Ecosystems offer solutions to many urban problems such as air purification, cooling, and removing CO2. Could it be time to extend traditional rural protections out to urban areas for a win-win result for humans and nature?
From 7 December 2022 in Montreal, Canada, parties from around the world including governments and other key stakeholders have been gathering to agree on a new set of goals expected to guide global action to halt and reverse nature loss within this decade, ending 2030. Indeed, the period 2021–2030 was declared by the United Nations General Assembly as the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, or simply the “UN Decade”.
This UN Decade was declared in recognition of the extensive degradation that ecosystems continue to experience. According to the conclusions of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services nature, and its vital contributions to people - which together embody biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services - are deteriorating worldwide. This is evident in findings of numerous studies around the world that indicate a sharp decline in pollinators like bees (affecting pollination of over 75% of global food crop types), deterioration of fresh water sources and soil health which support lives and crops respectively, and other loss of forest cover which is key for air cycling and mitigation of climate change.
Ecosystem and biodiversity restoration are broadly defined as the process of halting and reversing degradation, resulting in improved ecosystem services and recovered biodiversity. This is needed to secure our own health and well-being as humans alongside that of the planet, an approach commonly referred to as restoration for people and nature.
There is a global clamour for a shared vision of ecosystem restoration, not just to conserve biodiversity but to sustain the ecosystem goods and services that we draw from various ecosystems across our landscapes, and that are critical for our survival and shared prosperity. Ecosystem restoration encompasses a wide range of actions and practices, depending on local socio-cultural contexts, choices and realities. This informs the push for a comprehensive, balanced, and practical post-2020 global biodiversity framework at the COP 15 whose adoption can address the key drivers of nature loss.
Prioritisation of urban spaces
In the vastly complicated international negotiations to agree a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) progressing in Montreal, we need to consider cities and urban areas as spaces with the greatest interaction between humans and nature. They are a key frontier in ecosystem restoration and biodiversity conservation due to their ability to greatly impact the ecosystems and biodiversity stretching vast distances beyond their boundaries. Traditionally, in East Africa and the entire continent at large, conservation focused on ‘protected areas’ in rural contexts, often targeting attractive wildlife species associated with the tourism sector and selling the valuable ‘wild experience’. The focus on ecosystem and biodiversity conservation would do well to move on into locations with intense human–nature interaction like cities to promote effective safeguards for more species while delivering direly needed ecosystem services to more people.
The UNEP, in its pre-conference messaging indicated that one of the key issues that need addressing is fragmentation and land-use changes – driven by agriculture and urban sprawl – which are driving 80 per cent of biodiversity loss in many areas. This is a real experience in Kenya, for example, where urban growth stands at nearly 30% with over 0.5% increase every year. While urban sprawl and informal settlements increase around major towns, fragmentation and conversion of the landscape is at its peak, a situation relatable to many other countries around Africa. Ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss is greatest within and around such urban areas. This suggests that the achievement of SDG 15 - Life on Land will benefit significantly from locally-led urban nature-based solutions integrated across society and development sectors. The goals and targets on ecosystems and biodiversity will have to be realistically aligned to the interests and wellbeing of current and future urban populations and spaces for progress.
Recommendations for achieving biodiversity targets
Some recommendations can be made towards the achievement of suggested Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework targets in the urban context as follows:
Target: Reduce nutrients lost to the environment by at least half, pesticides by at least two-thirds, and eliminate the discharge of plastic waste.
Urban areas are notorious for waste generation and management problems. By involving local urban communities in planning for waste management and developing sustainable value chains on waste that promote a circular economy in that sector, significant progress toward this target can be achieved.
Target: Use ecosystem-based approaches to contribute to mitigation and adaptation to climate change, contributing at least 10 GtCO2e per year to mitigation; and ensure that all mitigation and adaptation efforts avoid negative impacts on biodiversity.
Urban populations in Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia are some of the most vulnerable to climate impact, particularly flooding, which often causes loss of life and property, especially in poorly planned or illegal settlements, and droughts, which are a major impediment to access to clean water in urban areas. Community-led nature-based solutions to climate impacts, e.g., ecosystem-based flood management infrastructure based on riparian area protection and integrated green spaces, are key to achieving adaptation and urban resilience.
Target: Redirect, repurpose, reform or eliminate incentives harmful to biodiversity in a just and equitable way, reducing them by at least $500 billion per year.
Previously robust green spaces and ecosystems in and around cities and urban areas are systematically being lost bit by bit to unplanned development, reclamation (e.g., wetlands), illegal or irregular land acquisition for real estate development, and huge public sector infrastructural projects. This trend is mainly driven by economic incentives, nature-insensitive urban planning, and slack deterrent measures. In many cases, corruption also plays a part, with significant negative impact on urban ecosystems and their ability to sustain services to humans and maintain their biodiversity. The post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework should provide a relevant foundation on which policy and practice actions can be evolved to achieve this target in urban settings.
About the author:
Hausner Wendo is a climate resilience and environmental sustainability specialist with over 11 years of intersectional experience on landscape restoration, climate risk management, socio-ecological resilience, climate adaptation and devolved climate finance. He previously worked for World Vision in Kenya, the International Institute for Environment and Development, Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, VSF Germany and Wetlands International. He has interests in socio-ecological sustainability through landscape approaches, climate risk management and adaptation.