A gorilla in the forest of the Biwindi Impenetrable National Park
Gorillas with the Rushegura group in Biwindi Impenetrable National Park. This group was one of the first in the area habituated for gorilla tracking tourism. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda | Jason Houston for USAID

Conservation Economics: Advancing the Evidence Base for Regional Collaboration

By Nicholas Oguge, Ph.D. , Katherine Connolly

There is no climate change solution without nature conservation. However, traditional economic assessments, such as gross domestic product, assign nature-based value only to extractable resources. This fails to capture one of the most important services that nature provides: storing carbon. Without a comprehensive measure of natural capital, policymakers worldwide are left with an incomplete and even inaccurate evidence base from which to make decisions. 

The East African Community (EAC) and its Partner States—Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda—strive to manage and sustain the region’s iconic ecosystems through collaboration and policymaking. However, East Africa’s wilderness landscapes are threatened by unsustainable land use, resource over-extraction, and the triple threats of climate, COVID-19, and natural resource conflict. 

To better assess how East Africa’s natural capital sustains the regional and global economies, USAID's Economics of Natural Capital in East Africa Project (NatCap) released “Protecting East Africa’s Natural Capital: The Cost of Inaction." This study is the first transboundary landscape-level assessment to estimate the economic value of natural capital in the region. Among other approaches, the study uses the social cost of carbon to put the effects of climate change into economic terms.

“The social cost of carbon is a measure of the impact of carbon emissions on society. It estimates the economic damage over time from emitting one additional ton of carbon into the atmosphere," said Dr. Jane Turpie, an author of the study. "Since deforestation and land degradation result in carbon emissions, protecting ecosystems avoids these damages, and carbon retention can be considered an ecosystem service. Because the social cost of carbon is the present value of damages avoided over time, it reflects the value of carbon as an asset, so it can easily be compared to the contributions of other ecosystem services to the asset values of an ecosystem,” Turpie said. 

The four landscapes studied, comprising Great East African Plains, Rweru-Mugesera-Akagera Wetlands, Albertine Rift Forests, and Northern Savannas, currently store 7.5 billion tons of carbon. Without these ecosystems, the region could experience economic costs from climate change impacts of about $1.1 billion annually, not counting additional global costs. 

In the case of the Albertine Rift, the study found that pre-COVID nature-based tourism, including gorilla trekking, provided $50.3 million per year. However, the value of the current landscape’s erosion control is far greater at $685.5 million per year. The forests store an estimated 643 million tons of carbon, meaning the social cost of carbon is $62.6 million per year in avoided costs in the region.

From Evidence to Regional Action

The study clarifies the high stakes for the 33 million people who depend on these four of East Africa’s wildlife landscapes. NatCap convened hundreds of stakeholders to review and validate the study’s findings and develop a transboundary action plan, to be released in spring 2022. During the validation process, stakeholders from across sectors underscored the importance of incorporating climate change in business and political projections.

Mr. Simon Kaheru, who serves as the Public Affairs and Communications Director for Coca-Cola Beverages in Uganda and is the Vice-Chair of the East African Business Council, noted, “for Coca-Cola, climate change and sustainability are major pillars of our business with key performance indicators (KPIs) that are weighted alongside the business objectives. They are not afterthoughts; you cannot be measured as successful in any given financial year if your climate change and sustainability KPIs are not met."

In December 2021, officials from the EAC Secretariat and six Partner States affirmed both the study and the action plan. The EAC technical team Partner State representatives applauded nature-based solutions for the four areas and suggested pilot projects in the four landscapes, including reforestation and terracing in the marginal areas of the Albertine Rift.

“We know that nature, and for that matter climate change, does not adhere to political boundaries. The action plan will guide and enable policymakers across the EAC’s transboundary wilderness landscapes to make collaborative decisions that connect people, nature, and business,” said Nick Oguge, Chief of Party for NatCap.

Armed with a more comprehensive measure of nature’s contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation, East Africa’s regional decision makers can now unite around shared climate solutions that promote conservation and sustainable development. The study and action plan provide much needed evidence and stakeholder-guided solutions to help policymakers prioritize investment in nature-based solutions. Well-supported, nature-based solutions, if piloted through projects like reforestation in the Albertine Rift, will be a great step toward climate security for people and wildlife in East Africa and across the globe.

Strategic Objective
Biodiversity Conservation, Carbon, Climate Policy, Partnership, Sustainable Landscapes
Nicholas Oguge Headshot

Nicholas Oguge, Ph.D.

Nick Oguge serves as the Chief of Party for the Economics of Natural Capital in East Africa Project. He has over 37 years of knowledge and experience in nature conservation and academia, generating evidence and translating information that address conservation goals, to policy actions.

Katherine Connolly Headshot

Katherine Connolly

Katherine Connolly is the Marketing and Business Development Associate at Environmental Incentives. She works across teams to share compelling stories highlighting the power of environment and development programs.

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