How can green recovery programmes benefit both nature and people? An example from the US
Ecosystem restoration has the potential to create jobs on a grand scale, which will be needed in many countries in the wake of the pandemic. The World Resource Institute (WRI) makes the case for investing in tree planting in the US; according to their calculations, an annual federal investment of $4-4.5 billion for 20 years could restore up to 60 billion trees, and create over 150,000 jobs per year for foresters, sapling growers, machine operators, tree transporters and planters. This is many more jobs per dollar invested than alternative stimulus packages would provide: according to one study (Edwards et al. 2013), for every $1 million invested in habitat restoration along coasts, 40 new jobs would be created; compared to 19 for investment in the aviation industry, 7 for finance, and 5 for oil and gas. Well-considered restoration initiatives could provide work in both rural and urban areas. The job creation benefits, of course, come on top of many other advantages of ecosystem restoration, including tree planting: storing carbon, mitigating flooding, boosting biodiversity, giving people pleasant places to relax and exercise, and improving mental and physical health, to name but a few.
In the US, an investment of $4-4.5 billion per year for 20 years could restore up to 60 billion trees, and create over 150,000 jobs
To mark their commitment to habitat restoration, the US has joined the Trillion Trees campaign. However, the WRI warns that there are concerning flaws in the current text of the US’s Trillion Trees Act, meaning it would neither provide the required economic stimulus nor even guarantee a net gain in tree cover. The act could, perversely, result in a reduction in forest area in the US, by promoting timber harvesting rather than protecting and restoring forests. Further, currently the act does not contain provisions for urban reforestation and silvopastoral systems. It would provide just $55 million annually to fund reforestation, with only $25 million of this for private land – under 1% of what the WRI estimates a tree restoration program for job creation would need. Clearly, implementation of the Trillion Trees Act would fail to create jobs at the scale required and in the places where they are most needed.
Instead, the WRI suggests that existing policies such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQUIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) could be expanded, with additional funding directed at tree planting. Urban and suburban areas would need to be covered separately – state and local governments could receive grants from Congress in order to create tree planting schemes locally.
The issues highlighted by the WRI in the US context show how necessary it is that green recovery policies are considered with care, and scrutinized by multiple stakeholders. Whilst ecological restoration could successfully be used for mass job creation, it is paramount that long-term ecological and social benefits are ensured. There is a temptation to maximise quantity at the expense of quality: for example, the number of saplings planted and the number of new jobs listed on paper, may be maximised without ensuring restoration of biodiverse ecosystems which will be protected for decades to come, and jobs that fulfill the needs of workers. From past experience we know that creating cash-for-work programmes with a green element can lead to poor outcomes. One potential problem is that workers laid-off from other professions may not have the right training or incentives to ensure longer term viability of the affected ecosystems.
Furthermore, the US provides an example of the overwhelming focus on forests for restoration; the WRI article mentions no other ecosystems. All natural ecosystems are uniquely valuable for the specific set of ecosystem services they provide to humans; peatland, wetland and grassland are indispensable carbon stores, for example, whilst coastal and marine habitats save lives and property during storms. We must restore and protect a diverse suite of habitats as part of a holistic approach to biodiversity conservation and nurturing ecosystem services.
So, whilst the WRI has highlighted that tree-focused nature-based solutions represent a cost-effective and scalable opportunity for job creation in the US, we note two lines of caution:
1. Restoration plans must consider the long-term health of ecosystems and the well-being of the people involved.
2. Habitats in addition to forests must be given attention in restoration plans.
As nations look for ways to recover from the pandemic, they should take advantage of the job creating power of ecosystem restoration, with the above safeguards in mind. If done correctly, this would help kick-start their economies whilst bringing greater resilience to future shocks and enabling them to meet commitments under the Paris Agreement, CBD and the Sustainable Development Goals.