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People & Ecosystems

Green vs. Gray Infrastructure: When Nature Is Better than Concrete

Infrastructure is essential for economic growth. But as governments debate the future of sustainable development at the Rio+20 conference, there is one infrastructure solution that can provide a good return on investment: nature.

People often don’t think of forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and other natural ecosystems as forms of infrastructure. But they are. Forests, for instance, can prevent silt and pollutants from entering streams that supply freshwater to downstream cities and businesses. They can act as natural water filtration plants. As such, they are a form of “green infrastructure” that can serve the same function as “gray infrastructure,” the human-engineered solutions that often involve concrete and steel. This example is not alone (see Table 1).

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How We Can Make Progress on Forests During Rio+20

When it comes to the fate of forests, Rio+20 and the official negotiations risk becoming a side event. Instead, the main show is playing out in countless boardrooms, communities, parliaments, and villages around the world. From Brazil to Bangladesh, Canada to Cambodia, these organizations have made dramatic progress with efforts to reverse forest decline.

Of course, much remains to be done: globally, forests continue to decline at the rate of about 13 million hectares each year, according to the United Nations. But many successes help illuminate a path forward.

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Rio+20: Moving Ahead with the Sustainable Development Goals

As the global summit in Rio approaches, negotiations are still in flux, but some ideas that could advance the global sustainability agenda are gaining momentum.

One such idea is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are emerging as a potentially significant outcome with global policy implications for the post-2015 development agenda. With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, the idea is for governments to launch a process in Rio to develop broader SDGs that would complement or succeed them.

The MDGs have had a laudable impact on reducing the proportion of the world’s people living in extreme poverty. But they have also been criticized– fairly – for failing to address some key drivers of poverty. These include environmental issues—such as climate change and resource scarcity—that disproportionately impact the poor and most vulnerable, as well as the inequitable distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity.

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Brazilian Business and Ecosystem Services Partnership Launches

Last week, experts from the World Resources Institute (WRI) and our colleagues from Brazilian businesses and organizations gathered at the Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro. While the scenery was beautiful, none of us were there to smell the flowers. We were launching a new initiative designed to help Brazilian and international companies incorporate ecosystem services into their business strategies.

WRI, the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS), and the Center for Sustainability Studies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (GVces) launched the Brazilian Business and Ecosystem Services Partnership (PESE) with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). PESE partners Brazilian companies with sustainability institutions to develop business strategies that improve both corporate performance and stewardship of Brazil’s ecosystems, most notably in the Amazon.

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Eco-Compensation in China: Opportunities for Payments for Watershed Services

Water supply and availability could be the most pressing problem restricting China’s economic growth in the next 10-15 years, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank. Not only are water resources limited (only about 30 percent of total water resources are available for use), but many surface and groundwater sources are suffering from severe pollution.[^1] The Chinese government is now looking to invest in new ideas to improve water quality and supply, and WRI is using its water quality trading expertise to explore the potential of market-based methods to improve water quality and increase the supply of clean water from Chao Lake, the fifth-largest lake in China.

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Degraded Land for Sustainable Palm Oil in Indonesia: Practical Guidance

This post was co-authored with Anne Rosenbarger, a POTICO Fellow at Sekala.

In Indonesia, policy-makers and industry leaders are developing policies and practices in support of low-carbon palm oil production on “degraded land.”

Such policies and practices have the potential to enable industry expansion while avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. They also could contribute to poverty reduction if this expansion follows sustainable planning and management practices, including respect for local peoples’ interests and rights.

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How integrated reporting can help companies see the bigger picture

A version of this blog ran on The Guardian Sustainable Business. It is based on Janet Ranganathan’s presentation at a recent event on integrated reporting in New York, hosted by WRI’s Corporate Consultative Group and Context, a sustainability communications company.

The United Nations has put global reporting by companies on sustainability among its proposed key outcomes for the Rio+ 20 summit in June. The "zero draft" policy agenda that negotiators will consider, calls for "a global policy framework requiring all listed and large private companies to consider sustainability issues and to integrate sustainability information within the reporting cycle."

This is a welcome move. Corporate reporting is all too often narrowly limited to financial information. But in our increasingly complex world, a company's finances represent just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface lurk risks that could cause leaks in the most seemingly successful business's operations, reputation or bottom line. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico involving BP and recent issues regarding factory conditions at a Chinese supplier for Apple are cases in point.

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Bringing Ecosystem Markets to Scale in the Southern United States

For the most part, Ecosystem Markets still linger in the early stages of development. There is much more theoretical work to be done to set up environmental credit markets, including carbon offsets and payments for watershed services. But more pilot projects can also help these markets evolve and show how they might work in the real world.

Development pressures in the U.S. South often mean that forests are worth more cut down than left standing. In the U.S. South alone, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that suburban encroachment will convert approximately 31 million acres (approximately 14 percent of 2010 southern forest area) of southern forests to development between 1992 and 2040.

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Protecting the World's Coral Reefs Through Mapping

This post originally appeared as a guest post on the Google Lat Long Blog WRI was the recipient of a Google Earth Outreach Developer Grant, funded through the Google Inc. Charitable Giving Fund at the Tides Foundation.

Since 1998, WRI has been using GIS (Geographic Information System) models to develop map-based assessments of threats to the world’s coral reefs. Reefs at Risk Revisited, released in February 2011, is the latest assessment in the series and is based on a nearly three-year study that produced the most highly-detailed global maps of coral reef threats to date. The study analyzed and mapped threats to coral reefs from local human activities such as coastal development, unsustainable fishing, and marine and land-based pollution, as well as climate-related threats caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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Payments for Watershed Services: Pilot Projects for Watershed Protection

Forested watersheds of the southern United States provide numerous services to the region. At no cost, they purify water, control flooding and erosion, and provide places for people to relax and have fun. Yet despite their value, many watersheds are under threat from development and poor land management.

“Payments for Watershed Services” (PWS) programs are one strategy to keep watersheds healthy. Through a PWS program, landowners receive financial incentives to conserve, sustainably manage, and/or restore watersheds to yield the kinds of benefits described above.

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