We have been thinking a lot about Social Impact bonds and how the concept might apply to conservation finance, which is something about which we ponder a great deal.
Why not a Forest Impact Bond, issued against promised aid streams from sovereign development banks wanting to mitigate climate change and/or promote forest conservation?
These could work in circumstances where communities are key to protecting High Conservation Value forest.
FIBs would be focused on impact-driven community development (schools, livelihoods, health, education) but linked also to real conservation outcomes.
Time is slipping as we try to establish the best way to protect ourselves at scale from climate change, manage and protect our forests for future generations.
The multiple challenges around forest conservation is something we’ve written about previously in this blog here and here.
In essence, the problem is how to compensate governments and landholders for the huge rewards they reap cutting trees from native tropical forests; how to balance development with conservation.
Since 57 percent of the world’s forests are located in developing countries, it is hard to make the economic argument that these areas should not be developed for the benefit of the national population. Indeed, timber revenues represent the major, sometimes only, export commodity of a country.
The Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests has estimated that 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – an amount equal to the transportation sector – are from deforestation.
At the same time, the scale of financing required to halve deforestation will reach US$30 billion annually by 2020, the U.S.-based commission estimated in the same report.
Only turning to the global capital markets will provide sufficient funding to meet the challenge deforestation presents today. That strategy could include the use of bonds, which would allow the desperately needed investment at scale.
Communities and Livelihoods the Key to Conservation
Key to this discussion is that not only do governments and landholders need to be compensated for not chopping forests for timber, but local livelihoods are also often linked to forests.
Nearly 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide depend on forests, which provide them with building materials, food, coffee, cocoa, medicinal plants and income from other sources.
Without access to the forests not only do many of these people lose livelihoods but they also may lose their crops to droughts or floods as climates change with deforestation.
Thus communities living in and around forested areas are key to their protection.
Still, even with access to forests, local populations who face the immediate need of supporting their families often don’t recognize the value of conserving forests for the longer term because they cannot meet their immediate needs for food, housing, clothing and education, among others.
Thus, local communities need both education on the value of long-term forest conservation to their own lives (livelihoods, water etc) and help establishing alternative and sustainable income sources.
At the same time, battling to defeat poverty, poor nations argue they cannot be expected to forfeit income from economic activities that lead to deforestation, particularly since there are global benefits from developing world forest services – carbon, water etc.
They have argued collectively that if global powers want to preserve the rainforests and their natural services provided then those must be paid for.
Rainforest Bonds Not a New Conversation
Indeed, for many years now there has been talk of rainforest bonds, which would help pay the large upfront capital expenditure required to invest in development, livelihoods, conservation to maintain the forests.
Under conventional thought, either forest carbon revenue or other sources of income such those generated by sustainable timber, agriculture or ecosystem service markets (water, biodiversity for example,) would repay investors.
But the conversation around REDD carbon has stalled with regulatory uncertainty. Additionally, in Asia certainly, we are a long way from any scalable ecosystem markets, while the significant upfront investment needed to promote agriculture as an alternative or to build local livelihoods to protect forests is just not available philanthropically.
And that’s just it…the bond conversation has gone on for years with significant players like the Prince’s Rainforest Trust and others eventually pulling back given the difficulties in identifying revenue streams that would work.
Turning to Forest Impact Bonds
So why not step back entirely from the conversation around how to make forests pay and look instead to the large sums promised by sovereign development banks at Copenhagen (US$4.5 billion) and other aid that has yet to find a home for want of knowledge of how to invest those funds with surety and with impact.
And that’s not surprising. Over the past two decades, substantial funds have flooded into Indonesian conservation (usually to secure national parks or protect wildlife and its habitat) without corresponding transformational change. Over the same period, deforestation has only accelerated, fueled by burgeoning consumption, population explosion and massive urbanization.
So the problem remains, how to ensure that limited funding for conservation is spent with measurable and significant impact? How to balance development and conservation and raise the funds from global capital markets to pay for both?
Indeed, we must increase the availability of performance-linked finance to protect forests for local communities and local governments, in order to maintain them for global biodiversity and as carbon sinks.
In 2007, a similar discussion emerged in the UK around improving social outcomes and reducing uncertainty of funding for social services.
Shortly thereafter, London-based Social Finance introduced the concept of social impact bonds, which target funds to specific projects with measurable results.
If the identified targets are reached, the UK government saves on social programs and those savings are used to repay bond investors, in certain cases with interest. If targets are not reached, bond investors lose out as they would in any junk bond investment.
Turning to the U.S, in last year’s budget speech, President Obama announced that he had set aside US$100 million for social impact bonds and at the same time two Boston-based companies have recently been established to apply the UK social impact bond concept to the U.S. context.
Why could this innovative approach to generating social impact in the UK and the U.S. not work also to protect forests in Indonesia, targeting communities and livelihoods but at the same time generating extra and measurable impact in conservation?
Given the argument above, and the lack of current appetite for REDD+ and other forms of eco-securitisation backed by forest assets or credits, might we then apply the social impact bond example to community development initiatives in a country like Indonesia?
In this scenario, international government funds, funds from multi-laterals with an interest in combating climate change and conserving forests for future generations pool funds in an SPV that are then allocated to community development initiatives with specific parameters and measures of impact.
The key would be to persuade the local government to join what would essentially be billed as a development initiative but with additional conservation benefits.
The SPV funds would be available to repay investors in the event that the community development programs, livelihood initiatives, the conservation targets achieve desired results. In this way, the pooled funds are used only if they have been effective and only after impact has been achieved and quantified.
Country funds would likely have to be established separately, with their own fund administrators (local country officials?) and project monitors.
An initial pilot would likely include just one country – Indonesia perhaps – and one specific target: perhaps livelihoods and education around several conservation areas.
For in-country implementing partners we could draw on local NGOs to support conservation (research and protection) and identify appropriate targets. Microfinance institutions could support business initiatives where appropriate and rural development organizations would help build agricultural businesses that local communities in Indonesia want to generate income.
Legal organisations would need to be employed to help sort out land-titling to establish a legal basis to land ownership. Education NGOs could be employed to boost local knowledge around conservation, while healthcare providers could support rural health development.
This would then be associated by local communities, along with improved education, for example, with conservation of their local forests.
So rather than trying to pry an uncertain financial return out of forest services or REDD+ (although if these markets develop in the future, certainly these could be added to SPV funds) we are trying to achieve only effective allocation of government/multilateral resources and measurable impact.
At the same time, however, there could be a return on investor depending on the effectiveness of the programs., while a tranche structure with different risk/return profiles could be used to simultaneously appeal to both groups.
The difference with the UK Social Impact Bond, of course, would be the potential for shared savings. Although it would be important to have local governments as key participants, it is unlikely their own development investments would make this worthwhile.
Who would buy Forest Impact Bonds?
There is growing interest on the part of institutional investors in markets where there are environmental and social as well as financial returns or where there are at least screens for negative impact.
According to Eurosif, total SRI assets under management increased dramatically from €2.7 trillion to €5 trillion, as of December 31, 2009. This represents spectacular growth of about 87% since 2007.
The sense is that when environmental social and governance issues start to affect share price or impact bottom lines boardrooms will take note.
Increasingly, SRI is a mainstream criterion in equity analysis and several stock exchanges have launched tradable indices that track SRI companies or ESG alongside financial performance. And ratings agencies are emerging to rank companies on their ESG performance.
At the same time, part of the consideration around forests is that they have long carried appeal to institutional investors.
According to an article in The Banker from 2007, more than US$30 billion globally is invested in forest assets, although mostly through funds and largely in the US.
These investments generally offer competitive returns with low or negative correlation to traditional asset classes making them a counter-cyclical hedge.
- A FIB is a contract with the public sector in which it commits to pay for improved environmental and social outcomes
- On the back of this contract, investment is raised from investors motivated perhaps not only by commercial but also by environmental and social returns.
- This investment is used to pay for a range of social outcomes such as poverty alleviation of local communities, improved health and education, all tied to and contingent on conservation of an area of high-conservation value local forest
- The financial returns investors receive are dependent on the degree to which outcomes improve i.e, they may receive part or all of the initial investment back, and in some cases additional financial returns.
- A FIB shifts emphasis from paying for inputs and outputs to paying for impacts
- In its purest form, a FIB has a risk profile more similar to an equity investment than a debt investment