What if there was a powerful but overlooked tool that could reduce global warming by 0.5°C by the end of the century? Imagine if reversing the decline of ecosystems was good for economies. What if making our world more beautiful, also made it stronger and more resilient?
With the Paris COP21 climate negotiations happening now, media are broadcasting startling pictures of Earth's degradation: retreating glaciers, shrinking lakes, brown forests, bleached coral reefs, smoggy skies. We are seeing images of landscapes scarred by industry: deep holes in the ground from mines and coastlines marred by oil spills. The message is clear: To solve climate change, we need to shrink our collective footprint and save what's left.
But by focusing only on what we need to stop doing, we're missing one of the greatest stories of our time - and overlooking one of the greatest potential solutions at our disposal.
Because it is possible to go beyond just protecting the environment from further damage.
It is possible to restore it.
Landscape scale restoration is one of the least recognized and yet most powerful tools we have in our arsenal to bend the carbon curve in the right direction. Far from the conversation about geo-engineering that can feel hypothetical, sci-fi and future- tense, landscape restoration is safe, proven effective and shovel-ready; indeed, forests are the most effective carbon sinks on earth. And restoration can turn wasteland into thriving ecosystems that deliver an abundance of social, environmental, and economic benefits.
Consider the opportunity: Every year, according to the United Nations, 12 million hectares of land worldwide--an area half the size of the UK-- is degraded through business activity. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development estimates that this costs the economy $40 billion every year. But sustainable land-management practices could deliver up to $1.4 trillion in increased productivity. And by restoring our vast landscapes, we could reduce global warming by an estimated 0.5°C by the end of the century.
That is an astounding statistic. And it's why, as the world turns its attention to climate change, it is time for governments, businesses, and civil society to explore ways to work together to scale landscape restoration.
The movement is growing, and key organizations in Paris for COP21 have put restoration on the agenda. The Bonn Challenge aspires to restore 150 million hectares by 2020, the UNCCD aims to generate $50 billion over 20 years to rehabilitate 12 million hectares of land per year, and the New York Declaration on Forests calls for the restoration of more than 350 million hectares. At Restore the Earth Foundation, we are leading an initiative to restore 1 million acres of forested and coastal wetlands in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, which would cut America's climate footprint by an astonishing 2 percent by 2040. It would also begin to reverse the human impacts that have created the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone.
But this is just a start. And there is urgency here; it takes landscapes 30 years to reach their full carbon sequestration potential. If they are to contribute to keeping the world within the two degrees warming threshold between now and mid-century, we cannot delay; we must deploy now.
Restore the Earth's model shows a clear case for investment. Our approach measures the total social, environmental and market benefits of restoration demonstrating an expected return of $9 for every $1 invested. So for an estimated cost of purchasing, restoring and permanently conserving degraded land of $5,000 per acre, we can create $45,000 of value.
This presents an opportunity for business leaders who want to create long-term value. Already, leading companies -- including Shell, Entergy, Wells Fargo, CITGO, Veolia, Eileen Fisher and Timberland -- have invested in projects with Restore the Earth Foundation. These investments help companies reduce their climate risks, enhance their reputation, ensure their license to operate, and support the resilience of the environment and local communities.
Through my work with Restore the Earth Foundation, I have seen the power of this work first hand. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we restored native vegetation, using natural systems to grow healthy roots, remediate the soil, stop erosion, trap sediment to create more land mass, and attract marine life and mammals back to this habitat.
We also applied the model after Hurricane Katrina, the largest forestry disaster in North America, destroying 320 million trees and 5 million acres of forest. Today, these reforested areas have restored habitat, created jobs, and brought back the rich green landscape that contributes so much to the Gulf Coast communities and culture. Imagine amplifying these benefits by investing in landscape restoration globally.
With the world focused on climate change right now, let's help everyone see the forest for the trees. And let's strike a much-needed note of optimism. The conversation should not just be about reducing our impacts and saving what's left. It should also encompass repairing what's broken. By working together, we can revive our great landscapes and help ensure the long-term sustainability and resiliency of our planet. We CAN restore the earth. Let's get started.
Restore the Earth, a registered not-for-profit, works with public- and private-sector partners to restore the Earth's essential forest and wetland ecosystems. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2008, the organization has secured more than $29 million in public and private funding to reforest more than 45,000 acres along the Gulf Coast. Restore the Earth was also the first to deploy restoration on oil-soiled wetlands after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Currently, Restore the Earth is working to restore 1 million acres of degraded land in the Mississippi River Basin - North America's Amazon.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate-change issues and the conference itself. To view the entire series, visit here.