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Conserving Land Is Now More Economical Than Exploiting It

Sustainability News
by Tim Wenger Jul 10, 2020

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

If you read a lot of environmental news, the term “tipping point” likely doesn’t calm your mind. In climate science, “tipping points” typically refer to the earth being on the brink of disaster, such as a mass extinction or rising sea levels. But let’s shift the tipping point paradigm in our favor.

Today, we’re on the brink of what might be the most important tipping point of our lifetime: the point where conserving land and water actually does more to benefit the economy than developing or exploiting it. This is true whether we’re talking about jobs, GDP, or travel.

Until now, NGOs and activists fighting fiercely to preserve the natural environment have often lost to big-money industries such as energy and property development. But today there’s an increased desire for outdoor recreation opportunities in developed countries. Across the American West, cities like Grand Junction, CO; Vernal, UT; and Farmington, NM, are experiencing firsthand the financial benefits of shifting economic focus from oil and gas development to recreation and conservation. Some parcels of land surrounding these places that have long been leased for oil and gas development are being repurposed, often for outdoor recreation sites like trail systems for hiking, biking, off-roading, and other activities.

This is happening partly because coal power plants are being consistently retired as renewable energy and natural gas become cheaper than coal power, and partly because people just want to get outside. Adventure tourism is now the fastest-growing niche in travel, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association. The result is that across the United States and beyond, using land for recreation and conservation is becoming more lucrative for both the public and private sectors than developing it.

In line with the boom in outdoor recreation is a continued shift in public opinion toward conservation. With images of the burning Amazon and starving polar bears making the rounds in traditional and social media, awareness of human-caused global devastation is at an all-time high. People want to be part of the solution, and they’re more willing than ever to spend money on travel, products, and campaigns that coincide with their values. A new report from the charity Campaign for Nature cites scientific studies showing the global economic benefit to protecting 30 percent of the land and water worldwide.

“Our report shows that protection in today’s economy brings in more revenue than the alternatives and likely adds revenue to agriculture and forestry, while helping prevent climate change, water crises, biodiversity loss and disease. Increasing nature protection is sound policy for governments juggling multiple interests. You cannot put a price tag on nature — but the economic numbers point to its protection,” said the report’s lead author Anthony Waldron in a press release.

The report notes that a global annual investment of $140 billion toward reaching and maintaining this conservation milestone would return an average annual economic output of $250 billion. You don’t have to be a Wall Street investor to know that’s a heck of a deal.

In the US, a bill was recently introduced to cover our portion of the deal. The Great American Outdoors Act was introduced by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico in June, aiming to protect 30 percent of the US’ land and water by 2030 and setting the course to protect 50 percent by 2050. We’ll likely need to wait until a new administration takes over the White House or the Democrats flip the US Senate to see this bill become law, but the conversation has at least begun.

Until then, remember “the tipping point” the next time you find yourself in a conversation that includes the phrase, “But what about THE ECONOMY?” The shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments is actually a big deal, from all angles — including financially. The economic benefits of conserving that land for the long-term far outweigh the short-term profits of a few private companies, and those benefits are spread to Native American tribes, local and regional governments, and the entire outdoors industry. The tipping point is here and the conservationists now have the force of the almighty dollar on their side, the only thing that seems to appease the development crowd.

And, be sure you’re registered to vote in this November’s presidential election.

Matador Network has covered these issues extensively, with reports from Vernal, British Columbia, and elsewhere. Follow our Outdoors section and sign up for our newsletters for the latest.

More Climate Wins this week:

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, along with other environmental activists fighting major oil pipeline projects, received good news this week. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was scheduled to be built underneath the Appalachian Trail, was canceled due to rising costs and delays, The New York Times reported on Monday. The heavily controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which moves oil from North Dakota to Illinois and was the source of major protests in 2016, has been ordered to stop operating pending an environmental review, according to NPR. And the Supreme Court has halted production of the equally controversial KeystoneXL Pipeline.

Sydney, Australia, joined the 100 Club. The City of Sydney, the central borough in the larger metropolis of over 5 million residents, has powered itself on 100 percent renewable energy since July 1, thanks to massive investment in solar and wind power in New South Wales and the prioritizing of the transition by Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

Scientists may have found a new technique to pull CO2 out of the air. Enhanced rock weathering, or ERW, is the technical term for the process of adding rock dust to vast stretches of farmland. According to a report in The Guardian, basalt and limestone are the best types of rock to pull CO2 out of the air, and recent studies have shown that the practice can actually benefit crop production — potentially making this the best short-term solution to climate change, along with cutting back on emissions in the first place.

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