December 7, 2008, International Herald Tribune: Managing our investment in nature


Managing our investment in nature

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While economists are developing solutions to the economic crisis, they are not considering investment, at least so far, in the values of nature. Nature's provision of clean water, pollination, food and fiber are discounted as free services. Even in the best of times, investments in nature conservation and restoration get low priority.

Nature, of course, is not like a bank looking for a bailout, but when we accept the impoverishment of biological diversity, we compromise future options and risk losing the ecological services we take for granted. Nature can be restored, however, and it can yield incredible benefits, but actions have to be real, massive and must start now.

In the coming days, two major global gatherings will debate key issues of our time: climate change, global development and poverty reduction. The conferences will provide a definitive look at our relationship with nature and how and what we produce and consume. It is vital that these two conferences integrate the issues of nature and development - not consider them in isolation - and that global economic solutions recognize the values of nature.

In Poznan, Poland, experts are meeting to continue discussions toward a post-Kyoto agreement that is complicated by factors such as the rapidly growing economies in China, India, Russia and Brazil, and the increasing awareness that combating climate change will require concessions and significant lifestyle changes.

Meanwhile, in Doha, Qatar, the United Nations will host a conference on Financing for Development. At the Monterrey conference in 2002, governments confirmed their target for development funding of 0.7 percent of gross national product. Sadly, many rich countries have not met this target. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also just released an updated report, "Aid targets slipping out of reach," whose pessimistic title suggests that the future for development finance is not bright.

Governments are looking for ways to stimulate the economy. The objective of any economic jolt must diminish greenhouse gas emissions and should consider the protection and restoration of ecosystems as well as provide for effectively managed protected areas for species.

Similarly, decisions on investment for development and poverty reduction should not play second fiddle to considerations of nature. Achieving sustainable development is vital to long-term economic global stability, but it can only succeed if it is built upon well-managed environmental infrastructure.

Rather than looking to traditional ways to boost consumption, let us use stimulant investments for more efficient energy use, to improve the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Working with nature assures the safest, most efficient and cheapest solutions.

This would not be the first time decision-makers have turned to the environment to solve a problem. Uganda, for example, uses wetlands to treat wastewater for Kampala. And a decision by New York City officials to conserve a watershed in the Catskills at a cost of $1.5 billion was a bargain compared to the estimated cost of as much as $8 billion to construct new filtration plants.

The value of nature's services has been catalogued many times and includes a value of $270 billion per year for global forest products or more than $60 billion in the growing carbon market.

We already have centuries of experience in managing the environment to produce the services we need. But the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warned us that more than half of nature's services are "endangered." If we want them to continue to support us, now is the time to invest in our environment and restore the benefits we often take for granted. We are about to witness a wave of public spending on an unprecedented scale. Let's make sure that the planned benefit to economies will have an equally positive impact on nature, its ecosystems and species. In so doing we will protect nature's capacity to mitigate climate change and provide for holistically our children and their children for years to come.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre is director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Nikita Lopoukhine is chairman of the union's World Commission on Protected Areas.

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