Is nature conservation a drain or a net contributor to the global economy?

Carving out 30 percent of the Earth’s surface for protection can be the wisest economic decision that the world will ever make as the nature sector drives the global economy.

The High Ambition Coalition for Nature, with the National Geographic Society’s Campaign for Nature and the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), recently organized a webinar titled “Making the case for protecting at least 30% of the planet by 2030: the biodiversity, climate, and economics of 30by30”, with officials and representatives of the ASEAN Member States in attendance.

The webinar’s resource persons were Costa Rica Minister of Environment and Energy Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Dr. Enric Sala, Campaign for Nature Director Brian O’Donnell. Other speakers were Professor Zakri Abdul Hamid, founding chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and co-chair the Secretariat of Malaysia’s Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council, and ACB Executive Director Theresa Mundita Lim.

In his presentation, O’Donnell gave a preview of the groundbreaking global report, which lays out the economic costs and benefits of protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030.

The report on the comprehensive study led by Anthony Waldron of Oxford University and 100 other experts, was published on 8 July 2020.

The draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which was released in January 2020, calls for the protection of 30 percent of the Earth’s surface in 10 years, or touted as “30by30”.

“Most people think that protected areas are going to be a drain on the global economy. However, this report showed that the nature sector is, in fact, a net contributor, not a drain”, O’Donnell said.

The tourism sector, which includes nature-based tourism, is one of the drivers of global economic growth, outweighing the impacts of other industries, such as agriculture, timber, or fisheries.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was growing at 4 to 6 percent annually, while agriculture and timber industries have been growing by less than 1 percent and the fisheries sector posting negative growth, O’Donnell explained.

Apart from these economic benefits, “30by30” also provides nonmonetary benefits, such as climate change mitigation, flood protection, clean water, and soil conservation.

O’Donnell said that according to the global report, which ran different scenarios of biodiversity conservation for terrestrial and marine areas, the financial and economic benefits of protecting 30 percent of the planet exceeded its costs “by a factor of 5 to 1.”

It means that for every dollar cost of nature conservation, the economic benefit is equivalent to five USD.

To meet the proposed target of protection, USD 140 billion globally every year should be set aside.

A small fraction of global GDP Minister Rodriguez did quick math and pointed out that while the figures sounded like a massive sum of money, the amount is a mere 0.008 percent of the gross world product, the combined gross national income of all the countries.

“There is no excuse for us not to mobilize resources to achieve our goal in the next 10 years”, said Rodriguez, who has been selected as the next CEO and Chair of the Global Environment Facility. Costa Rica and France are leading the High Ambition Coalition for Nature, a grouping of nations pushing for the proposed “30by30” global target.

Rodriguez spoke about how Costa Rica doubled its forest cover and, at the same time, tripled its economic growth in 30 years.

“I come from a country that has systematically invested in policy development, institutional solutions that balance nature conservation, human wellbeing, and economic development”, he said, emphasizing the “short window of opportunity to address the biodiversity collapse”.

Rodriguez underlined the correlation between establishing ecotourism protected areas and efforts to restore degraded landscapes and the country’s economy and income per capita.

According to Rodriguez, 2.5 million tourists visit the country every year and spend around 3.5 billion USD in Costa Rica’s case.

Effective management Meanwhile, Sala stressed the importance of effectively managing protected areas, saying only five percent of the world’s terrestrial protected areas and one percent of the marine protected areas are effectively managed.

“When protected areas have a higher budget, more staff, and active and effective management, they not only restore biodiversity effectively. They also provide benefits, including jobs for local people through tourism and fisheries; they bring in more economic revenues,” Sala said.

In her opening remarks, Lim said the online discussion on the science and rationale behind the proposed target would help the ASEAN region determine its contributions to the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and define its priority actions to ensure the agreed goals are met.

Lim stressed that setting aside protected areas remains one of the most effective ways to tackle biodiversity decline.

“Although we are crafting the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, we are not reinventing the wheel. The ASEAN Member States, all of which are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, has shown considerable commitment to achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, particularly Target 11, which calls for the protection of at least 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of marine areas by 2020,” Lim said.

Professor Zakri, on the other hand, noted some of the challenges of biodiversity conservation in the ASEAN region, such as poaching, lack of conservation staff, the need for coordinated efforts in transboundary protected areas, and funding for conservation programs.

The Parties’ Conference will adopt the post-2020 global biodiversity framework to the CBD in its 15th meeting, which was initially scheduled to take place in October this year, in Kunming, China.

According to the CBD Secretariat, the 15th meeting is tentatively expected to take place during the second quarter of 2021.