Soil quality is declining, freshwater sources are being exploited unsustainably, the world’s forests continue to be cleared, and our climate is changing rapidly, affecting millions of people globally. Reducing our fossil fuel consumption and “greening” our physical infrastructure won’t be enough to restore our natural environment and combat climate change. More than 30% of the targets set in the Paris Accord will need to come from changes to the way we farm and the way we manage land, forestry and oceans.

Thankfully, the market for terrestrial ecosystem services (the benefits that people obtain from nature) has been growing and is poised to grow quickly as a result of the rapid proliferation of net-zero carbon commitments. Funding large-scale conservation objectives is becoming much more feasible thanks to instruments such as limited development, mitigation initiatives and the monetisation of assets such as carbon, which are providing investors with an economic incentive and giving us all grounds for optimism.

The same instruments used to value commercial real estate are now being applied to structuring conservation projects and calculating and verifying environmental and economic outcomes of ecosystem services, enabling us to place a value on the capacity of forests, oceans, soils and plants to filter water, store value and manage carbon and convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, among other common goods.

Nowhere is this need more important than in sub-Saharan Africa, a region most affected by global climate change, which has some of the highest population growth rates and some of the poorest and most agrarian communities. It also has some of the world’s richest biodiversity and most important natural carbon sinks. In fact, the Congo Basin — the second largest tropical forest, which spans 314-million hectares of old, dense, ecologically valuable primary rainforest covering 145,000km² in Central Africa, can lock in up to 30-billion tonnes of carbon (carbon accounting) — equivalent to three years’ worth of world emissions.

Placing a value on ecosystem services and rewarding the conservation of natural capital affords African nations one of the greatest opportunities for sustainable economic growth and job creation, while offering humanity a vital instrument to tackle global climate change.

The African Conservation Development Group (ACDG) is in the vanguard of placing a value on ecosystem services. By using a climate-smart, conservation-led development approach in southern Gabon’s Congo Basin, ACDG’s flagship project, Grande Mayumba, is working across agronomy, forestry, eco-tourism, infrastructure development and biodiversity conservation to uplift communities. The project will eventually create more than 4,000 jobs and serve as an economic catalyst for the development of southern Gabon, while avoiding up to 200-million tonnes of carbon emissions over 25 years. ACDG’s model is an example of how, by conserving rich natural capital areas and applying an integrated land-use approach to development, there does not need to be a trade-off between preserving natural resources and socio-economic development.

Africa’s long history of conservation agriculture offers some best practices that other parts of the world could learn from. One example is an ecosystem-based adaptation and mitigation project in Botswana’s communal rangelands. The project was designed by Conservation International in co-operation with the secretariat of the Gaborone Declaration for Sustainability in Africa and is based on a successful communal rangeland management project called Herding for Health implemented by Conservation International in SA.

A partnership between the government of Botswana and Conservation International, this project will use the collective management of livestock and ecosystems to restore Botswana’s communal rangelands, increasing the climate resilience of vulnerable populations and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This restoration will be achieved through livestock-based methods that are more than 2,000 years old and are intrinsic to local culture and critical for food security. Over eight years the project will undertake activities in 104 villages, employ and professionally train 6,000 livestock herders (eco-rangers), targeting improved management of 4.6-million hectares of rangelands.

About 247,000 individuals, 54% of them women, will directly benefit from the project, with increased climate change resilience and improved livelihoods. About 4.7-million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be reduced during project implementation and 21.5-million tonnes over 20 years. This reduction of emissions represents 47% of Botswana’s 2030 emissions reduction target.

Natural capital is living and constantly evolving. Our approaches to unlocking the vital power of nature must evolve too. We have to find ways to place an economic value on our terrestrial systems and the role trees, plants and soils play in achieving a stable climate and supporting livelihoods. If Africa’s immense natural capital is not valued and integrated in socioeconomic development plans, we run the risk of the region becoming a net source rather than a “sink” of carbon dioxide, making tackling the global climate crisis much harder. There’s huge value at stake for humanity.

• Bernstein is CEO and founder of the African Conservation Development Group, and Jansen executive secretary of the Gaborone Declaration on Sustainable Development in Africa and a director of Conservation International. 


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