The economic case for repairing damaged and degraded ecosystems



Restoring lost and damaged ecosystems-from forests and freshwaters to mangroves and wetlands-can trigger multi-million dollar returns that generate jobs and combat poverty according to a new report compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, Dead Planet, Living Planet: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Restoration for Sustainable Development, states 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 per cent 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.

Is Ecosystem Restoration Worth It?

The report cites evidence that well-planned, science-based, community supported programs can recover 25 44 per cent of the original services alongside the animals, plants and other biodiversity of the former intact system.

This is highlighted by a study on restoring degraded grasslands and lands around river systems in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains. It estimates that the project will bring back winter river flows to vulnerable communities amounting to close to 4 million cubic metres of water, cut sediment losses and store carbon.

Cost - $4.5 million over seven years; Return-up to $7.4 million a year while generating over 300 permanent, natural resource management jobs and 2.5 million person-days of work during the restoration phase.

Ecosystem Restoration is not always simple

The report however cites cases were often well-intentioned restorations have back-fired underlining that such projects should be carried out with care and planning.

For example the introduction into European waters of North American signal crayfish after over harvesting had reduced catches of native species had unexpected consequences. The imports carried a crayfish plague that has spread to native populations in 21 countries. Efforts are now underway to establish 'ark-sites' or secure sites to save the remaining indigenous populations.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: 'The ecological infrastructure of the planet is generating services to humanity worth by some estimates over $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'.

'Mismanagement of natural and nature-based assets is under cutting development on a scale that dwarfs the recent economic crisis,' he said, adding 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.'

'Restoration pays off: Wetlands and forests can be up to 22 times more effective than investing in water treatment plants,' says Christian Nellemann of UNEP's GRID-Arendal in Norway, who headed up the Rapid Response Report launched today.

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 per cent 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.

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