So what would you pay to prevent these disaster scenarios? Surely, you might at least think twice before eliminating forests for agriculture, infrastructure, mining, and charcoal production, which are currently considered more “profitable”.

Yet we keep losing our forests. It can be very difficult to quantify the benefits of forests.

But we live in the real world of economies and money, so it is important that we try.

UN Environment has been helping many countries, including Kenya and Tanzania, by analysing the cost to the economy of ruining forest ecosystems.

A report in 2012 showed the true value of Kenya’s water towers.

By degrading forests in the water towers, wood collectors lost revenues of about Sh1.36 billion a year.

But the overall negative impact to the economy was estimated at Sh3.65 billion per year.

The river flows changed, and so agricultural land could not be irrigated and hydropower generation was also affected.

TREE COVER
Original estimates pegged the value of water towers at 1.1 per cent of GDP. Adding the ecosystem services the forests provided to the calculation increased their value by over three times: 3.6 per cent of GDP.

Other efforts like the UN’s Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation support forested developing countries to receive financial compensation when they protect forests to stave off climate change.

And countries are taking notice of the value by enacting forest legislation. Kenya has set a minimum national tree cover target of 10 per cent in the Constitution.

Alongside other nations, they have pledged to restore 5.1 million hectares of forests by 2030. Forests cover about one third of the earth’s surface.

They provide the oxygen to seven billion people, but they also breathe life into economies.

If we continue to see forests degraded, we’ll find our economies fighting for breath. As we celebrate the International Day of Forests today, let’s keep this in mind.

Mr Solheim is the Unep executive director. executiveoffice@unep.org

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