World Environment Day: We must conserve and restore our ecosystems, for the sake of future generations

Editor’s Note: Imran Khan is Prime Minister of Pakistan, which is hosting World Environment Day 2021 in partnership with the UN Environment Programme. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Today the sites remain, but Lahore is not the same. Cars and concrete buildings replace the sprawling mango and guava trees across the city, while previously clean canals are tarnished with countless single-use plastic water sachets.

Congested and polluted urban spaces are not just ugly, they also pose serious health and economic risks, with plastic pollution penetrating water sources and with toxic fine sulfur particles flowing in the air. As cities lose their vegetation and encroach into forests that surround them, they become more vulnerable to floods, which Pakistan is all too familiar with. These and other extreme weather events proliferate as a result of a changing climate, creating untold suffering, loss of property, and damage to infrastructure.

Sadly, this goes beyond cities. The whole of Pakistan — with its rich landscapes and biodiversity — has become one of the countries most threatened by climate change. All its ecosystems are degrading as a result of human actions.

What is true for Pakistan is true for the world at large. One-third of global farmlands are highly degraded today, partially due to the misuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and the creation of monocultural landscapes. Forests have been disappearing at alarming rates in Pakistan and across the planet. Global economic development, food security, and peace are similarly threatened by the degradation of freshwater sources, oceans, mountains, grasslands and savannahs, and peatlands.

Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

Historically, we have turned to one solution for environmental problems: protection of our remaining natural treasures. Pakistan’s growing number of protected areas count snow leopards, wolves, ratels, gazelles, rare Sindh wild goats, and Marco Polo Sheep among their 177 mammal and 660 bird species. We were not misguided: such conservation investments are playing a crucial part in making peace with nature. In the past decade alone, humanity has made major progress towards the Convention on Biological Diversity’s internationally agreed target to protect at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas.
Such investments not only save flora and fauna, but increasingly benefit ordinary people. The Protected Area Initiative I have launched to develop 15 model areas across Pakistan not only conserves over 2,818 square miles of land area, but also generates over 5,500 green jobs.

Yet, we must recognize that by now, humanity’s war against nature has gone too far for conservation to be enough. If we stand a chance to meet the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, we must also repair some of what has been broken.

That is why Pakistan is honored to host World Environment Day 2021 with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which this year serves as the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021 — 2030.
In this picture take on May 17, 2018, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa forest department guards walk in a tree plantation in Heroshah District in northwest Pakistan.
That is also why the government of Pakistan is already in the midst of one of the world’s most ambitious efforts to expand and restore its forests, having already planted 1 billion trees and mangroves as part of its 10 billion tree drive.
Furthermore, Pakistan’s mangrove coverage has increased by 300% over the past decade, making it the world’s only country with an expanding mangrove cover. During the first phase of the Bonn Challenge 2020, Pakistan pledged to restore 865,000 acres of degraded landscapes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province — a target already surpassed. Now we voluntarily pledge a much larger national target under the Bonn Challenge for restoring almost 2.5 million acres of degraded/deforested lands across the country by 2023, including in cities, where they help bring down temperatures, filter the air and water, and improve people’s mental being.
How Sri Lanka's mangrove forests can save lives
Here too, social and environmental justice must go hand in hand. Our ecosystem restoration campaign is providing some of our poorest citizens with an income. Our nature-focused green stimulus has already generated over 85,000 nature jobs during the pandemic and is aiming for another 100,000 by the end of 2021.
To achieve restoration at the required scale, governments and financial institutions must both engage innovatively. Indeed, Pakistan is presently working with international creditors on a debt-for-nature swap deal, in which relief will be linked to achievements in biodiversity conservation. Pakistan also recently floated the country’s first Green bond, amounting to $500 million, which was well received in the global market.

We’ve been decimating Earth’s natural resources for generations, but the good news is that nature has an extraordinary capacity for renewal. For future generations to be able to relish the beauty of Lahore’s gardens as we did as children, but above all for their health, prosperity and peace, we must devote the years ahead to conserving that which is whole and restoring that which is broken.

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