There is a real lack of evidence describing the outcomes of ecosystem restoration in Europe – both in terms of the benefits that restoration provides and across different habitats. Such evidence is urgently needed to inform effective restoration policy and strategy. Despite the challenges associated with measuring restoration outcomes, data gathered and communicated effectively could demonstrate the benefits that restoration can provide and enable evidence-based decision making.
2021 is a key juncture to assess the state of knowledge describing the benefits of ecosystem restoration and the monitoring that supports it. June 2021 saw the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030). The EU are in the process of setting legally binding restoration targets as part of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030; the post-2020 global biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity will likely be agreed later this year; we are in the UN Decade of Action to accelerate progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and this is our ‘last-chance’ decade for preventing catastrophic climate change by increasing efforts to meet the UNFCCC Paris Agreement.
These global goals, frameworks and initiatives are all opportunities to highlight the importance of ecosystem restoration in helping to halt biodiversity loss, mitigate against and adapt to climate change and address other broad societal challenges. Successfully setting, advocating for and achieving national, regional and global goals and targets, however, requires a comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits restoration can provide. The benefits that flow from restoration will vary across habitats, geographies and approaches, meaning a broad evidence base is needed to inform realistic ambitions and understand likely outcomes.
A review of restoration benefits
UNEP-WCMC, the Endangered Landscapes Programme and BirdLife Europe and Central Asia set out to look for evidence to demonstrate the wide range of potential benefits that can be derived from restoring European ecosystems. Our aim was to provide policy- and decision-makers and practitioners with a synthesis of the evidence describing the types and magnitude of benefits resulting from ecosystem restoration.
To gather this evidence, in 2020 we conducted a literature review to identify and synthesise published and grey literature that measured the benefits of ecosystem restoration for terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems within Europe. We specifically searched for biodiversity, climate mitigation, climate adaptation and socio-economic benefits.
Despite widespread discussion of the importance of ecosystem restoration and its associated benefits for nature and people, we found very few studies reporting the effects of restoration projects in Europe. Given that we are at a pivotal moment for nature conservation and restoration, there is an urgent need to effectively monitor impacts and share the results of ecosystem restoration projects from across Europe.
Key findings from the review
- There is a lack of monitoring of restoration benefits within Europe.
Although there is a substantial amount of scientific research and published literature on restoration topics more broadly, we found only 37 existing studies measuring the benefits resulting from restoration in Europe. This scarcity applies across all benefits, including climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity, water quality and flood risk mitigation.
- There is a lack of communication of restoration benefits within Europe.
Where quantified evidence for the benefits of restoration does exist, it needs to be made freely available and better communicated so that policy- and decision-makers prioritise restoration in resource management policies. Communicating impacts can also help direct future research and guide the development of restoration strategies by ensuring best practice is shared and lessons are learned. Europe is lagging behind other regions in this regard, with significantly more data on measurable benefits available from North America, Asia and the tropics (Nature-based Solutions Initiative).
- Monitoring of restoration benefits is needed across all ecosystems and across land- and seascapes.
Of the literature that did measure the benefits of restoration, no studies reported the outcomes of large land- or seascape-scale restoration projects. Instead, studies or projects were often focused on a single site. We found a bias towards particular ecosystems, with two thirds of studies restoring terrestrial ecosystems, and a distinct lack of others, in particular marine ecosystems which only accounted for 14% of restoration benefits (although insufficient data were reported across all habitats). There were also very few efforts to monitor benefits in combined ecosystems across marine, terrestrial and freshwater.
- We need to monitor for multiple benefits.
85% of the studies reporting the outcomes of restoration only monitored a single benefit, in most cases biodiversity. This results in a failure to recognise the full range of benefits a restored ecosystem can provide to people. Measuring multiple benefits is important for highlighting the trade-offs of restoration, including the economic costs. This can inform policy- and decision-makers in defining the aims of restoration and understanding the true impacts and outcomes, including on the distribution of benefits and costs.
- Monitoring is needed over longer timescales.
The lack of data describing the benefits could be in part due to the long timescales needed to achieve restoration ambitions in many ecosystems, which can be decades. Restoration as a practice is also still in relative infancy. Funding and project timescales rarely match those at which ecosystems recover, meaning that many of the results of restoration are not recorded and information on the trajectory of recovery of different benefits is missed.
- We need to ensure monitoring is linked to measuring success.
The lack of studies measuring restoration benefits links to a wider issue within restoration literature of not defining or linking restoration to success or failure (Wortley et al. 2013). By not defining parameters of success and failure or monitoring restoration benefits to be able to declare success, an opportunity is missed to guide future restoration target and goal setting.
The way forward
Building on our key findings, we provide some recommendations which we hope will galvanise action towards monitoring, including on sharing the benefits arising from ecosystem restoration:
- More projects need to monitor the benefits and outcomes during and following restoration within Europe. This can be achieved using existing tools and forums, such as those developed under the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the Endangered Landscapes Programme.
- Where monitoring is currently happening, better communication is needed so that results are readily available to inform future restoration policies, strategies and initiatives. This can help ensure restoration researchers and practitioners are contributing towards initiatives beyond their own project and that their work is impactful, meaningful and of benefit to society.
- Restoration, and subsequent monitoring, is needed at the land- and seascape-scale and across multiple ecosystems in order to restore ecosystem functioning, ecological connectivity and the provision of benefits that people derive from nature. Monitoring across ecosystems, rather than individually, is needed to understand the extent to which restoration is affecting all parts of the system. Collaboration between restoration scientists and practitioners and with policy- and decision-makers, as well as all stakeholders, can help to move beyond site-specific restoration and scale up efforts.
- Monitoring is needed across multiple benefits to acknowledge the true potential of restoration, as well as any trade-offs. Including benefits such as those to human mental and physical wellbeing, the economy, sustainable production and water security could help more sectors and stakeholders understand the contribution that restoring degraded ecosystems can make. This could also increase future funding opportunities and showcase that restoration is a high return investment.
- Increased monitoring is also needed across longer timescales. Monitoring efforts need to be disaggregated from the timeframes of funding and project cycles, where 3- or 5-years is considered long-term, to reflect ecological timeframes of ecosystems, habitats and species life cycles. Monitoring plans and indicators need to be designed to allow long-term data collection, often involving low intensity or intermittent sampling, or increased use of technology such as satellite or other passive data collection. Key to achieving this is the development of sustainable finance models which enable monitoring beyond a project’s funding cycle and reflect the timescale of ecosystem
- Linking the monitoring of benefits and ecosystem restoration goals (‘success’) can help to understand the impacts of different restoration actions and strategies and identify which factors maximise different benefits, such as the techniques or methods used, the type of ecosystem or species, or the location. Understanding these factors is key to delivering the greatest benefits to people and nature can reveal the best return on investment. This information can show funders, decision makers and implementers what has been achieved by restoration projects and stimulate further effective restoration actions. Sharing the results of unsuccessful restoration is equally important, to avoid repeating costly mistakes and ensure better value for money in the future.
Ecosystem restoration has the potential to repair humanity’s relationship with nature whilst meeting multiple societal goals. To replicate and scale up restoration action, we need to monitor the impacts that ecosystem restoration is having so we can understand what works, what doesn’t and the extent of the benefits. This will hone our understanding of ecosystem restoration as a practice and help stakeholders enjoy the multiple benefits of recovered and healthy ecosystems.
By Holly Brooks (UNEP-WCMC) and Nancy Ockendon (Endangered Landscapes Programme)
This piece is part of ‘Benefits of Restoring Europe’, a joint project run by UNEP-WCMC, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia and supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme – with funding from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.
To find out more about the literature review, see our technical report.
To explore stories of restoration success, visit our written docu-series: The Rewards of Nature Restoration.
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