The price of salvation

Reversing the devastation of our planet will require a massive international effort and vast sums of money. But, as Lester R. Brown argues, it is not a question of whether we can afford it, but whether we can afford not to stump up.

The health of an economy cannot be separated from that of its natural support systems. More than half the world’s people depend directly on croplands, rangelands, forests and fisheries for their livelihoods. Many more depend on forest products, leather goods, cotton and wool textiles, and food processing for their jobs.

A strategy for eradicating poverty will not succeed if an economy’s environmental support systems are collapsing. No matter how carefully crafted and well-implemented, a poverty-eradication programme will not succeed if croplands are eroding and harvests are shrinking, if water tables are falling and wells are going dry, if rangelands are turning to desert and livestock are dying, if fisheries are collapsing, if forests are shrinking, and if rising temperatures are scorching crops.

Restoring the earth will take an enormous international effort — one even larger and more demanding than the often-cited Marshall Plan that helped rebuild war-torn Europe. And such an initiative must be undertaken at wartime speed, lest environmental deterioration translates into economic decline, just as it did for earlier civilisations that violated nature’s thresholds and ignored its deadlines.

We can roughly estimate how much it will cost to reforest the earth, protect its topsoil, restore rangelands and fisheries, stabilise water tables and protect biological diversity. Where data and information are lacking, we can fill in with assumptions. The goal is not to have a set of precise numbers, but a set of reasonable estimates for an Earth-restoration budget.

In calculating the cost of reforestation, the focus is on developing countries, since the forested area is already expanding in the northern hemisphere’s industrial countries. We calculate that meeting the growing fuel-wood demand in these countries will require an estimated 55 million additional hectares of forested area.

Anchoring soils and restoring hydrological stability would require roughly another 100 million hectares located in thousands of watersheds in developing countries. Beyond this, an additional 30 million hectares may be needed to produce timber, paper and other forest products. Only a small share of this tree planting is likely to come from plantations. Much will be on the outskirts of villages, along field boundaries, roads, on small plots of marginal land, and on denuded hillsides.

The big success story in addressing deforestation is South Korea, which, over the last 40 years, has reforested its once denuded mountains and hills, using local labour. Other countries — such as China — have tried extensive reforestation, but mostly under more arid conditions and with much less success.

Turkey has an ambitious grassroots reforestation programme, as does Kenya, where women’s groups, led by Nobel peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai, have planted up to 30 million trees.

If seedlings cost US$40 (£19) per thousand, as the World Bank estimates, and if the typical planting rate is roughly 2,000 trees per hectare, then seedlings cost $80 per hectare. Labour costs for planting trees are high, but since much would consist of locally mobilised volunteers, we can estimate roughly $400 per hectare, including seedlings and labour. With 150 million hectares to be planted over the next decade, this will come to roughly 15 million hectares per year at $400 each, for a total annual expenditure of $6 billion.

Conserving the earth’s topsoil by reducing erosion to the rate of new soil formation or below, involves two principal steps. One is to retire the highly erodible land that cannot sustain cultivation — the estimated 10% of the world’s cropland that accounts for perhaps half of all erosion. For the United States, that has meant retiring 14 million hectares (nearly 35 million acres), at a cost of close to $50 per acre or $125 per hectare, for an annual cost approaching $2 billion.

The second initiative consists of adopting conservation practices on the remaining land that is subject to excessive erosion — that is, erosion that exceeds the natural rate of new soil formation. The initiative includes incentives to encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices, such as contour farming, strip cropping and, increasingly, minimum-till or no-till farming.

In expanding these estimates to cover the world, it is assumed that roughly 10% of cropland is highly erodible and should be planted to grass or trees before the topsoil is lost and it becomes barren land. In both the US and China, the two leading food-producing countries — which account for one-third of the world’s grain harvest — the official goal is to retire one-tenth of all cropland.

In Europe, it probably would be somewhat less than 10%, but in Africa and the Andean countries it could be substantially higher. For the world as a whole, converting 10% of cropland that is highly erodible to grass or trees seems a reasonable goal. Since this costs roughly $2 billion in the US — which represents one-eighth of the world’s cropland area — the total for the world would be roughly $16 billion a year.

Assuming that the need for erosion-control practices for the rest of the world is similar to that in the US, we again multiply the US expenditure by eight to get a total of $8 billion for the world as a whole. The two components together — $16 billion for retiring highly erodible land and $8 billion for adopting conservation practices — give an annual total for the world of $24 billion.

For cost data on rangeland protection and restoration, we turn to the United Nations plan of action to combat desertification. This plan, which focuses on the world’s dryland regions — containing nearly 90% of all rangeland — estimates that it would cost roughly $183 billion over a 20-year restoration period, or $9 billion per year. The key restoration measures include improved rangeland management, financial incentives to eliminate overstocking, and revegetation with appropriate rest periods, when grazing would be banned.

This is a costly undertaking, but every dollar invested in rangeland restoration yields a return of $2.50 in income from the increased productivity of the ecosystem. From a societal point of view, countries with large pastoral populations, where the rangeland deterioration is concentrated, are invariably among the poorest.

The alternative to action — ignoring the deterioration — brings not only a loss of land productivity, but, ultimately, a loss of livelihood and millions of refugees, some migrating to nearby cities and others moving to other countries.

The restoration of oceanic fisheries centres primarily on the establishment of a worldwide network of marine reserves, which would cover roughly 30% of the ocean’s surface. For this exercise, we use detailed calculations by the conservation biology group at Cambridge University. Their estimated range of expenditures centres on $13 billion per year.

For wildlife protection, the bill is higher. The World Parks Congress estimates that the annual shortfall in funding needed to manage and to protect existing areas designated as parks, comes to roughly $25 billion a year. Additional areas needed — including those encompassing the biologically diverse hotspots not yet included — would cost perhaps another $6 billion a year, giving a total of $31 billion.

There is one activity — stabilising water tables — where we do not have an estimate, only a guess. The key here is raising water productivity, and for this we have the experience gained, beginning 50 years ago when the world started to systematically raise land productivity.

The elements needed in a comparable water model are research to develop more water-efficient irrigation practices and technologies, the dissemination of these research findings to farmers, and economic incentives that encourage farmers to adopt and use these improved irrigation practices and technologies.

In some countries, the capital needed to fund a programme to raise water productivity can come from cancelling the subsidies that now often encourage the wasteful use of irrigation water. Sometimes, these are power subsidies, as they are in India; other times, they are subsidies that provide water at prices well below costs, as happens in the US. In terms of additional resources needed worldwide, including the economic incentives for farmers to use more water-efficient practices and technologies, we assume it will take additional expenditures of $10 billion.

So we estimate that restoring the earth will require additional expenditure of $93 billion per year. Many will ask if the world can afford this. But the only appropriate question is: can the world afford not to?

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. This article is based on a chapter in his new book, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. The book can be bought or downloaded at

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

Homepage photo by