How to become better custodians of our environment: putting a cash value on ecosystems

Climate Conversations – Let’s start treating the environment as a shared asset

Credits: Robert Voors

By Colin Chartres

It has been 20 years since the great and the good last assembled for a global summit on sustainable development. As the world descends on Brazil for the Rio+20 U.N. conference, it may be worth reflecting on what the planet will look like by Rio+40 unless a radical re-think takes hold.

According to Sir John Beddington, the British government’s chief scientific advisor, we don’t have the luxury of another 20 years of relative inaction if we want to avoid the ‘perfect storm’ of planetary collapse.

Despite the on-going financial crisis, we are entering an age of unparalleled economic development. More and more people are being pulled out of poverty and experiencing basic levels of financial security for the first time. This is surely to be welcomed. But these new participants in the global economy will consume food and energy.

By 2030, it is predicted we will need to be producing 50 percent more food, and we will need 50 percent more energy and 30 percent more fresh water. Whether that can be delivered without the wholesale destruction of natural systems is surely the greatest challenge currently facing humankind.

First the good news: Research suggests that the world’s ecosystems do have the capacity to sustainably satisfy our future demand for food. We already have the technological knowhow to drastically increase agricultural productivity. We can certainly deliver global food security without compromising the essential environmental functions that natural systems fulfil.


The bad news is that human societies have a decidedly mixed record of custodianship of their environment. Reckless exploitation of water, land and other resources has led to the calamitous collapse of local economies throughout history. To avoid this happening yet again, technological innovation will not be enough. Profound institutional and behavioural change will also be needed.

Such a vision requires a new kind of politics that is long-term and collaborative and that sees the environment not simply as a resource to be exploited, but as an asset on which humankind collectively depends. It will also need a radical new cross-sector approach to development that gets policy makers, farmers, investors and conservationists collaborating to a hitherto unrealised degree.


In the run-up to Rio+20, CGIAR, the global agricultural research partnership, has issued a call to action that could help make this vision a reality.

As a priority, we need to make sure the world can be fed. We must sustainably intensify agriculture using cheap and effective innovation. Africa, for instance, remains a vastly underproductive continent in agricultural terms. Irrigation is rare; used on less than 5 percent of cropland. Introducing simple technologies could double yields without the need to degrade soils or use more water and land.


In less developed countries it is often smallholders, the most vulnerable and risk adverse, who must face the challenges to improve productivity and meet market demands. They lack the money to invest in maintaining soil fertility, preventing erosion and increasing water productivity.

So we have to look at how poor farmers can be assisted, with access to finance, risk insurance, technologies that increase productivity of crops, livestock and fisheries and access to markets. It may mean paying them to be the stewards of natural resources – so called “payments for environmental services” (PES).

Happily this is already beginning to happen. New institutional arrangements are springing up around the world, getting the cash and innovation flowing where it is needed.

For instance in the Ecuadoran Andes, the communities of the Machángara River Basin have demonstrated that sharing of benefits between different water users can both improve livelihoods and protect the environment.

Despite absence of a legal framework, a private hydropower company and the public water company of the city of Cuenca jointly set up a River Basin Council to invest in conservation activities. The companies needed a continual flow of water to serve their customers. By paying upstream farmers not to expand agricultural land and plant more trees, thus guaranteeing a good water supply, both parties benefited.

Putting a cash value on ecosystems in this way might make some nature lovers uneasy. But the principle of making payments for environmental services makes social and economic sense. Only recently have economists begun to put a price on the environmental cost of increased development and growing populations. It is estimated that we lose up to $5 trillion in natural capital every year; more than double the financial losses sustained in the banking crash of 2008. That is a colossal market failure in anyone’s terms.

Much, much more needs to be done to nurture the green shoots of a sustainable and food-secure agricultural future. But we can make it happen. Let’s look ahead to a Rio+40 where we will be celebrating a more bountiful, just and sustainable planet.

Colin Chartres is director general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

IWMI is a member of the CGIAR Consortium. CGIAR is a global agriculture research partnership for a food secure future that is co-organising Agriculture and Rural Development Day on June 18.

Source: AlertNet