Failure to save forests will cost us more than price of action

Achim Steiner and Braulio Dias say the benefits of action far outweigh price of conservation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 3:07am

What will it cost to save the world's forests and boost the life prospects of its seven billion people? India is currently hosting a meeting in Hyderabad of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to consider how to raise the resources necessary to achieve the ambitious targets adopted two years ago.

One of the targets calls 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 US$40 billion a year will be needed to halve rates of deforestation and ensure sustainable management of forests by the target date.

The cost may seem significant in a world in the midst of an economic crisis. But it needs to be contrasted with the enormous economic and social value of forests in terms of the benefits they provide locally and globally. Forests ensure water supplies, counter soil erosion and safeguard an abundance of genetic resources that will become increasingly important. Moreover, investing in forest conservation and sustainable land use is one of the most cost-effective means of mitigating climate change.

Restoring just 15 per cent of degraded forest landscapes worldwide could generate up to US$85 billion worth of ecosystem services every year, mostly benefiting rural and underprivileged communities.

The cost of inaction would be higher than the required investment. The annual cost of adapting to climate change has now passed the US$40 billion mark, and is expected to rise.

Some countries are already stepping up to the challenge. Norway is investing US$3 billion to support initiatives that include a joint effort by three UN agencies to support developing countries' efforts to save, sustainably manage and restore tropical forests to reduce emissions. Brazil has reduced deforestation rates in the Amazon by roughly 80 per cent since 2005.

The need for enhanced financing of forests can no longer be ignored. And there is a final imperative: 1.4 billion people depend for their livelihoods on forests. Annual investments of US$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. 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 US$40 billion per year, the cost of that support is, to be frank, a bargain.

Achim Steiner is executive director of the UN Environment Programme. Braulio Dias is executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Copyright: Project Syndicate