Unless we assign real economic value to our forests we are lost

Lee White
By Lee White

Minister of Water, Forests, Sea, the Environment charged with Climate Change and Land-use planning, Gabonese Republic.

Posted on Tuesday, 25 May 2021 15:11

In this Sept. 1, 2008 photo released by Wildlife Conservation Society on Tuesday, March 5, 2013, a male forest elephant strides across Langoue Bai, Gabon. (AP Photo/ Wildlife Conservation Society, Elizabeth M. Rogers)

Gabon has been climatically and politically one of the most stable places in Africa.

This in great part explains the exceptional biodiversity of the country, which has retained much of its cover of lush tropical rain forest over the Pleistocene era – the last 2.5 million years – when other parts of the Congo Basin transitioned to savanna as the climate became drier during the 20 ice ages our planet experienced during this period.

Gabon is surrounded by countries that are extremely susceptible to the ravages of climate change and resultant conflict and political unrest. In the same way, a 500-year phase of climate stress that occurred in Central Africa about 2,500 years ago drove the Bantu people of Cameroon and Gabon to walk to South Africa, Gabon could face a massive influx of climate refugees in coming decades.

I fear that we face a future that will see us losing the Congo Basin rain forests, releasing 80 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and tipping the planet towards a plus 5C future. The insecurity, human migration and loss of ecosystem services that would occur as deforestation increases in pace and the Congo Basin forests dwindle, and with them the rainfall they generate locally and regionally, would fuel a continental crisis spilling over into Europe and the Middle East. It takes us beyond a tipping point where ecological and climatic catastrophes will cascade out of control globally.

If we want to avoid this alternate future, which is probably only about 30 years ahead of us, we need to take stock of how we got to this point in history, adopt an action plan and act on it decisively.

How did we get here?

We did not assign the correct value to the ecosystem services that the natural resources we depend on for development provide. For centuries this was through ignorance, and at first, it had little or no impact, but following the 1972 UN Summit on the Environment, or the Earth Summit in Rio 20 years after, we cannot claim ignorance. By Rio in 1992, we knew that for every hectare of natural forest we cleared, there was a price that future generations would have to pay, that for every tonne of coal or oil we burnt, we had to absorb an equivalent amount of CO2 and somehow purify the air we breathe.

Some countries took note. Perhaps the best example is Costa Rica, whose ecosystem services began to fail as forest cover dipped towards 20% in the early 1980s. Today forest cover is back over 50% and Costa Rica is a global leader in the integration of the value of environmental services and biodiversity into national development decisions.

At Rio, President Omar Bongo of Gabon said in his declaration that “all too often in Africa we have felt obliged to develop at no matter the cost.”

He was referring to the environmental cost of bad development decisions which, often compounded by the impacts of climate change, lock countries into poverty and environmental degradation. Having participated in Stockholm and Rio, his reaction was to reform forestry to make it sustainable and create a network of national parks – actions that have completely changed the environmental trajectory of the country.

In 2011 at the Durban Climate Change COP, President Ali Bongo Ondimba steered Gabon further down the course to sustainability, ironically by pulling the country out of the UNFCCC REDD+ process.

In 2009, shortly after his election, he had banned the export of unprocessed logs from Gabon, on the basis that we would never be able to manage our forests sustainably if we continued along the tragic development model of providing cheap raw materials to the rest of the world. Just 8% of the potential value and job creation is realised in Gabon if we export logs. For a century Gabon had subsidised the development of the economies of Germany, France, Belgium, China, Malaysia and the USA, allowing them to capture over 90% of the value of our natural resources.

Having sat beside His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales with the leaders of the G20 nations in London in 2008 when a fast start package for REDD+ had been announced, and subsequently sitting for 25 hours in the small room where 20 heads of state wrote the Copenhagen Agreement, he knew that he would have been totally irresponsible if he gambled the future of the Gabonese economy and its forests on the goodwill of donor nations. He instructed us to construct a new development model, along the lines of Costa Rica, that would ensure Gabon’s economic and social development and the future of its rainforests.

If we can capture 90%, rather than 9%, of the economic value and jobs generated by our forests by exporting finished products rather than raw logs, there is a chance that our economists will start to assign the true value of our forests in their models. Today, through sound environmental stewardship, our forests absorb almost 100m tonnes of CO2 per annum over and above our total emissions. Gabon is not striving for net-zero in 2050 or 2060 – we are trying to maintain and increase our net absorptions.

The tragedy is that when an industrialist captures a ton of “dirty” carbon dioxide in a coal-fired power plant in Poland, it is worth about €60, but a pure tonne of Gabonese rain forest CO2 with climate and biodiversity co-benefits has zero value in the eyes of the international community.

How long will Gabon, Costa Rica and other similar countries have to go it alone and find our own models to assign value to nature? When will the world finally awaken to the benefits of nature-based solutions in mitigating climate change and the intrinsic and economic value of standing rainforests to the global economy and integrating natural capital into global financial strategies?

My impression is that there is some positive movement in the right direction, but it is too slow for me not to worry terribly about the world I am leaving to my teenage children.

This article is part of a thought leadership series, Natural Capital Power, that will be rolled out on the forestLAB website www.forestlab.partners from 3 June. forestLAB is a new research collaboration between the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, University of Stirling and The African Conservation Development Group.

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