NAIROBI – What will it cost to save the world’s forests and boost the life prospects of its seven billion people? In a few days, India will host a meeting in Hyderabad of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The assembled countries will consider how to raise the resources necessary to achieve the ambitious Aichi Biodiversity Targets, adopted two years ago at the last such meeting in Japan.
The Aichi targets call for cutting by half the rate of loss of the planet’s natural habitats, including forests, by 2020. In Hyderabad, governments will be presented with the likely costs of scaling up efforts to achieve that goal.
One assessment estimates that about $40 billion a year will be needed to halve rates of deforestation and ensure sustainable management of forests in developing countries by the target date. The cost may seem significant in a world of rising unemployment rates, with many countries still struggling with ongoing financial and economic crises, and others staring bankruptcy in the face.
But the cost of preserving the world’s biodiversity needs to be contrasted with the enormous economic and social value of forests in terms of the benefits that they provide locally and globally. Forests ensure water supplies, counter soil erosion, and safeguard an abundance of genetic resources that will become increasingly important in developing the new products, pharmaceuticals, and crop strains needed to support the lives and livelihoods of more than nine billion people by 2050. Moreover, investing in forest conservation and sustainable land use is one of the most cost-effective means of mitigating climate change.
The potential returns from targeted investments in forests are immense. Restoring just 15% of degraded forest landscapes worldwide could generate up to $85 billion worth of ecosystem services every year, mostly benefiting rural and underprivileged communities. Estimates of the value of the Mau forest complex to the Kenyan economy, for example, are $1.5 billion a year. Similar estimates are underway in Brazil, Colombia, India, and elsewhere.
The cost of inaction would be considerably higher than the required investment. The annual cost of adapting to climate change has now passed the $40 billion mark, and is expected to rise every year unless we can significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Some countries are already stepping up to the challenge. Norway is investing $3 billion to support national and international initiatives, including the UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) Program, a joint effort of three UN agencies to support developing countries’ efforts to save, sustainably manage, and restore tropical forests (a range of activities known as REDD+).
Brazil has reduced deforestation rates in the Amazon by roughly 80% since 2005, and Norway’s pledge of $1 billion is helping to achieve further reductions. Brazil’s efforts have led to perhaps the biggest emission reduction of any country in the world – at a time when deforestation accounts for around 15% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
The UN-REDD Program, launched in 2008, currently supports 44 developing countries, with 16 countries receiving direct financial and technical support.
The funding is preparing them, for example, to develop monitoring systems and build support and awareness among local communities and indigenous peoples for a fresh start to forest management.
Some are already seizing the funding opportunities under what is essentially a climate-change initiative to pursue broader sustainability goals. For example, Indonesia is seeking to establish a Green Corridor in Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo), where deforestation is not only fueling greenhouse-gas emissions, but also diminishing river flows, making it difficult in some months to transport goods by barge. Given that transportation by barge costs about $10 a ton, compared to close to $60 a ton by road, REDD+ offers a chance to hold down greenhouse-gas emissions while preserving an economically important sector.
While Norway has made the biggest commitment to UN-REDD and other initiatives to date, other donors – including the European Commission, Denmark, Japan, and Spain – are also contributing. Enlightened businesses, which will be key to meeting the 2020 funding goals, are also investing in sustainable forest management.
Countering deforestation is not without its challenges. Governance and land-tenure systems must be improved in many countries, and the risk of corruption must be addressed rigorously. In Hyderabad, countries and experts will consider how safeguards can ensure that both people and nature benefit from REDD+ activities.
Nevertheless the challenges should not mask or deflect attention from the opportunities. The UN-REDD Program is just four years old, and the best is yet to come. Whether to combat climate change or to realize wider environmental benefits, the need for enhanced financing of forests can no longer be ignored.
And there is a final imperative: 1.4 billion people currently depend for their livelihoods on forests. Annual investments of $40 billion per year could generate five million new jobs globally.
The world is struggling to fight climate change, sustain a growing global population, and find decent jobs for millions of young people. Investing in forests and biodiversity represents a root-and-branch response to these challenges. But it requires more ambitious and wider public- and private-sector support. With a price tag of around $40 billion per year, the cost of that support is, to be frank, a bargain
Achim Steiner is Executive Director of the UN Environment Program. Braulio Dias is Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.