as David Wilson and Florence Renou-Wilson point out in their article on peatlands in this issue of SERNews.

But it is vitally important that the broad and unique promise of ecological restoration as a conservation strategy is clearly distinguished from other remedial activities in the necessary haste to cope with climate change.

‘Rehabilitation,’ for example, is a legitimate and useful (when done well) improvement in the ecological health of a site, recovering some ecosystem's functions and some species previously lost to degradation. But, I stress again, it falls far short of ecological restoration and must not be categorized as such.

Regarding the International Standards and the treatment of this question, I would like to offer some feedback in the form of a caveat here. The Standards describe a ‘restorative continuum’ (pp 33-34) ranging from basic mitigation through more complex rehabilitation to full ecological restoration. This seems quite misleading, because calling all these different remedial activities ‘restorative’ blurs the very distinction we need to clarify.

I believe that the formula used in the National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia,ii which proposed (p 35) a pyramid of ‘environmental repair’ ascending from mitigation through rehabilitation to full ecological restoration, made the necessary distinctions in much sharper focus. I would suggest that the authors consider going back to this formula in the next edition of this living document.

Overall, however, the International Standards perform several invaluable functions. They offer both a lucid introduction for newcomers to ecological restoration, and a bracing refresher course for veterans. And they offer, albeit implicitly, a well-grounded framework to respond to a major conceptual challenge to ecological restoration, that presented by the ‘novel ecosystems’ theory.


What's in a name? From one perspective, Irish oak woods infested with alien invasives might look like 'novel' ecosystems, but from another we see them for what they are: chronically degraded landscapes in need of restoration (Photo: Paddy Woodworth).


This topic merits mention here because, just as the profile of restoration is being raised in the world at large, its core theoretical principles are being questioned by some of our own most distinguished colleagues.

Richard Hobbs and other leading theorists have argued forcefully that the model for ecological restoration set out in the SER Primer is somehow redundant in our era of rapid global change. They claim that so-called ‘novel ecosystems’ (an unfortunately misleading phrase, as I and others have argued elsewhere)iii are the new normal.

Last year, in a remarkable article entitled Degraded, or Just Different?iv – a title that speaks volumes – Hobbs explicitly declares that restoration, “in the sense used by SER,” can only be envisaged in contemporary conditions on a very small scale: “There will continue to be a place for efforts to restore one or two hectares of land,” he writes, relegating a thriving global practice to a minor boutique niche. On larger scales, he says, “restoration can legitimately focus on restoring functionality or ecosystem services rather than just the original biodiversity.”

I therefore fear that the policy shifts proposed by Hobbs and his colleagues play, however inadvertently, right into the hands of the political and corporate forces who would prefer to plant industrial (and usually alien) forestry plantations to meet the Bonn Challenge targets, and to achieve specific climate mitigation services, than to practice biodiverse ecological restoration.

At this extraordinary moment of opportunity for restoration, it is not only possible and desirable, but necessary and ethically imperative, for SER to advocate the maximum possible application of our International Standards to the new wave of scaled up restoration projects. Restoring ecosystem functionality and services is essential, yes, but it is not enough, and it is our job to set the bar as high as possible, not to lower it. As the Standards document itself puts it:

“Ecological restoration therefore seeks the highest and best recovery outcomes practicable to both compensate for past damage and to progressively effect an increase in the extent and healthy functionality of the planet’s imperiled ecosystems.”

Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which, according to a review in Science, “Through reflections on the primary literature and his interviews of many of the major players… skillfully dissects the arguments surrounding the purpose and direction of ecological restoration." He is the co-organiser, with Justin Jonson, of the linked symposia on ‘Big Ideas, Big Practice’ at the SER conference in Brazil in August. He will also be presenting at the ‘Restoring Wetlands into the Future’ symposium at the same conference, where his topic is ‘Braced for change, mindful of complexity, resisting ‘novelty,’ committed to restoration.'

i There are notable exceptions, of course, including the Pacto pela Restauração da Mata Atlântica in Brazil, Working for Water in South Africa, the Gondwana Link in Australia and the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project in the US have all been restoring on landscape scales for some time. These projects have much to teach us, but it is probably also fair to say that they are all themselves still on a steep learning curve.

ii A forerunner of the International Standards, published by SER Australasia in March 2016.

iii SER colleagues led by Carolina Murcia offer “A Critique of the ‘novel ecosystems’ concept” in Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29(10) · July 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2014.07.006. I analyze the theory in Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (University of Chicago Press, 2013), and return to the subject within an article in the forthcoming issue of The Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Hobbs, R. J. (2016), Degraded or just different? Perceptions and value judgments in restoration decisions. Restoration Ecology, 24: 153–158.

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