It is not always obvious, but forests offer greater value when they are kept intact instead of chopped down for timber or converted to pastures, highways or mining pits. The problem is that while timber has a clear price tag, the services that forests provide do not.
So what do forests give us and what is it worth? Consider the following services that forests provide and think about how much value you would attach to each.
The forest ecosystem helps retain water and prevent soil erosion. Farmers struggle without forests, even if they are miles away. By helping regulate rainfall and maintaining soil quality, forests give us productive agricultural lands.
They are also home to the birds that eat pests and the bees and other insects that pollinate our food crops. And once the temperature and water regulating functions of forests are compromised, farmers are more likely to be exposed to droughts, floods, fires, and infertile soils.
The forest ecosystem gives us energy. In Kenya, hydroelectricity accounts for about 70% of power generation. Hydroelectric dams would not be able to function without the country’s vital Water Towers, highland forested areas from where water flows to all but one of Kenya’s main rivers.
But these water towers need forests to provide these services. Beyond regulating water, the forest ecosystem retains sediment that would otherwise flow into the hydroelectric plants and jam the systems.
And then we have climate change. Forests are vital buffers against tragedy.
We are already seeing the dramatic and devastating impact of severe drought in the north of Kenya, and we know this will only occur more regularly as the climate changes further.
If we chop down trees, we are losing one of the best sinks to absorb human-made carbon dioxide emissions - and when we conserve and help restore forest ecosystems, we are helping prevent climate change.
Without all of these essential forest functions, we have a world where food shortages are the norm, blackouts are common and climate change runs away from us.
So what would you pay to prevent these disaster scenarios? Surely you might at least think twice before eliminating forests for agriculture, infrastructure, mining, and charcoal production, which are currently considered more “profitable”.
Yet we keep losing our forests.
It can be very difficult to quantify these benefits of forests. But we live in the real world of economies and money, so it is important that we try.
UN Environment has been helping many countries do this, including Kenya and Tanzania by analyzing the cost to the economy of ruining forest ecosystems.
A report in 2012 showed the true value of Kenya’s Water Towers. By degrading the forests in the Water Towers, wood collectors had seen revenues of about Ksh 1.36 billion in a year. But the overall negative impact to the economy from deforestation was estimated at Ksh 3.65 billion per year. The river flows changed, and so agricultural land could not be irrigated and hydropower generation was also affected.
Original estimates pegged the value of Water Towers at 1.1% of GDP. Adding the ecosystem services the forests provided to the calculation increased their value by over three times: 3.6% of GDP.
Other efforts like the UN’s Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation support forested developing countries to receive financial compensation when they protect forests to stave off climate change.
And countries are taking notice of the value by enacting forest legislation. Kenya has set a minimum national tree cover target of 10% in their constitution. Alongside other nations, they have pledged to restore 5.1 million hectares of forests by 2030.
Forests cover approximately one third of the earth’s surface. They provide the oxygen to 7 billion people, but they also breathe life into economies. If we continue to see forests degraded, we’ll find our economies fighting for breath. As we celebrate International Day of Forests, let’s keep this in mind.
Erik Solheim is the Executive Director of UN Environment