EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Restoring the Earth: The Earth Restoration Budget

We can roughly estimate how much it will cost to reforest the earth, protect topsoil, restore rangelands and fisheries, stabilize water tables, and protect biological diversity. The goal is not to offer a set of precise numbers but to provide a set of reasonable estimates for an earth restoration budget. (See Table 8–1.) 63

Calculating the cost of reforestation is complicated by the range of approaches used. As noted, the extraordinary reforestation success of South Korea was based almost entirely on locally mobilized labor. Other countries, including China, have tried extensive reforestation, but mostly under more arid conditions and with less success. 64

In calculating reforestation costs, the focus is on developing countries since forested area is already expanding in the northern hemisphere’s industrial countries. Meeting the growing fuelwood demand in developing countries will require an estimated 55 million additional hectares of forested area. Conserving soils and restoring hydrological stability would require roughly another 100 million hectares located in thousands of watersheds in developing countries. Recognizing some overlap between these two, we will reduce the 155 million total to 150 million hectares. Beyond this, an additional 30 million hectares will be needed to produce lumber, paper, and other forest products. 65

Table 8-1. Plan B Budget: Additional Annual
      Funding Needed to Restore the Earth
Activity   Funding  
    Billion U.S. Dollars  
Planting trees to reduce flooding    
and conserve soil 6    
Planting trees to sequester carbon 17  
Protecting topsoil on cropland 24  
Restoring rangelands 9  
Restoring fisheries 13  
Protecting biological diversity 31  
Stabilizing water tables 10  
Total   110  
                          Source: See endnote 63.  

Only a small share of this tree planting will likely come from plantations. Much of the planting will be on the outskirts of villages, along field boundaries and roads, on small plots of marginal land, and on denuded hillsides. The labor for this will be local; some will be paid labor, some volunteer. Much of it will be rural off-season labor. In China, farmers now planting trees where they once planted grain are compensated with grain from state-held stocks over a five-year period while the trees are becoming established. 66

If seedlings cost $40 per thousand, as the World Bank estimates, and if the typical planting rate is roughly 2,000 per hectare, then seedlings cost $80 per hectare. Labor costs for planting trees are high, but since much of the labor would consist of locally mobilized volunteers, we are assuming a total of $400 per hectare, including both seedlings and labor. With a total of 150 million hectares to be planted over the next decade, this will come to roughly 15 million hectares per year at $400 each for an annual expenditure of $6 billion. 67

Planting trees to conserve soil, reduce flooding, and provide firewood sequesters carbon. But because climate stabilization is essential, we tally the cost of planting trees for carbon sequestration separately. Doing so would reforest or afforest hundreds of millions of hectares of marginal lands over 10 years. Because it would be a more commercialized undertaking focused exclusively on wasteland reclamation and carbon sequestration, it would be more costly. Using the value of sequestered carbon of $200 per ton, it would cost close to $17 billion per year. 68

Conserving the earth’s topsoil by reducing erosion to the rate of new soil formation or below involves two principal steps. One is to retire the highly erodible land that cannot sustain cultivation—the estimated one tenth of the world’s cropland that accounts for perhaps half of all excess erosion. For the United States, that has meant retiring 14 million hectares (nearly 35 million acres). The cost of keeping this land out of production is close to $50 per acre or $125 per hectare. In total, annual payments to farmers to plant this land in grass or trees under 10-year contracts approached $2 billion. 69

The second initiative consists of adopting conservation practices on the remaining land that is subject to excessive erosion—that is, erosion that exceeds the natural rate of new soil formation. This initiative includes incentives to encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices such as contour farming, strip cropping, and, increasingly, minimum-till or no-till farming. These expenditures in the United States total roughly $1 billion per year. 70

In expanding these estimates to cover the world, it is assumed that roughly 10 percent of the world’s cropland is highly erodible and should be planted in grass or trees before the topsoil is lost and it becomes barren land. In both the United States and China, the two leading food-producing countries that together account for over a third of the world grain harvest, the official goal is to retire one tenth of all cropland. In Europe, it likely would be much less than 10 percent, but in Africa and the Andean countries it could be substantially higher. For the world as a whole, converting 10 percent of cropland that is highly erodible to grass or trees seems like a reasonable goal. Since this costs roughly $2 billion in the United States, which represents one eighth of the world cropland area, the total for the world would be roughly $16 billion annually. 71

Assuming that the need for erosion control practices for the rest of the world is similar to that in the United States, we again multiply the U.S. expenditure by eight to get a total of $8 billion for the world as a whole. The two components together—$16 billion for retiring highly erodible land and $8 billion for adopting conservation practices—give an annual total for the world of $24 billion. 72

For cost data on rangeland protection and restoration, we turn to the United Nations Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. This plan, which focuses on the world’s dryland regions, containing nearly 90 percent of all rangeland, estimates that it would cost roughly $183 billion over a 20-year restoration period—or $9 billion per year. The key restoration measures include improved rangeland management, financial incentives to eliminate overstocking, and revegetation with appropriate rest periods, during which grazing would be banned. 73

This is a costly undertaking, but every $1 invested in rangeland restoration yields a return of $2.50 in income from the increased productivity of the rangeland ecosystem. From a societal point of view, countries with large pastoral populations where the rangeland deterioration is concentrated are invariably among the world’s poorest. The alternative to action—ignoring the deterioration—brings a loss not only of land productivity but also of livelihood, and ultimately leads to millions of refugees. Though not quantified here, restoring this vulnerable land will also have carbon sequestration benefits. 74

The restoration of oceanic fisheries centers primarily on the establishment of a worldwide network of marine reserves that would cover roughly 30 percent of the ocean’s surface. For this exercise we use the detailed calculations by the U.K. team cited earlier in the chapter. Their estimated range of expenditures centers on $13 billion per year. 75

For wildlife protection, the bill is somewhat higher. The World Parks Congress estimates that the annual shortfall in funding needed to manage and protect existing areas designated as parks comes to roughly $25 billion a year. Additional areas needed, including those encompassing the biologically diverse hotspots not yet included in designated parks, would cost perhaps another $6 billion a year, yielding a total of $31 billion. 76

For stabilizing water tables, we have only a guess. The key to stabilizing water tables is raising water productivity, and for this we have the experience gained when the world started to systematically raise land productivity beginning a half-century ago. The elements needed in a comparable water model are research to develop more water-efficient irrigation practices and technologies, the dissemination of these research findings to farmers, and economic incentives that encourage farmers to adopt and use these improved irrigation practices and technologies.

The area to focus on for raising irrigation water productivity is much smaller than that for land productivity. Indeed, only about one fifth of the world’s cropland is irrigated. In disseminating the results of irrigation research, there are actually two options today. One is to work through agricultural extension services, which were created to funnel new information to farmers on a broad range of issues, including irrigation. Another possibility is to work through the water users associations that have been formed in many countries. The advantage of the latter is that they are focused exclusively on water. 77

Effectively managing underground water supplies requires knowledge of the amount of water pumped and aquifer recharge rates. In most countries this information is simply not available. Finding out how much is pumped may mean installing meters on irrigation well pumps, as has been done in Jordan and Mexico. 78

In some countries, the capital needed to fund a program to raise water productivity can come from eliminating subsidies that often encourage the wasteful use of irrigation water. Sometimes these are energy subsidies, as in India; other times they are subsidies that provide water at prices well below costs, as in the United States. Removing these subsidies will effectively raise the price of water, thus encouraging its more efficient use. In terms of additional resources needed worldwide, including research needs and the economic incentives for farmers to use more water-efficient practices and technologies, we assume it will take an annual expenditure of $10 billion. 79

Altogether, then, restoring the earth will require additional expenditures of just $110 billion per year. Many will ask, Can the world afford these investments? But the only appropriate question is, Can the world afford the cost of not making these investments?

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63. Table 8–1 from the following: planting trees to reduce flooding and conserve soil and protecting topsoil on cropland from Lester R. Brown and Edward C. Wolf, “Reclaiming the Future,” in Lester R. Brown et al., State of the World 1988 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), p. 174, using data from FAO, Fuelwood Supplies in the Developing Countries, Forestry Paper 42 (Rome: 1983); planting trees to sequester carbon based on IPCC, op. cit. note 27, pp. 543, 559; restoring rangelands from UNEP, Status of Desertification and Implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action to Combat Desertification (Nairobi: 1991), pp. 73–92; restoring fisheries from Balmford et al., op. cit. note 52; protecting biological diversity from World Parks Congress, Recommendations of the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress (Durban, South Africa: 2003), pp. 17–19, and from World Parks Congress, “The Durban Accord,” at www.iucn.org/themes/wcpa, viewed 19 October 2007; stabilizing water tables is author’s estimate.

64. Chong, op. cit. note 16.

65. Brown and Wolf, op. cit. note 63, p. 175.

66. Runsheng Yin et al., “China’s Ecological Rehabilitation: The Unprecedented Efforts and Dramatic Impacts of Reforestation and Slope Protection in Western China,” in Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, China Environment Forum, China Environment Series, Issue 7 (Washington, DC: 2005), pp. 17–32.

67. Brown and Wolf, op. cit. note 63, p. 176.

68. IPCC, op. cit. note 27, pp. 543, 559.

69. Brown and Wolf, op. cit. note 63, p. 173–74.

70. Ibid., p. 174.

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid.

73. Restoring rangelands from UNEP, op. cit. note 63, pp. 73–92, with figures converted from 1990 to 2004 dollars using implicit price deflators from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table C.1. GDP and Other Major NIPA Aggregates,” in Survey of Current Business, September 2005, p. D–48.

74. H. E. Dregne and Nan-Ting Chou, “Global Desertification Dimensions and Costs,” in H. E. Dregne, ed., Degradation and Restoration of Arid Lands (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech. University, 1992); restoring rangelands from UNEP, op. cit. note 63, pp. 73–92.

75. Balmford et al., op. cit. note 52.

76. World Parks Congress, Recommendations, op. cit. note 63, pp. 17–19; World Parks Congress, “The Durban Accord,” op. cit. note 63.

77. Irrigated cropland from FAO, ResourceSTAT, electronic database, at faostat.fao.org, updated April 2009.

78. Jordan from Tom Gardner-Outlaw and Robert Engelman, Sustaining Water, Easing Scarcity: A Second Update (Washington, DC: Population Action International, 1997); Mexico from Sandra Postel, Last Oasis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 150–51.

79. Sandra Postel, Pillar of Sand (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 230–35; Mexico from Postel, op. cit. note 78, pp. 167–68.

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