The considerable contribution of ecosystem restoration and conservation to solve these challenges has been widely recognized. But recognizing the potential is not enough. Until now, progress and action on the global scale has been far from reaching its full potential. But times are changing and we have reasons to believe that we can restore earth’s ecosystems in the limited amount of time we have at our hands. Here are some of them.
Uniting for urgency
The world is looking into the eyes of the catastrophe and there is an unprecedented urgency to act. But a renewed and widespread global awareness of the potential of ecosystem restoration is uniting society: politicians, corporates, the public and not least the thousands of restoration practitioners on the ground. Science shows that the global restoration of forests can potentially capture up to 30% of the excess carbon accumulating in our atmosphere as a result of human activity.
With a strategy for the way forward that has been developed by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration we’re seeing a truly global movement with actionable commitments, and when the billions of dollars pledged for restoration will be released, we will get far!
We now have better tools than ever to implement and scale restoration. Why not leverage Industry 4.0 technologies for the restoration of peatlands, grasslands, coral reefs and forests? The process of restoration is so much more than getting your hands dirty on the ground (though that is a key part of it).
Disruptive technologies can enable and accelerate the ground work as well as the planning, managing and reporting of restoration: drones, satellites, machine learning, artificial intelligence and the blockchain technology are rushing to nature’s aid. These tools also help us document restoration efforts, which is crucial for learning what works and what doesn’t. That’s why at the Crowther Lab we’re focused on connecting the dots between data science and ecology.
Restoration action: building a new ecosystem
Organizations, volunteers, indigenous groups – people around the world have been restoring local ecosystems for decades. This persistent work has built the basis for an increased global awareness and the current momentum. But there’s still room to grow: we can get more people involved and restore more land. And this is changing: a wave of new initiatives and start-ups are energizing the restoration world.
There are new promising business models along the whole restoration supply chain, which ensure that restoration is not just a “hype” but rather based on a sustainable strategy. Ambitious corporate commitments to go carbon neutral include the insetting of carbon in supply chains. An example is the inclusion of trees on farms in agroforestry systems, which is increasingly seen as a profitable business opportunity. Companies like Zurich Insurance are investing in reforestation projects, Patagoniamakes climate action a corporate initiative and Microsoftis supporting projects like conserving old growth forests in the USA. This is the kind of collective action we need; we need more well-intentioned projects to reach scale, and it’s crucial that they are grounded in science.
Supporting the movement with science
Successful ecosystem restoration needs to be based on scientific knowledge. Nowadays, there are new opportunities to ensure a universal access to that science, to accelerate learning and democratize restoration know-how: big data, for one, can help to advance our understanding of ecosystems and restoration practices. We now have a range of tools readily available to collect high quality data cheaply, and a sensitized community of global restoration practitioners who want to advance science with their experience and data. Decades of research in restoration ecology and careers dedicated to the movement have provided the foundation that this action needs.
We now learn from one project in one place, and transfer this knowledge to other areas with similar characteristics. My team at Crowther Lab is committed to making restoration know-how available as widely as possible: and that is why we built Restor. With Restor, a new open data platform, we want to connect initiatives on the ground in an active and engaged network and support them with science – all clearly interpreted and understandable. As of today, data from over 15,000 locations around the world have been submitted to Restor for restoration knowledge sharing.
The foundations for scaling local restoration have been laid by global commitments. The tools to get there are being developed and rolled out. Restor is our contribution to reaching global climate and restoration goals, and it is one of many parts of the solution. But its success also depends on the engagement of the people. It is a mammoth task (or rather, a human task – let’s not rely on the mammoths for now) to restore the millions of hectares and to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.
Congrats! We’ve nearly made it to the end of a particularly challenging and exhausting year. For many, bad news – about a pandemic, political unrests, huge wildfires and as always, climate change – was even more part and parcel of their daily media consumption. But: not all is bleak. The Crowther Lab always tries to uncover and highlight hopeful and inspiring stories. So, here’s a list of recommended movies, podcasts and news articles that we’re featured in to end your year on a positive note. Some you might have already seen, but others may be worth a click now. 😉 Wishing you happy holidays and a pleasant end to 2020!
We need thousands of solutions if we want to tackle climate change.
– Constantin Zohner, Can We Cool the Planet?
And guess what? These solutions do exist! Scientists all over the world are working hard to improve technologies and find new ways of drawing down or repurposing carbon from our atmosphere. PBS Nova’s Can We Cool the Planet? takes a look at the latest advances to mitigate climate change – from direct air capture to geoengineering, to carbon neutral fuel and nature based solutions (represented by Tom Crowther, Constantin and Johan from our lab). This documentary has super fascinating insights, a hopeful tone and great explainers. What it doesn’t have? A bleak perspective, that’s for sure!
Want to learn more about nature-based solutions? Look no further: Changing, the third episode of The Age of Nature is a great start into the topic. Equipped with gorgeous visuals, this documentary explores in which ways we can work with nature to bring back biodiversity and help mitigate climate change. From the forests of Bhutan to Tom Crowther in our lab, and from Borneo’s peatland forests to Belize’s coral reefs and Antarctica’s marine life: The Age of Nature highlights all nature does for us – and what we need to protect and restore it and its biodiversity.
Alien Worlds – Netflix
What could life look like on other planets? Netflix’ Alien Worlds explores just this question. A mix of sci-fi and documentary, the series takes a closer look at what we know about how life works on our planet – and how that knowledge might be applied to other worlds out there. Our favourite, of course, is episode 3, Eden. Among other things, Tom Crowther takes you on a walk in Scotland’s Rothiemurchus Forest to take a look at the soil beneath our feet to explain the fascinating role fungi and mycelial networks play in ecosystems. What’s that? Watch to find out!
AI and machine learning constitute an enormous opportunity for scientists.
– Tom Crowther, Naratek Daily
As a global ecology lab, our main approach to better understand and address climate change is simple: look at data. Especially, big data. In an interview with Naratek Daily this spring, Tom talks about the importance of machine learning for our work at ETH Zurich and how we apply it to studying soils and forest ecosystems.
On the topic of trees: since the publication of our study on the global tree restoration potential in 2019, we have witnessed a growing interest in ecosystem restoration to help tackle the climate crisis. Indeed, conserving and restoring our ecosystems brings benefits beyond climate change mitigation. As Tom explains in the Financial Times agroforestry, for example, may result in improved agricultural yields. But of course, restoration has to be done right – that is in ecologically and socially responsible ways. And always in addition to cutting emissions, as we emphasise in this Rolling Stone article.
If tree planting is just used as an excuse to avoid cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, then it could be a real disaster.
– Tom Crowther, Rolling Stone
If you’re up for a longer read, we also recommend reading this article in The Washington Post. It covers the challenges of restoration but also shows why, despite them all, it is still an approach very much worth pursuing!
Restoring ecosystems also means restoring biodiversity. But what is biodiversity actually? How come there is so much of it in nature? If you ever wanted to learn more about biodiversity, this in-depth article inQuanta Magazineis one to check out – with great explainers from the Crowther Lab’s Dan Maynard and several other scientists on what biodiversity has to do with rock-paper-scissor games!
Collaboration, not competition, however, is the focus of this Science write-up all about the value of mycorrhizal networks of fungi for terrestrial ecosystems and how they’re affected by climate change. The article features several studies, including that of our lab’s Colin Averill, that showcase varying scenarios of how mycorrhizal associations may deprive trees of nutrients or support their drought resilience. All depends on a combination of factors involved – and on more research of what goes on below ground in the soil!
I’m fine if it’s really hard for us to achieve it. But if we are just going to give up before we even started, then that’s devastating.
– Tom Crowther, Outrage and Optimism Podcast
Prefer listening to podcasts instead of reading? No problem! Earlier this year, Tom Crowther talked with Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac and Paul Dickinson, hosts of the Outrage and Optimism podcast all about the power of nature-based solutions to tackle climate change. It’s a great episode that covers the value of scientific collaborations, the delicate balance of communicating science, the global restoration movement and how to positively cope with our fear of greenwashing. Give it a listen!
Episode 3: Why the world needs another trillion trees – House on Fire Podcast
Tree restoration has gained momentum as one of several ways to mitigate climate change. But restoring trees is not a simple one-time event: it takes time and care and goes beyond mere tree-planting. So how should we restore one trillion trees then? What kind of challenges may we run into? And how can we overcome them? Tom Crowther, Karen Holl, Pedro Brancalion and other ecology, forestry and restoration experts weigh in on an interesting conversation about the importance of biodiversity, the problem of deforestation, how to make use of natural regeneration and the need for local participation. A half hour well spent!Listen here to the House on Fire podcast.
The global restoration movement, machine learning, ecology and the power of collaboration: they all come together in Tom Crowther’s personal and inspiring talk at the launch event of TED Countdown! In an ode to the magic of biodiversity and networks, Tom elaborates on why we need to protect and restore our damaged ecosystems – not only to tackle climate change but also for the many other environmental, social and economic benefits ecosystems provide us with. One way to go forward in the future is with Restor, a new collaborative, open-data platform of ecological insights that we are excited to launch in 2021. Get a first glimpse of Restor in Tom’s speech.