According to a new report compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), restoring lost and damaged ecosystems – from forests and freshwaters to mangroves and wetlands – can trigger multi-million dollar returns, generate jobs and combat poverty. The report draws on thousands of ecosystem restoration projects world-wide and provides over 30 examples of initiatives that are transforming the lives of communities and countries across the globe.
Launched on the eve of World Environment Day (WED), Dead Planet, Living Planet: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Restoration for Sustainable Development underlines that far from being a tax on growth and development, many environmental investments in degraded, nature-based assets can generate substantial and multiple returns. These include restoring water flows to rivers and lakes, improved soil stability and fertility vital for agriculture and combating climate change by sequestrating and storing carbon from the atmosphere.
The report underlines that maintaining and managing intact ecosystems must be the key priority. But given that more than 60% of them – ranging from marshes and coral reefs to tropical forests and soils – are already degraded, restoration must now be an equal priority.
Repairing and rehabilitating ecosystems also generates jobs in a world where currently 1.3 billion are unemployed or underemployed while supporting international goals to substantially reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity – a key theme of 2010.
The report cites evidence that well-planned, science-based, community supported programmes can recover 25% - 44% of the original services alongside the animals, plants and other biodiversity of the former intact system. However, the report also cites cases were often well-intentioned restorations have back-fired underlining that such projects should be carried out with care and planning.
UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said at the launch of the report, “The ecological infrastructure of the planet is generating services to humanity worth by some estimates over US$70 trillion a year, perhaps substantially more. In the past these services have been invisible or near invisible in national and international accounts. This should and must change.”
“This report is aimed at bringing two fundamental messages to governments, communities and citizens… [n]amely that mismanagement of natural and nature-based assets is under cutting development on a scale that dwarfs the recent economic crisis. Two: that well-planned investments and re-investments in the restoration of these vast, natural and nature-based utilities not only has a high rate of return. But will be central, if not fundamental, to sustainability in a world of rising aspirations, populations, incomes and demands on the Earth’s natural resources,” Mr. Steiner said.
The report makes a series of recommendations including:
• Urging overseas development agencies, international finance agencies and other funders – such as regional development banks – to factor ecosystem restoration and long-term management assistance into development support, food security initiatives, job creation and poverty alleviation funding.
• One percent of GDP should be set aside annually for conservation, management and restoration of the environment and natural resources, with the precise amount linked to national circumstances.
• That ecosystem restoration is guided by experiences learnt to date to avoid unintended consequences, such as the introduction of alien invasive species and pests.
• That priority is initially given to biodiversity and ecosystem “hotspots.”
• That infrastructure projects that damage an ecosystem has funds set aside to restore a similar degraded ecosystem elsewhere in a country or community.
The Economic Case for Ecosystems
It is estimated that ecosystems deliver essential services worth between US$21 trillion and up to US$72 trillion a year – comparable to World Gross National Income in 2008 of US$58 trillion.
Wetlands, half of which have been drained over the past century often for agriculture, provide annual services of near US$7 trillion. Forested wetlands treat more wastewater per unit of energy and have up to 22 fold higher cost-benefit ratios than traditional sand filtration in treatment plants. Coastal wetlands in the United States, which among other services provide storm protection, have been valued at US$23 billion annually. In India, mangroves serving as storm barriers have been noted to reduce individual household damages from US$153 per household to an average of US$33 per household in areas with intact mangroves.
Pollination from bees and other insects provide services boosting agricultural production worth at least US$153 billion annually. Ecosystems are also central in natural pest control, indeed, many of the world’s key crops such as coffee, tea and mangoes are dependent on the pollination and pest control services of birds and insects. By some estimates projected loss of ecosystem services could lead to up to 25% loss in the world’s food production by 2050, increasing the risks of hunger.
Currently 75% of globally, usable freshwater supplies come from forests. Many cities including Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Melbourne, New York and Jakarta all rely on protected areas to provide residents with drinking water. Overall one third of the world’s 100 largest cities draw a substantial proportion of their drinking water from forest protected areas.
Over 80% of people in developing countries rely on traditional plant-based medicines for basic healthcare. Three-quarters of the world’s top-selling prescription drugs include ingredients derived from plant extracts.
Environmental degradation including ecosystem losses is augmenting the impact of natural disasters such as floods, droughts and flash floods affecting 270 million people annually and killing some 124,000 people worldwide every year, of which 85% are in Asia.
The Case for Ecosystem Restoration
The report underlines that conserving existing ecosystems is far cheaper than restoration. Effective conservation, such as that practised in many National Parks and protected areas may cost from a few tens of dollars to a few hundred dollars per hectare.
However, protected areas cover only 13%, 6% and less than 1% of the planet’s land, coastal and ocean areas. Many important ecosystems fall outside these areas. Restoration costs may be ten times higher than managing existing ecosystems, but still something of a bargain considering the returns in terms of restored nature-based services. The report suggests that compared to loss of ecosystem services, well-planned restorations may provide cost benefit ratios of 3-75 in terms of return on investment.
Initial studies compiled by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) indicate that restoration of grasslands, woodlands and forests offer some of the highest rates of returns. For example, the Turkish city of Istanbul has increased the number of people served with wastewater treatment over 20 years from a few hundred thousand to over nine million – 95% of the population – by rehabilitating and cleaning river banks, relocating polluting industries, installing water treatment works and re-establishing river-side vegetation. In Vietnam, planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves has cost just over US$1 million but saved annual expenditure on dyke maintenance of well over US$7 million.