Quantify ecosystem goods and services in granular detail, and at a landscape scale, using state-of-the-art technology to heed international calls for urgent upscaling of EbA.

The EbA South project demonstrated that EbA interventions at the scale of hundreds of hectares are technically feasible in Mauritanian drylands and in Nepalese mountain forests, and at the scale of tens of hectares in mangroves, wetlands and riparian forests of the Seychelles. Whilst the EbA South project was being implemented, new scientific information emerged on the international stage showing that large-scale EbA involving ecosystem restoration was urgently required over the next ten years at scales of hundreds of millions of hectares (see e.g. the recent IPCC 1.5 report, the Bonn Challenge and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration[1]). The topic of how to upscale was consequently frequently discussed amongst EbA South stakeholders. For these stakeholders, who had worked full time for seven years with a budget of approximately 2.5 million US dollars, and had ultimately achieved several hundred hectares of EbA on the ground, it was daunting to envisage an upscaling to achieve several hundred million hectares of EbA interventions – a million times more than what the EbA South project implemented on the ground. The challenges included how to mobilise millions of people to undertake the work and how to raise the trillions of dollars required to implement the work[2].

Large-scale EbA interventions in China provided lessons and inspiration to EbA South stakeholders in terms of how to upscale EbA at the appropriate scale. In May 2019, a field trip was held in the Loess Plateau, where the Chinese government has invested approximately 2 billion US dollars in EbA over the past two decades. Just under one million hectares of highly degraded land has been restored with forests and shrublands on this plateau, with result being greatly reduced sediment loads into the Yellow River, and an end to the devastating sand/dust storms that used to occur frequently across the region. Economists have calculated that the benefits from the EbA interventions total approximately 3.5 billion US dollars per annum. The economic case, on face value for society, is exceptionally attractive. Invest 2 billion US dollars and get a return of almost double that amount per annum. China is, however, unique in many respects. Its government has taken a policy decision to make major investments in ecological infrastructure, using the best available scientific evidence, in order to build an ‘ecological civilisation’ for its citizens (http://www.cecrpa.org.cn/). The centralised political system and the nature of the social contract between citizens and the government is also unique in China, and consequently other countries are unlikely to be able to replicate the funding model and implementation model for restoration that occurred over the past two decades on the Loess Plateau. However, lessons need to be learnt wherever feasible from China on the practicalities of large-scale restoration. This is because other countries urgently need to find their own funding and implementation mechanisms to trigger extensive land use change – including EbA and ecosystem restoration – over the next decade in order to protect their citizens from climate change impacts and to capture meaningful quantities of carbon to mitigate climate change[3].

China’s experience with the Loess Plateau shows the international community that half measures should be avoided when tackling major ecosystem failures in ecosystem goods and services. The Chinese scientists were asked by the government several decades ago: given the increasing severity of rainstorms and wind speeds under climate change conditions, how can the sediment load in the Yellow River be dramatically reduced, and how can the intense, damaging sand/dust storms be halted? Their answer was that approximately 1 million hectares of highly degraded land, with largely bare soil exposed to rain and wind, needed to be restored by planting appropriate trees and shrubs. The scientists noted that half measures would not achieve the desired effect; in other words, the full million hectares needed to be restored so that very little soil was exposed to rain and wind erosion[4].

A field trip to the Loess Plateau, China, enabled Mauritanian, Nepalese, French, South African and Seychellois environmentalists to observe large scale restoration of forests over hundreds of thousands of hectares.

The critical question now facing the international community is how can other countries replicate investments in EbA over millions of hectares, like China has done on the Loess Plateau? Lessons learned from the EbA South project all point to technology as the critical catalyst required for upscaling of EbA. In particular, the use of state-of-the-art technology is required to quantify and monetise ecosystem goods and services at a landscape scale. Examples of how technology could be used to upscale EbA in the three EbA South countries are presented below. In each example, the end point of what the landscape would ultimately look like is presented first, and the means for achieving that end point are then discussed.

In Mauritania, the imagined end point, assuming no shortage of funding, is several million hectares of indigenous savanna and desert trees to the east of the capital Nouakchott that yield multiple incomes streams in non-timber forest products to local communities. Tree densities would be several thousand per hectare; by comparison the current landscape is predominantly bare soil with only tens of trees per hectare. In short, the end point for Mauritania is a landscape in which you would drive for hundreds of kilometres and view green, treed landscapes for as far as the eye can see, in what today is a brown, bare landscape with few trees. Importantly, there would be considerably greater recharge of groundwater as a result of the ecosystem restoration, the climate would be cooler, rainfall would increase as a result of the tree cover, and the damaging dust storms that currently frequently envelope Nouakchott and rural communities to the east of the city would not occur. This end point scenario is very similar to what has happened on the Loess Plateau. The Chinese have shown that it is feasible; it is now up to the global community and Mauritanians to show it can be replicated outside of China.

Two types of technology would be used in the restored landscapes. Firstly, drones connected to 5G networks[5] would provide real time data on the rate of growth of all individual trees, on the livestock densities in each hectare, on the number of tourists visiting the area, on the amount of water flowing through the landscape and into groundwater, on the number of beehives and amount of honey produced per hectare, on the amount of wood being harvested, on the amount of carbon captured by the ecosystem restoration, and on the amount of gum arabic being harvested from Acacia senegal trees[6]. Smartphone apps could also be used to augment the data collected from drones. Secondly, blockchain technology[7] would be used: for collecting socio-economic information on local communities’ livelihoods and income streams; and for monetising the ecosystem goods and services (including increased provision of water, livestock carrying capacity, tourism capacity, honey production, and gum arabic production) by connecting buyers of the goods and services directly with the individuals/companies responsible for restoring as well as maintaining the ecosystems[8].

The upfront finance for the roll-out of ecosystem restoration across millions of hectares would be in the order of billions of US dollars, and would have been provided by investors who get a return on investment through sharing in the multiple income streams generated by the restored landscape. Some of the income streams are linked to public goods and would be derived from government and local municipalities – for example performance-based payments directly linked to reduced wind erosion, reduced frequency and intensity of dust storms, and increased groundwater levels. Other income streams, such as from livestock, tourism, honey and gum arabic would be controlled by private sector companies, community trusts or even individual community members. For these income streams, the investors would have contracts in place to take a share of the income stream in order to recoup the upfront capital outlay and to make an appropriate return[9] on investment. The equitable sharing of these income streams would be achievable as a result of the high resolution quantification of the ecosystem goods/services in real time, and a flow of funds between investors, companies, community organisations and individuals that is controlled through blockchain technology and calculated through algorithms that analyse the data on ecosystem goods/services. The technology would prevent disputes between stakeholders because the data provided would be accurate and incontrovertible. The major differences between the scenario proposed above and Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) systems that have been implemented in the past is the scale of the operation (millions of hectares) and the diversity as well as granularity of the data on the ecosystem goods and services that can be achieved with state of the art technology. The size of the landscapes and the diversity and granularity of data greatly increases the number and size of incomes streams that can be accurately quantified and shared between stakeholders. This changes the entire economic landscape in terms of the size and type of investors that would be attracted to investing in ecological infrastructure.

In Nepal, the end point would be millions of hectares of temperate forests covering what was predominantly degraded, non-forested landscapes on the slopes of the Himalayas. As in Mauritania, technology would be used to quantify and monetise the ecosystem goods and services provided by the forests. The income streams for a large impact investor would derive from water, tourism, honey, medicines, fruits and timber. Hydro-electric utilities would be a particularly prominent customer in this scenario because of the considerable value generated from additional water (which increases power production) and reduced soil erosion (which reduces costs of turbine repair and replacement).

In the Seychelles, the end point would be hundreds of hectares of restored forests, wetlands and mangroves, in ecosystems which were in the past highly degraded, with either bare ground or a plant cover of predominantly invasive alien plant species. Technology would again be used to quantify and monetise the benefits from these restored ecosystems, including water purification, protection of infrastructure from flooding, groundwater recharge, reduced salinization of groundwater, timber extraction, enhanced production of sea fisheries, and tourism. Impact investors would get an attractive return on their investment through payments from a wide range of businesses and government entities. The tourism and fisheries sectors, for example, play a major role in the economy of the Seychelles. Income streams for these sectors are likely to increase considerably as the ecosystem health of mangroves in particular is improved. Many coral reef fish species breed in the mangroves, and restoration of the Seychelle’s mangroves would consequently increase the sustainable yield for the fisheries, and improve the tourists’ experiences of snorkelling and scuba diving. The end point in the Seychelles would have technology providing data on causal links between the restoration of mangroves and the increase in certain populations of fish species. It would also have sufficient data to show causal links between restored landscapes and increased numbers of tourists visiting the Seychelles. Impact investors would share in these enhanced income streams within the fisheries and tourism sectors.

[1] http://www.bonnchallenge.org/content/challenge; http://www.decadeonrestoration.org/; https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
[2] https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/can-the-sixth-extinction-be-slowed/
[3] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/; https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/massive-forest-restoration-could-greatly-slow-global-warming/
[4] Chinese scientists noted that it would have been preferable to restore the Loess Plateau using indigenous species and a range of vegetation types (grasslands on hilltops and forests on the slopes), as opposed to focussing solely on fast-growing exotic tree species. One effect of using largely exotic trees and focussing on forest rather than grassland was a drying of deep soil layers with consequences for groundwater recharge. Scientific research is currently underway to determine how to shift the current restored forest in a new ecological trajectory that improves the hydrology of the landscape and results in greater release of water from soils into rivers and aquifers.
[5] which would need to be installed by telecoms network operators to support the restoration economy of the landscape
[6] See https://cnn.it/2FLOPGh This article highlights that granular detail on a extremely diverse range of interventions and processes within a landscape (e.g. water flow, number and vigour of beehives, number of tourists visiting a particular property, rate of biomass/carbon accrual) would be feasible. The agricultural sector is managing to achieve such granularity; restoration ecologists now need to adapt it and apply it to ecosystems.
[7] Blockchain technology facilitates secure accounting of information in a digital format protecting all stakeholders involved from fraudulent activities within the database. As a result, it provides both credibility and security with regards to the information stored within the system.
[8] Private agri companies and banks in Indonesia and India are currently working with UN Environment to realise such links.
[9] The appropriate return would require extensive consultation with local stakeholders, and would need to be capped to prevent windfall profits for outside investors. Profits above a certain amount would need to be distributed to local stakeholders, and consequently an appropriate benefit-sharing mechanism would need to be developed at the outset of the project.