Seeing the forest, not just the trees

A restoration project in a refugee camp in Cameroon. Abdon Awono/CIFOR
23 May 2019
Ming Chun Tang

Nature-based solutions such as ecosystem restoration will play an indispensable role in addressing climate change, but a strong economic case will need to be made to convince policymakers, investors and business leaders to place them higher on the agenda.

“Whilst ecosystems have been the foundation of our economic growth, we have systematically destroyed the wealth that makes human life on this planet possible,” declared Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of UN Environment, at a live discussion in Nairobi for the Global Landscapes Forum Kyoto on 13 May.

Deforestation and ecosystem degradation have been the focus of a major U.N. campaign on ecosystem restoration, which will run from 2021 to 2030 and was adopted by the General Assembly in March this year. The decade aims to scale up the restoration of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems worldwide to reverse degradation, conserve biodiversity, protect livelihoods and boost food security.

And as Msuya and fellow panelists in Nairobi made clear, the restoration of degraded landscapes will generate substantial economic benefits as well – but only if greater efforts are made to obtain the investments needed. “We need to push for greater financing,” Msuya emphasized, adding that “only 3 percent of the public climate finance investments are currently channeled into agriculture, forestry, land use and natural resource management. This is way too little given the daunting challenges we have.”

The benefits of ecosystem restoration are expected to significantly exceed its costs: the Bonn Challenge, an earlier goal that aims to restore 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems globally by 2030, will cost an estimated USD 800 billion but generate ecosystem services worth some USD 9 trillion, while also removing an estimated 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The question is how to turn these benefits into economic incentives for governments, local communities and other stakeholders.

“We’ve got to make a business case for restoration,” argued Tony Simons, director general of World Agroforestry (ICRAF). He raised the example of forests and wetlands, which he described as “a nightmare for African governments – we’ve got a USD 10,000 per hectare asset, and we get less than USD 100 a year from it. Governments make money off cropping, tourism and mining areas, but forestry and wetlands are the two orphans that get neglected and don’t get the investment.”

The only way to incentivize stakeholders to conserve these natural assets, he believes, is to re-price them to reflect their ecological rather than economic value. “The land is asset-rich, but with a poor annual return. So how do we transform that very valuable and rich asset into something that will generate returns to the land users, stewards, local communities and the government?”

New financing mechanisms could also be an important part of the solution, according to Elsie Attafuah, a technical advisor at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN-REDD. In addition to traditional vertical funds such as the Green Climate Fund, she also highlights the potential of green bonds and risk-based instruments, as well as innovation and knowledge management through South-South cooperation and accelerator labs. “These are ways that countries can learn and see what others are doing and be challenged to even do more,” she explained.

But an equally key element of restoration could simply be improved communication. “We at the U.N. are very verbose sometimes,” Attafuah admitted. “We have to simplify the language” and frame the issue to fit the agenda of national governments. “The Minister of Finance doesn’t want to just hear about forests. He wants to hear about employment, trade and energy. The forest and restoration agenda needs to be seen as a locomotive that links other sectors together. That’s when they begin to listen.”

Ramping up ecosystem restoration will no doubt involve bringing together experts, policymakers and activists from a wide range of areas to solve interconnected issues – for instance, not merely addressing deforestation but also examining its linkages with agriculture, mining and energy. “We don’t have essential partnerships,” said Claire Nasike, a Food for Life Campaigner with Greenpeace Africa. “You find that scientists, botanists and ecologists are working in silos.”

Forging these partnerships and breaking these silos will be key to addressing all of these issues simultaneously, she argued. “If we can all come together and work together with one objective, then it is possible for us to achieve our objectives.”



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