Preserve nature, or accelerate economic growth? It’s long seemed as if nations had to choose between the two. And we all know how that choice usually plays out: Our desire to accumulate wealth and our need to lift people out of poverty have pushed Earth to the brink.

But we can do a better job of balancing that trade-off.

Researchers at the World Bank think they have found a way, and today we want to explain how. It’s all about farming more intensively and in appropriate places, while preserving larger areas of forest and other habitat that stash that planet-warming carbon and support biodiversity.

“Suppose you were to use all the resources that you have efficiently and properly, and allocate those resources efficiently and properly. How much could you produce?” said Richard Damania, chief economist at the bank’s sustainable development practice group. “We come up with some shockingly large numbers.”

In a report issued today, Damania’s team, in collaboration with the Natural Capital Project, a partnership of groups focused on quantifying the value of ecosystems, has drawn a new road map for countries to achieve that. It gets to the heart of the World Bank’s challenge as its new leader, Ajay Banga, seeks to bend the institution’s considerable capital toward curbing climate change and averting mass extinctions.

Of course, getting there would be no easy feat. It would require sweeping reallocations of land and the widespread adoption of advanced farming practices.

But there is a pathway.

The best of all possible worlds.

Humanity needs to protect and reclaim millions more acres of land to counteract greenhouse gas emissions, but politicians also want to raise standards of living for their citizens — something that often involves destructive forms of farming and ranching that gobble up vulnerable ecosystems.

But the bank’s researchers found that countries could do much better.

They estimated that countries could sequester 85.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to two years’ worth of global emissions at current rates, without denting economic growth. Alternatively, they could increase annual income from forestry and agriculture by $329 billion per year, which could meet the world’s food needs until 2050, without damaging the environment.

In many cases, preserving land and water does double duty, contributing to the economy and helping nature at the same time. Take an example from New York City: Its water comes from a forested watershed in the Catskill Mountains that costs about $167 million a year to maintain. Without it, the city would need to spend $6 billion to build filtration plants that would then cost $250 million per year to maintain.

How to get more from farming.

The bank’s research team has created detailed maps that show which areas would need to be converted, and to what uses, in order to achieve the greatest possible efficiency, shifts that would require some degree of regulation and central planning.

Producing more on smaller plots of land would need a combination of investments, incentives and mandates to ease farmers onto different lands and into better practices. The authors explicitly reject land expropriation as a strategy.

Some of that could be fairly simple. Damania said that the gains his team estimated could be achieved by scaling up well-established techniques, like setting up buffer zones around rivers and terracing hillsides to reduce runoff. To help small farmers get more from their acreage, the researchers recommend better access to credit, strengthened land ownership rights and direct subsidies for equipment like irrigation pipes that waste less water.

There are already promising test cases. Take Ethiopia, where programs supported by the World Bank have improved the quality of vegetation across millions of hectares by establishing cooperatives to replant degraded forests. Eventually, the project could generate revenue through payments for reduction in carbon emissions.

But adopting new farming practices and changing policies are the easier steps. Reaching the model’s full potential would also require paying people to move and farm somewhere else, or to find a new line of work. That’s where the real money comes in.

“Where you are retiring land or changing its use, if you are going to get losers, my own personal view is that you have to compensate the losers,” Damania said. “And if you don’t, you’re going to bump into resistance.”

The money is already out there.

Fortunately, there’s already one big source of available cash: the $1.25 trillion in direct subsidies that governments provide annually for agriculture, marine industries and fossil fuel extraction, as the bank found in a separate report published this month. Those payments and tax breaks fuel deforestation, overfishing and excessive use of resources like fertilizer, which can be toxic in large amounts. Repurposing those financial supports would thus give a double boost to countries trying to be more efficient, though that poses huge political challenges.

As with all sweeping plans, it’s important to watch out for unintended consequences. Ed Davey, partnerships director at the Food and Land Use Coalition, who reviewed the report and generally agrees with the gist, said he saw two.

First, increasing the intensity of agriculture can have plenty of environmental downsides, currently visible in places like the Netherlands, which has achieved incredible productivity but contaminated many of its waterways with nitrogen runoff from livestock operations. Second, increasing crop yields can actually amplify incentives to push into protected areas, since the soil becomes even more lucrative. That makes the rule of law paramount.

Spending on enforcement may pay off amply, though. In Brazil, for example, the World Bank calculates that the forest provides about $20 billion in value for farmers that includes rain, healthy soils and lower fire risks. That’s several times more than Brazil is spending to keep people from illegally clearing land.

Caveats and all, to Davey, it’s essential to make it work, along with reductions in both food waste and beef consumption.

“It’s absolutely clear to us that there’s no way of feeding a global population of nearly 10 billion people by 2050 absent those efficiency gains,” he said.

Small miracles are popping out of the mud around Myanmar’s largest lake: Burmese peacock softshell turtles, just hatched. Humans were there, and they captured the first known video of the critically endangered creatures emerging into the world.

Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.


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