How to Invest in Smartphones and Farmlands
New Study Shows Where Ecosystem Restoration is the Best Value
A cost-benefit approach might seem obvious for your next smartphone purchase, but a recent study has applied a cost-benefit approach to farmland restoration. Just like when you purchase a new phone you consider the value of the features you can get at a given cost, this groundbreaking study considered the relative benefits of biodiversity and climate change mitigation to show where farmlands are the best value for restoration investments.
We know not all smartphones provide the same features, which is why we prefer one over the other; land is the same way. Not all are created equally, at least in terms of their biodiversity and carbon-storing value. You can think of the prioritized lands in this study as the bargain you found after weeks of holiday shopping: the greatest value for the lowest cost. Restoration of other lands is beneficial, but provides less bang for your buck.
This study shows that restoring 30% of priority farmlands identified would prevent about 70% of predicted extinctions and sequester (store) almost half of the carbon dioxide emitted since the Industrial Revolution.
That’s encouraging, but why would any farmer want to restore their land and lose yield and income in the process?
According to Professor of Forest Sciences at University of Sao Paulo, Pedro H.S. Brancalion, one of the 27 researchers to contribute to the study there is currently no incentive for the farmers, “The decisions of individual farmers will always push deforestation forward, because they always want more land for their own use. So we have a reverse incentive for continuing to push deforestation frontiers for getting individual profits.”
Fortunately, the study also shows that up to “55% of [farmlands] could be restored while maintaining current production.” This could be achieved through sustainable practices that increase yield per unit land. This yield increase enables the same net production and revenue while opening land up for restoration. It’s like if you could buy the same smartphone at a fraction of the cost without losing any fancy features; farmers can restore more than half their land (or sell for restoration efforts) while producing the same crop yield, interrupting the incentives towards deforestation.
Can we all work together? Only with global cooperation
Another challenge to turning these findings into policy is the uneven distribution of prioritized lands among countries. Prioritized lands are much more concentrated around the equator and in the poorest countries than in countries like Canada or Russia. In the wrong hands, this study could seem like proof that undeveloped countries alone hold the key to our environmental crises. However, considering the global impact of biodiversity loss and climate change, this study actually highlights the need for global cooperation in restoration efforts. Although a country may not contain a significant amount of prioritized lands, there is still much it can do for restoration through financial, scholarly, and personnel support.
Are local communities the answer?
According to Brancalion, “Small farmer group[s] or indigenous group[s]... are in a better position to deliver environmental benefits to society, but society must pay for it. The challenge now is how to create models that would financially reward the communities by the environmental services they can provide... Restoration must be a financially viable land use for communities.”
Since countries with the most prioritized lands are also often the poorest, the development of financially viable models of ecosystem restoration is crucial.
The best cost-benefit model did not consider national borders. However, the overall value of benefits per unit cost decreased significantly when the study modeled each country restoring the same proportion of its own farmlands, showing that national interests are a significant obstacle to effective restoration. Federal governments that foot the bill for ecosystem restoration or whose economies appear to suffer due to restoration often fail to prioritize substantive efforts. Just like how the profit motive drives some smartphone producers to limit the lifetime of a smartphone (the sooner it dies, the sooner you buy another), money drives many countries to limit their national restoration efforts at the expense of individuals it should serve.
The study is likely to inform new restoration goals and plans for international cooperation at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity May of 2021, which kicks off the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
The study also informs organizations like 1treellion of the value of restoration efforts in all ecosystems, not just forests. Although previous studies have focused on the value of forests in restoration efforts, this study shows that planting nonnative trees can actually do more harm than good. All ecosystems, from wetlands to forests to grasslands, are valuable to restoration efforts. This finding highlights the need for careful planning and a thorough ecological understanding of restoration efforts.
As a whole, this study shows that our restoration efforts, when based on international cooperation, prioritized lands, and financially viable models, can be a valuable investment in our future. For you, this means that the value of your tax dollars will be maximized when put towards restoration efforts. It means the cost of preventing climate change and preserving biodiversity are less than the costs of doing nothing, like exacerbated adverse weather events and economic interruption. For everyone, this research brings us a step closer towards a targeted and cooperative plan to avoid the worst effects of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Written by Grace Parker
B.A. Environmental Studies, UNC 2023
Fact checked by Tali Orad