Investing in environmental initiatives can have major economic benefits and aid development in poorer countries according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Program. The report, released Thursday in Nairobi, Kenya, says restoring damaged eco-systems can trigger multimillion dollar returns, generate jobs and combat poverty.
The U.N. report says eco-systems are the natural infrastructure upon which we all depend. Their crucial services range from food and medicines, to regulating water and protecting against extreme weather.
Speaking to journalists in Nairobi, UNEP Deputy Director Tim Kasten said governments have been overlooking the financial benefits they can also offer.
"The value of these services goes beyond what we consider to be real economic value," he said. "Nonetheless, we do need to take into account the economic value and speak the language that decision makers often speak, which is the language of economy."
With around two-thirds of the world's eco-systems damaged, the report says it is not enough to simply protect those that remain. The U.N. is calling on world leaders to invest in restoration projects to re-establish as many of these natural functions as possible.
The report highlights restoring water flows to rivers and lakes, improving the condition of soil for agriculture and fighting climate change as three ways to enhance natural capital.
However, the cost of large-scale projects has occasionally caused governments, particularly in developing countries, to shy away from restoration. But UNEP says improving eco-systems will in fact be beneficial to national economies in the long term.
Kasten highlights natural wetlands, of which half have been destroyed worldwide, as having an economic value of $7 trillion per year. Natural wastewater treatment systems, he says, are more than 20 times more cost effective than man-made alternatives.
"All together, these services [ecological infrastructure services to humanity] are providing up to $70 trillion per year, it is in fact a very significant contribution," he said.
UNEP spokesperson Nick Nuttall says environmental assets are virtually invisible in national and international accounts. The value of these natural resources, he says, should figure in every government's economic and planning decisions.
"Unless you can give them the full suite of choices, in terms of why to build a road and not build a road or build port or not build a port, until you can factor biodiversity and the eco-system's natural assets into the economics, UNEP's position is that we're always going to struggle," he said.
UNEP points out that repairing environmental damage will generate jobs and fight poverty in a world where 1.3 billion people are either unemployed or not earning enough to get by. Healthy eco-systems, the report says, are not an added benefit to economic security, but rather a fundamental requirement.