With Ecosystem Restoration, Targeting Priority Locations is Key

In the fight to restore degraded natural systems across the globe, where should we begin?

A group of people volunteers takes part to planting the pine seedlings. Volunteers restore forest that burned down a few years ago. Shooting at overcast autumn day
Volunteers plant pine seedlings in a forest degraded by fire.

Mordolff / Getty Images

Ecosystem restoration is one of the key strategies we need to employ to tackle the climate crisis, ensure equality, and feed the world's population in a sustainable way. According to the IUCN, this process consists of “assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed.”

While the interest in this solution is definitely on the rise, globally, there is one consideration that is often overlooked: In the fight to restore degraded natural systems, where should we begin? 

Ecosystem restoration often focuses narrowly on specific bioregions. But global solutions require global thinking — holistic thinking. On a planet-wide scale, it means looking for priority locations for ecosystem restoration. It is on these priority areas that we need to focus our efforts, time, and resources if we are to find a fair and equitable way forward for our species and other species on Earth. 

How Do We Find Priority Locations for Ecosystem Restoration?

Finding priority locations for ecosystem restoration is a complex business, and there have been few attempts made to do so on a global scale. 

One fascinating paper, Global Priority Areas for Ecosystem Restoration, published in Nature last year, attempted to identify priority areas using a multi-criteria approach. The team looked at a range of criteria:

  • Biodiversity
  • The mitigation of climate change
  • Minimizing costs 
  • Both biodiversity and the mitigation of climate change 
  • All three: Biodiversity, mitigation of climate change, and minimizing costs

All converted lands are ranked from the highest priority (top 5%) to the lowest priority (85–100%). The study's authors estimated that restoring just 15% of agricultural and pasture lands within the highest priority areas would avoid 60% of expected extinctions, and sequester 299 GtCO2 (30% of the total atmospheric CO2 increase since pre-industrial times). 

Optimizing for biodiversity and carbon outcomes simultaneously delivers 95% of the maximum potential biodiversity benefit and 89% of the maximum carbon sequestration benefit. When the scenario is also refined for costs, the benefits for biodiversity and carbon are reduced only a small amount — 91% of potential biodiversity benefits and 82% of carbon benefits would be realized — whilst reducing costs by 27%. 

The study clearly shows that a global, integrated approach to ecosystem restoration can reap dividends – not just within a particular bioregion but on a global scale. But with a complex global picture, prioritizing and foreseeing all outcomes becomes a complex business. 

Though this study provides useful information, it has not identified specific areas for restoration within priority zones. Specific location identification is complicated by a range of other social and human factors, which must also be taken into account. We need to consider humans as well as natural systems when finding priority areas for the restoration of terrestrial biomes. 

Ecosystem services can also be used to find priority areas for ecosystem restoration. This approach takes into account the human benefits derived from a natural system. A 2018 report from researchers in Spain has looked into this issue. 

The Sinai Peninsula Restoration Project

The reason I have thinking a lot about this topic lately is that I have recently become aware of the ambitious and exciting Sinai Peninsula Ecosystem Restoration Project – Re-green the Sinai. The ramifications of ecosystem restoration in this region stretch far beyond the peninsula itself.

This synergistic project aims to restore a large-scale ecosystem, which will bring ecological benefits and advantages to the people of the region. 

Restoring vegetation on the Sinai will also bring more moisture to the wider region and it is believed to have knock-on positive effects on the larger weather systems, which cause extreme weather around the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. 

I have worked with a number of rewilding and ecosystem restoration projects around the world, and this is one of the most exciting projects I have seen, with the broadest scope in terms of the potential benefits it can bring. 

If we prioritize in terms of human and ecological impact, then I believe this project would certainly be worthy of consideration as we seek out these pinch points for urgent restoration. Though, in-depth scientific study and research are required — at a collaborative global level — to determine which areas globally should be prioritized.

Attempts have been made to identify priority areas for restoration in various different regions — such as in this example, in Brazil. But a concerted global effort is required to make sure we make the right choices. 

Global ecosystem restoration is a huge part of the solution to our global issues. But prioritization and rigor can help us make sure we make the right choices for people and the planet, and so no one is left behind as we transition to a more sustainable future. 

It is not enough to meet the United Nations targets or other goals for ecosystem restoration in terms of areas of land restored. We need to look at where exactly the restoration takes place and the wider effects of that action. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Restoration." IUNC.

  2. Strassburg, Bernardo B. N., et al. "Global Priority Areas for Ecosystem Restoration." Nature, vol. 586, no. 7831, 2020, pp. 724-729, doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2784-9

  3. Comín, Francisco A., et al. "Prioritizing Sites for Ecological Restoration Based on Ecosystem Services." Journal of Applied Ecology, vol. 55, no. 3, 2018, pp. 1155-1163, doi:10.1111/1365-2664.13061