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People & Ecosystems

A Critical Moment to Harness Green Infrastructure—Not Concrete—to Secure Clean Water

This post was co-written with James Mulligan, Executive Director at Green Community Ventures.

Natural ecosystems provide essential services for our communities. Forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water we drink, protect neighborhoods from floods and droughts, and shade aquatic habitat for fish populations.

While nature provides this “green infrastructure,” water utilities and other decision-makers often attempt to replicate these services with concrete-and-steel “gray infrastructure”—usually at a much greater cost. Particularly where the equivalent natural ecosystems are degraded, we build filtration plants to clean water, reservoirs to regulate water flow, and mechanical chillers to protect fish from increasing stream temperatures. And even though healthy ecosystems can reduce the operational costs of these structures, investing in restoring or enhancing various types of green infrastructure is rarely pursued—either as a substitute for or complement to gray infrastructure.

Despite America’s history of reliance on gray infrastructure, now is a critical time to tip the scales in favor of a green infrastructure approach to water-resource management. Investing in the conservation and improved management of natural ecosystems to secure and protect water systems can keep costs down and create jobs. Green infrastructure can also provide a suite of co-benefits for the air we breathe, the places we play, the wildlife we share our landscapes with, and the climate we live in.

Farewell, 2012. You Taught Us Much.

This year has been one of those worst-of-years and best-of-years. In its failures, there are signs of hope.

An unprecedented stream of extreme weather events worldwide tragically reminded us that we’re losing the fight against climate change. For the first time since 1988, climate change was totally ignored in the U.S. presidential campaign, even though election month, November, was the 333rd consecutive month with a global temperature higher than the long-term average. A WRI report identified 1,200 coal-fired power plants currently proposed for construction worldwide. The Arctic sea ice reached its lowest-ever area in September, down nearly 20 percent from its previous low in 2007. And disappointing international negotiations in June and December warned us not to rely too much on multilateral government-to-government solutions to global problems.

But 2012 was also a year of potential turning points. A number of new “plurilateral” approaches to problem-solving came to the fore, offering genuine hope. A wave of emerging countries, led by China, embraced market-based green growth strategies. Costs for renewable energy continued their downward path, and are now competitive in a growing number of contexts. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that global investment in renewable energy was probably around $250 billion in 2012, down by perhaps 10 percent over the previous year, but not bad given the eliminations of many subsidy programs, economic austerity in the West, and the sharp shale-induced declines in natural gas prices. And the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, coupled with the ongoing drought covering more than half of the United States (which will turn out to be among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history) may have opened the door to a change of psychology, in turn potentially enabling the Obama Administration to exhibit the international leadership the world so urgently needs, as many of us have advocated.

Does Economic Valuation Really Influence Coastal Policy?

Governments, corporations, and development agencies are increasingly interested in putting a dollar value on ecosystems in order to balance conservation and development needs, a concept known as “economic valuation.” For example, St. Maarten’s government recently established the country’s first marine national park after a local organization found that the area’s coastal ecosystems contribute $58 million per year through tourism and fisheries. Belize enacted a host of new fishing regulations based on a WRI valuation, which found that coral reef- and mangrove-associated tourism contributes $150 million-$196 million per year to the country’s economy. And in Bonaire, park managers used economic valuation to justify the Bonaire Marine Park’s establishment of user fees—making it one of the few self-financed marine parks in the Caribbean.

These stories show that economic valuation can indeed lead to better coastal policy, conserving these ecosystems and securing their important economic contributions. However, according to new WRI research, these cases tend to be the exception in the Caribbean.

Economic Valuation and Coastal Policy in the Caribbean

In the Caribbean, there is keen interest in economic valuation of coastal ecosystems to inform policy and improve natural resource management. But while the literature on the value of coral reefs and mangroves in the Caribbean continues to grow, these ecosystems continue to decline.

WRI and the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership (MESP) took a closer look at the impact of previous economic valuation studies in the Caribbean. Out of more than 200 studies of the economic value of the Caribbean’s marine ecosystem goods and services, we were only able to identify 13 that actually influenced marine and coastal management policies, such as those in Bonaire, St. Maarten, and Belize.

Updated Guide Helps Businesses Source Sustainable Wood and Paper Products

Forests are vitally important for the global environment, economy, and population. The forest sector employs 13.7 million workers and contributes to about 1 percent of the global GDP. Plus, an estimated 500 million people around the world directly depend on forests for their livelihoods.

But forests are also under threat. From 2000-2010, about 15 million hectares of the world’s forests were cleared, and a 2004 assessment estimated that 8-10 percent of the global wood trade is of illegal origin. In addition to deforestation, illegal logging can cause government revenue losses, poverty, unfair competition with legally sourced goods, unplanned and uncontrolled forest management, conflicts, and other illicit activities that can occur in instances where illegal logging’s proceeds are linked to organized crime and corruption.

But there are solutions. One way to improve forest management across the globe is for businesses, governments, and citizens to seek out and demand sustainably harvested wood and paper products.

Today, WRI and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) released the third edition of a guide that helps businesses develop sustainable policies and seek out sustainably harvested wood and paper products. The updated guide, Sustainable Procurement of Wood and Paper-Based Products, is accompanied by a revamped website.

The False Choice Between Palm Oil and Indonesian Forests

This post originally appeared in the Jakarta Post.

Palm oil is on a lot of people’s minds. In Indonesia, the industry is booming, with $19.7 billion of crude palm oil exports in 2011. But expanding oil palm plantations have taken their toll on remaining forests and other natural habitats in tropical regions and led to conflict over land with local people.

The world’s top scientists are also raising concerns. According to a recent study in Nature Climate Change, from 1990 to 2010, 90 percent of lands converted to oil palm plantations in Kalimantan were forested.

There need not, however, be a trade-off between palm oil, forests, and communities. It is possible to grow more crops--including oil palm--while keeping forests and cutting rural poverty.

2 New Tools Can Cut Deforestation and Support Sustainable Palm Oil in Indonesia

Can the world have its palm oil and forests, too? This is an issue that my colleague and I discussed a while back. I am pleased to say that we recently moved a step toward ensuring that the answer is “yes.”

At the 10th Annual Meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), WRI launched two new online mapping applications designed to help the palm oil industry grow while avoiding deforestation. These free tools enable palm oil producers, buyers, investors, and government agencies to easily identify and evaluate locations in Indonesia where they can develop plantations on already-degraded land rather than on currently forested areas. By siting oil palm plantations on degraded or “low-carbon” lands, developers can avoid the need to clear remaining natural forests to meet the growing global demand for palm oil.

Forthcoming World Resources Report Will Focus on Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture

Today is World Food Day, a chance for people all over the world to focus on approaches to end global hunger. Celebrated each year to commemorate the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this day provides us with an opportunity to assess where the world is today in regard to food security – and what we’ll all have to do in the future to achieve it.

How Do You Feed 9 Billion People by 2050?

For much of the planet, food security isn’t a concern on just one day of the year—it’s a daily struggle. According to the FAO, 870 million of the world’s poor are already undernourished, and yet global human population is projected to increase from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050. To sufficiently feed these people, worldwide food availability will need to increase by at least 52 percent from 2007 levels.

Yet agriculture is already having huge impacts on the world’s environment and resources. For instance, agriculture is the direct driver of about 80 percent of tropical deforestation. Agriculture is responsible for up to 85 percent of the world’s consumption of freshwater, and nutrient runoff is a major cause of water quality degradation globally. And according to WRI’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), food production accounts for up to 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions per year due to deforestation, livestock, energy consumption on farms, and fertilizer use.

A Look Inside Disney's New Paper Sourcing and Use Policy

Disney, one of the world’s largest media companies, made a big announcement today that can help the company move in a more sustainable direction when it comes to paper sourcing and use. This is a positive step toward environmental leadership by a company whose name is familiar to people around the globe.

According to the policy, Disney will minimize paper consumption in its day-to-day operations and increase the recovery of used paper and packaging for recycling. In terms of paper purchasing, the policy addresses most of the themes covered in WRI’s Sustainable Wood and Paper Procurement Guide. Disney commits to maximize the use of recycled fiber, maximize the use of paper made from wood sourced from sustainably managed forests (as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or an equivalent forest certification scheme), and maximize the use of paper products processed without chlorine or chlorine compounds. Disney will also eliminate the use of paper made from “unwanted” raw materials including:

New, Interactive Atlas Can Improve Cameroon’s Forest Management

Cameroon’s forests, which cover about 60 percent of the country, play a vital role for people and the economy. They account for more than six percent of the nation’s GDP, the highest percentage of all countries in the Congo Basin. Cameroon’s forests provide services and sustenance directly and indirectly to local communities and city dwellers alike.

Yet, until recently, Cameroon lacked a comprehensive information system to actually monitor and manage its forests. There was no integrated system or entity tracking the various forest uses, like logging concessions, community forests, hunting zones, and more. The information that was available was scattered amongst different institutions, wasn’t publicly accessible, or was of a quality insufficient to support legality claims and effective land use decisions. This lack of information exacerbated the unsustainable use of forest resources and sparked conflicts between competing forest stakeholders, such as loggers and community groups.

That’s where the Cameroon Forest Atlas comes in. Since 2002, Cameroon's Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife (MINFOF) has worked with WRI to improve transparency and governance in the forest sector by publishing and regularly updating the Interactive Forest Atlas of Cameroon. MINFOF and WRI recently released version 3.0 of the online Atlas, as well as an accompanying report, poster, desktop mapping application, and underlying spatial datasets.

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