TEPIC, Mexico, Feb 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The
mist-enshrouded cloud forest canopies dotting the mountains of
Latin America have been degraded by encroaching cities and
farms, but convincing hydropower operators to pay for their
restoration could increase water flows and boost energy
security, analysts say.
Research done for the Cloud Forest Blue Energy Mechanism, an
early-stage project being incubated by the Global Innovation Lab
for Climate Finance, indicates that restoring high-altitude
cloud forests raises the quantity and quality of water flowing
to hydropower plants, stabilising supplies and cutting
maintenance costs by reducing sediment.
“With climate change increasing, it’s all the more important
to try to see how there might be a win-win situation here... to
have (forest) restoration and improved energy security,” said
Angela Falconer, senior analyst at the Climate Policy Initiative
(CPI), which oversees the lab.
Given it could take several years for the benefits of
protecting cloud forests to trickle down to hydropower
operators, the project - proposed by green groups Conservation
International and The Nature Conservancy - envisages finding
first-stage funding from commercial lenders, donors or impact
“In the long term, the hope is you could make the real
financial case that there is a very good positive return on the
investment in terms of the increase in energy security and
availability, that will be able to pay back the initial
investment,” said Falconer.
Later on, the project - which is looking at cloud forests in
countries including Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Brazil - hopes
to convince hydropower operators and large energy users such as
mining companies to invest in the restoration and conservation
of cloud forests.
While cloud forests can be found as low as 400 metres (1,300
ft) above sea level in wet, tropical mountainous areas, this
project plans to assess areas found between 1,200 and 3,500
metres above sea level.
The International Energy Agency estimates that hydropower
provides 16 percent of the world’s energy and 85 percent of
global renewable electricity. But Latin America’s biggest
country Brazil relies on hydro-electricity for 75 percent of its
power, and Colombia for more than 70 percent.
Leonardo Sáenz, director of eco-hydrology at Conservation
International, said his organisation had identified around 200
dams that could potentially benefit from improving the state of
cloud forests across Latin America.
“Conventionally we look at generation only in terms of
transmission lines, dam walls - these engineering things - but
we forget the source watershed, particularly when it comes to
cloud forests which are very important,” he said.
Severe droughts have affected hydropower generation in some
countries. But Sáenz explained that high-elevation cloud forests
upstream of hydropower dams will likely be able to withstand
rising temperatures as the planet warms because they will
benefit from increased moisture in the atmosphere.
“Having cloud forest back in the system helps to increase
resilience to the potential hydrological impact of climate
change,” said Sáenz.
Around 65 percent of Latin America’s original cloud forest –
equivalent to 105 million hectares (259.5 million acres) – has
already been lost, he estimated. Urban sprawl around cities such
as Bogota, Quito and San Jose is partly to blame, together with
forest-clearing for activities like agriculture and mining.
Gauging the enthusiasm of hydropower users to pay for
ecosystem services is a crucial part of the scheme, said CPI's
Falconer. A pilot could be launched by the end of the year
bringing together interested investors and organisations working
to restore cloud forest, she added.
“It’s about proving the case for potential commercial
investors to come on board,” she said.
(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.