Conservation and protection of remaining ecosystems can no longer halt biodiversity loss on their own. We must take action to bring back nature by restoring degraded ecosystems and thus improve their health and resilience - turning the tide against biodiversity loss.
Habitats across Europe are in poor health, and ecosystem degradation is a major issue across the EU.1 Habitat fragmentation, loss and degradation as a result of land and sea use change, through e.g. agricultural intensification, grey infrastructure developments, overfishing or intensified forestry is widespread.2 Further major drivers of biodiversity loss, such as the over-exploitation of natural resources both on land and at sea, the effects of the climate crisis, pollution and invasive alien species have also contributed to the decline in quantity and quality of important ecosystems, as well as to the decline in nature's benefits to people across Europe.3 Biodiversity loss is continuing at an alarming rate. The Danube and its main tributaries have seen 80% of their wetlands disappear over the past 150 years, and longitudinal connectivity has been interrupted. Damage to these rivers has mainly been caused by diking, river regulation and damming to meet the needs of hydroelectric power, navigation, agriculture and flood prevention sectors. As ecosystems degrade, so does their capacity to provide benefits to society.
Yet, progress on ecosystem restoration has been insufficient in this past decade. The global biodiversity targets for 2020, the Aichi Targets,4 and the targets of the EU's Biodiversity Strategy for 20205 both included a commitment to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems, however, this has not even come close.6
Restoration activities hold significant potential for climate mitigation and adaptation. "Actions to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation can provide more than one third of the most cost-effective climate mitigation needed to keep global warming under 2°C by 2030".7 Restoring ecosystems such as peatlands, floodplains, coastal areas, or upland forests can also provide solutions for climate adaptation by improving water retention, providing flood and drought protection, mitigate heat or provide protection from erosion and landslides.8 In addition to major biodiversity and climate mitigation and adaptation benefits, restoration activities also provide significant social and economic benefits such as sustainable jobs for local communities or recreation opportunities, and can contribute to our overall health and wellbeing, including by enhancing our resilience against future pandemics9 and through the provision of vital ecosystem services.10
WWF Central and Eastern Europe has been working to restore nature in the Danube- Carpathian region for two decades by reforesting riparian forests, protecting and bringing back critically endangered sturgeon populations, protecting large carnivore habitat and reducing human-large carnivore conflict, and restoring wetlands.
Bringing wetlands back to life in Garla Mare, Romania
The Living Danube Partnership (LDP) is an eight year partnership to restore vital wetlands and floodplains along the Danube River and its tributaries. WWF Central and Eastern Europe (WWF-CEE) work is being done as part of The Coca-Cola Foundation-supported Living Danube Partnership and in cooperation with the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR). The ambitious programme aims to increase the river capacity by the equivalent of 4800 Olympic-sized swimming pools (12 million m3) and to restore over 7,422 football pitches worth of wetland habitat (53km2) by the end of 2021. One of the LDP restoration sites is the 450 hectare Gârla Mare-Vrata wetland in Romania.
Restoration of the Gârla Mare-Vrata wetland by reconnecting this area to the Danube River will boost the area's rich biodiversity and contribute to building climate resilience and flood and water management in the area. The restoration is expected to increase water retention capacity by 5.2 million m3, restore a more natural flow regime across the marsh, help to reduce the impact of flooding on local communities, restore and maintain biodiversity especially of the habitats necessary for fish for spawning, and provide ecotourism and fishing opportunities. The project will be completed by the end of June 2021.
Restoration of riparian forests in Bulgaria
WWF-Bulgaria has been breathing new life into the 28000 m? riverside area near Stamboliyski along the Maritza River, once the site of an illegal landfill. The organisation planted twelve thousand saplings and seeds of tree species adapted to the local environment in November 2019, including white willow, black and white poplar, ash, black alder, elm and Old World sycamore. All of them are suitable for alluvial soils and capable of withstanding temporary floods. In March, 2020 WWF-Bulgaria planted 1000 Common oak (Quercus robur) acorns in among the new saplings planted the previous winter. The team of environmentalists, local businesses and volunteers planted 300 more young black alder seedlings last month. The final goal is to turn the site into a new riparian forest.
Riparian forests are forested or wooded areas of land adjacent to a body of water, and are extremely valuable because they strengthen banks, limit erosion, absorb dust, improve water quality, prevent floods, and maintain habitats and eco-corridors for very rare plants and animals. Riparian forests currently represent only 0,5% of the forested area in Bulgaria.
EU Nature Restoration Law
The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 aims to put Europe's biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030 and to encourage global action so that by 2050, all of the world's ecosystems are restored, resilient and adequately protected. To help halt and reverse biodiversity loss, the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 outlines an EU Nature Restoration Plan. A key element of this plan is a commitment by the Commission to propose binding EU nature restoration targets in 2021. The aim is to restore degraded ecosystems, in particular those with the most potential to capture and store carbon and to prevent and reduce the impact on natural disasters.
The EU must adopt a law that enables landscape-level restoration of high-quality nature and which leads in due time to biodiversity rich and functioning habitats. In the case of Central and Eastern European countries, better use of funding, economic incentives and research are very important, yet will be insufficient without legally binding restoration targets. The law should include a target for CO2 removal by restored natural habitats acting as sinks, separate from the 2030 emissions reduction target. The future EU Nature Restoration Law should restore at least 15% of all rivers to a free-flowing state by 2030 through inter alia barrier removal and floodplain restoration; including the development of binding targets for restoration of wetlands and interconnected waterbodies with high biodiversity or biodiversity potential. Moreover, the law must upscale such action to restore the EU´s priority forest habitats. This can be achieved by promoting the natural regeneration of forests involving a diversity of native European tree species best adapted to the current and future climate of the region. Therefore, we call for the ecological restoration of 10% of all forests in the CEE Region (2.4 mil. ha.) and for reforesting an additional 2.4 million hectares of degraded land in CEE using native species and local provenances.
Only by conserving and restoring our rivers, lakes, wetlands and forests can we hope to ensure water and a stable climate for all - people and nature. This Earth Day, world leaders must urgently accelerate their efforts to restore nature and tackle the climate crisis. We can still put our planet on a path to recovery.