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Nature is An Economic Winner for COVID-19 Recovery

This is not “pie in the sky,” as you might think. It is exactly what the European Commission has proposed as the basis for a €750 billion “European Green Deal.” The package would include major investments in protecting and restoring forests, soils, wetlands, and rivers as well as transforming agricultural practices to make them more sustainable. Europe's “Green Deal” is far from a done deal; a political process is just beginning during which vested interests will undoubtedly push to water it down. But it is an example of the kind of longer-term, visionary thinking that is critically needed at this moment. As countries look to build back better after the coronavirus pandemic, investments in protecting and restoring nature can deliver significant economic returns and employment benefits at a time when both are urgently needed.

An Unprecedented Global Economic Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had significant negative impacts on economic well-being around the world. Alongside the grim toll of lives lost and upended by the pandemic, unemployment has spiked, economic growth forecasts have been revised downward, and supply chains have been disrupted. The pandemic has led to a major crisis for the global economy and for individual countries struggling to sustain growth or continue progress on their development trajectories.

As countries focus on addressing the wrenching effects of the coronavirus pandemic, other global priorities remain critically important. We are still on track for at least 2o Celsius of global warming, and the various effects of climate change are already with us — from rising temperatures to more frequent and intense storms and droughts. More than one million species are threatened with extinction. Emerging evidence links the transmission of zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, to deforestation and land degradation.

Countries are responding to the economic impacts of COVID-19 by allocating trillions of dollars to fiscal stimulus packages and beginning to develop longer-term economic recovery programs. According to the International Monetary Fund, about US$9 trillion in fiscal support had been announced as of May 2020. The United States has agreed to a series of economic stimulus packages worth more than $3 trillion; Japan has committed more than $2 trillion. Yet preliminary analysis shows that few of these stimulus responses can be described as “green.” Indeed, many initial responses are more likely to contribute to further environmental and climate problems (see figure below).

Five Action Areas for Restoring Ecosystems and Economies

Almost a quarter of the world’s land area has been degraded over the past 50 years, costing the world an estimated $6.3 trillion a year (8.3 percent of global GDP in 2016) in ecosystem service value. Restoration activities, from “rewilding” ecosystems to regenerating farmland, offer a diverse array of economic prospects. For example, they generate an estimated $7 to $30 in benefits for every dollar invested. Below are five key action areas for COVID-19 stimulus efforts where restoration activities can deliver economic and many other benefits.

  1. Restore agricultural land. World Resources Institute research shows that restoring 160 million hectares of degraded agricultural land could generate $84 billion in annual economic benefits to national and local economies. Such efforts could boost smallholder farmers’ incomes in developing countries by an estimated $35 billion to $40 billion per year. This could also provide additional food for nearly 200 million people at a time when concerns are rising about food security impacts from COVID-19-related economic dislocation. In Niger, farmer-managed natural regeneration efforts (which involve encouraging trees to regrow on farms while stabilizing soils to reduce erosion) already generate $280 million per year in ecosystem benefits and yield increases, which provide food for 2.5 million people.
  2. Restore forests. Restoring degraded forests has significant economic potential in many countries. In the United States, the “restoration economy” already generates an estimated $9.5 billion in annual economic output and directly supports more than 125,000 jobs. An annual federal investment of $4 billion to $4.5 billion could more than double that — creating more than 150,000 jobs per year, three times as many jobs as logging currently supports and many more jobs per dollar invested than other industries. These jobs include foresters, botanists, technicians, and laborers. Maintaining this investment over 20 years could restore up to 60 billion trees by restocking degraded forests as well as establishing agroforestry and silvo-pasture systems, expanding urban forests, and reforesting non-agricultural lands. These opportunities, which are found mostly on private lands, could support underserved rural and urban communities by bringing $6 billion to $12 billion per year in economic growth.
  3. Leverage existing jobs programs. Major public works and rural employment programs in many developing countries, from Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Nets Program to India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, already include a strong focus on land and water management, reforestation, and soil conservation. They are a good existing platform from which to generate rural jobs that restore degraded ecosystems and increase climate resilience. Some countries have already taken advantage of opportunities to leverage existing programs in their COVID-19 response packages. In Pakistan, for instance, more than 60,000 unemployed laborers are being paid to set up tree nurseries, plant trees, and monitor forests through the country’s ongoing 10 Billion Tree Tsunami program.
  4. Link economic support with environmental management. Governments can adopt innovative approaches that link direct economic support to rural communities and natural resource users with improvements in environmental management. In Australia, for instance, the state of Queensland established a $345-million Land Restoration Fund offering additional revenue for farmers adopting practices that reduce water consumption and runoff, contributing to diversified income, increased land value, greater productivity, and higher employment.
  5. Manage and protect natural areas. Alongside restoration, there are strong employment and other economic benefits to directing recovery funds to the management and conservation of natural areas. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimated during the previous global financial crisis that investments in sustainable forest management could create 10 million new jobs worldwide. Protected areas directly generate jobs associated with protection and management of those areas, as well as indirectly in the tourism sector. In Europe, the Natura 2000 Network of protected areas supports 4.4 million jobs, while providing ecosystem services and socioeconomic benefits worth $226 billion to $339 billion per year. The Great American Outdoors Act, which was approved by the US Senate with bipartisan support on June 17, would provide $3 billion to restore parks and support land and water conservation; it would create at least 100,000 jobs, according to US Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), one of its chief sponsors.

Further reading from UNCCD Library :

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