Preserve nature or accelerate economic growth?
It has long seemed that nations had to choose between the two options.
. And we already know how that usually ends:
Our desire to accumulate wealth and lift people out of poverty has brought the Earth to the brink of the abyss.
But we can andbalance better that dilemma.
The researchers of the world Bank They think they have found a way.
It is about cultivating more intensively and in suitable places, while preserving larger tracts of forests and other habitats that store carbon that warms the planet and favors biodiversity.
“Suppose we used all the resources at our disposal efficiently and propriately, and allocated them efficiently and propriately.
How much could be produced?” says Richard Damania, chief economist for the Bank’s sustainable development practice group.
“We reached outrageously large numbers.”
In their report, the Damania team, in collaboration with the Natural Cital Projectan association of groups focused on quantifying the value of ecosystems, has drawn a Roadm for countries to achieve.
Of course, getting it would not be an easy task.
It would require a radical reallocation of land and the widespread adoption of advanced farming practices.
But there is a way.
The best of all possible worlds
Humanity needs to protect and reclaim millions of more acres of land to offset greenhouse gas emissions, but politicians also want to raise the standard of living for their citizens, which often means destructive forms of agriculture and livestock that engulf vulnerable ecosystems.
But Bank researchers found that countries could do much better.
They calculated that they could cture 85.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxidethe equivalent of two years of global emissions at the current rate, without diminishing economic growth.
On the other hand, they could increase annual income from forestry and agriculture by $329 billion a year, thus meeting the world’s food needs until 2050 without harming the environment.
In many cases, preserving land and water contributes to the economy and helps nature at the same time.
Let’s take an example from New York City:
Its water comes from a wooded basin of thes Catskill Mountains whose maintenance costs about 167 million dollars a year.
Without it, the city would have to spend 6 billion dollars to build filtration plants whose maintenance would cost 250 million a year.
How to get more from farming
The bank’s research team has created detailed ms showing which areas would need to be reconverted and to what uses, to achieve the greatest possible efficiency, changes that would require some degree of regulation and central planning.
Producing more on smaller plots would require a combination of investments, incentives, and mandates to make it easier for farmers to access other land and better practices.
The authors explicitly reject the expropriation of land as strategy.
Some of it could be pretty straightforward.
Damania says the benefits his team estimated could be achieved by scaling up well-established techniques, such as creating buffer zones around rivers and terracing hillsides to reduce runoff.
To help small farmers get more out of their acreage, the researchers recommend better access to credit, stronger land ownership rights and direct grants for equipment such as irrigation pipes that waste less water.
There are already promising test cases.
For example, Ethiopia, where World Bank-supported programs have improved the quality of vegetation on millions of hectares through the creation of cooperatives to replant degraded forests.
Over time, the project could generate revenue through carbon reduction payments.
But adopting new farming practices and changing policies are the easier steps.
Reaching the full potential of the model would also require paying people to move to farm elsewhere or find a new job.
That’s where the real money comes in.
“When land is withdrawn or its use changed, if there are going to be losers, my personal opinion is that you have to make up losersDamania says.
“And if you don’t, you’re going to be met with resistance.”
The money is already out there.
Fortunately, there is already a great source of money available:
the $1.25 trillion in direct subsidies that governments give annually to agriculture, marine industries and fossil fuel extraction, the bank found in another report.
Those tax breaks and payments fuel deforestation, overfishing, and the overuse of resources like fertilizers, which can be toxic in large quantities.
Redirecting those financial aids would give un double impulse to countries trying to become more efficient, although this poses enormous political challenges.
As with all radical plans, it’s important to be wary of unintended consequences.
Ed Davey, director of partnerships for the Food and Land Use Coalition, who reviewed the report and generally agreed with the gist of it, said he saw two.
Firstly, increasing the intensity of agriculture can have many environmental drawbacks, currently visible in places like the Netherlands, which has achieved incredible productivity but has contaminated many of its waterways with nitrogen runoff from livestock farms.
Second, increased crop yields may increase incentives to move into protected areas, because the land becomes even more lucrative.
However, spending on law enforcement can be very profitable.
In Brazil, for example, the World Bank estimates that forests bring farmers about $20 billion in value, including rainfall, healthy soils, and reduced fire risk.
That is several times more than what Brazil spends to prevent people from logging illegally.
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