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Flora, fauna et solum: terrestrial ecosystems that underpin all life on earth

Edward Davey, Senior Programme Manager at The Prince’s International Sustainability Unit talks forests and values.

‘Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss’ — is as ambitious as it is all-encompassing.

Indeed, as so often with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community’s success or failure in the next fifteen years in advancing the cause of SDG15 Life on Land will have a significant bearing on our success or failure in meeting a number of the other goals, including those concerning food security, rural livelihoods and, of course, climate change.

Why it is important to ‘measure what matters’

The Prince’s International Sustainability Unit (ISU) has worked closely with governments, companies and NGOs over several years to encourage greater action to protect forests, restore degraded land and to cherish the world’s remaining biodiversity.  There has been a particular focus on encouraging the international community to ‘measure what matters’ in a very fundamental way vis-à-vis tropical forests, by providing significant financial support to tropical forest countries to assist them in their efforts to protect and restore their vitally important remaining forests, without which humanity and biodiversity cannot thrive.

The most structured attempt to do this has been through the promotion of the concept of REDD+, or payments to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.  While REDD+ payments for forest conservation and restoration most often can never match in like-for-like scale the true cost of the services and the value which forests constitute, they can nevertheless be a meaningful contribution in the real economy to efforts on the ground in tropical forest countries, whether from governments, communities or companies, to protect and restore forests.  To date, and since the idea’s inception in Bali in 2007, some US$9 billion has been committed to REDD+, across some 90 forested countries around the world; with scope for substantial further commitments to REDD+ finance in the years ahead, as new voluntary and compliance carbon markets (California, ICAO and others) come on line.

Forests, lands and biodiversity provide multiple benefits to humankind, however, and not simply carbon – and so it would be wise not to put all our eggs in the REDD+ basket.  Many of the values of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity are of course innate and intrinsic, and in a profound sense impossible to quantify.  What price the beauty, ecological value and sheer wondrous miraculousness of a family of forest elephants frolicking through the forests of Gabon?  How incalculably diminished will our world be without such treasures?

What can we measure?

Other benefits of our terrestrial ecosystems can, however, be measured and at least to some degree clearly quantified: for example, the value of agriculture in Latin America’s Southern Cone, to a significant degree reliant on the ‘floating rivers’ and rainfall ‘services’ provided by the Amazon Rainforest at the heart of the continent; or the impact of Indonesia’s forest fires to its GDP.

The challenge, ultimately, is to be able to make as compelling and clear an economic and business case to governments and to companies as possible that it will pay off – in the short, medium and long-term – to understand, value and measure the true economic contribution that sustainable terrestrial ecosystems play to societies, both at a local, regional and international level.  Fortunately, there is growing recognition of this case, and much hope therefore that SDG15 – with renewed effort and commitment – is within humanity’s grasp to accomplish in our, and our children’s and grand-children’s, lifetimes.

To find out more you can download The Prince’s International Sustainability Unit’s Tropical Forests review.


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