Investing in nature-rich countries is an insurance policy for all, says study

Governments are coming under pressure from environmentalists and the United Nations to adopt a goal of expanding protected areas. PHOTO: AFP

ROME (REUTERS) - If governments agree on a proposed goal to protect a larger share of the Earth's land and seas over the next decade, most of the financial burden would fall on developing countries that can ill afford it, researchers said on Wednesday (July 8).

A lack of help from rich nations would lead to a higher risk of pandemics, inequality and climate change, they warned.

More than 100 scientists and economists published what they said was the most comprehensive study yet on the potential economic benefits of increasing protected areas like national parks, to 30 per cent of the planet's surface by 2030.

"About 70-90 per cent of the implementation cost for the 30 per cent target will fall on low- and middle-income countries, far more than their domestic public-spending budgets could support," the paper said.

Developing countries are home to many of the world's most biodiverse ecosystems, from the rainforests of the Congo and Amazon basins, and mangroves along Indonesia's coastlines, to coral reefs in the Pacific.

Without international assistance to keep those healthy, "existing global economic inequalities will simply expand", the study warned.

Governments are coming under pressure from environmentalists and the United Nations to adopt a goal of expanding protected areas to at least 30 per cent of the planet by 2030, up from roughly 15 per cent today, when they gather for a global summit in China next year.

"This (coronavirus) pandemic has made it very clear that we are all connected," said Enric Sala, a study co-author and ocean explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society.

"Investing in one part of the planet is an insurance policy for all of us," he told journalists.

Developed countries could use innovative funds and other financing models that have brought in private and public donors to preserve the Peruvian Amazon, promote ecotourism in British Columbia and protect Bhutan's fragile ecosystem, Sala said.

Many environmentalists blame the emergence of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 at least partly on the destruction of forests, which has facilitated the transition of viruses from animals to humans.

Currently, about 16 per cent of land and 7 per cent of the world's oceans are in areas designated or proposed for protection, including national reserves and other conservation areas.

Increasing that would not only help reverse a rapid decline in plants and animal species and secure food and water supplies, but also lessen the impacts of climate change, scientists say.

Achieving the 30 per cent target would require an average annual investment of roughly US$140 billion (S$195 million) by 2030 - but would create US$600 billion in benefits on average per year, from improved fish stocks to avoided coastal erosion, the report said.

Anthony Waldron, a conservation researcher at the University of Cambridge and the study's lead author, said this presented a huge economic opportunity in rural and developing areas.

"They have an enormous asset base of nature, which they're not capitalising on because they lack simply the investment capital," he said, adding that if they got it, they could grow.

But if deforestation and biodiversity loss continue at today's pace, the impacts of climate change and disease "will simply get worse over time and that affects everybody", he said.

Siting protected areas near larger or wealthier human populations would generate faster revenue growth than putting them in remote locations, the report noted.

A protected area in the middle of the Antarctic, for example, would not provide much revenue because few people would be able to visit it, Waldron said.

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