The headlines from Paris this week show that world leaders recognize the important role of forests and farms in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding a dangerous rise in global temperatures. Without actions in the land sector, it will be impossible to keep global temperature increases to less than 1.5/2°C above pre-industrial levels.Sound land-use choices and management practices are the foundation of inclusive development, efficient production and a healthy environment. But assessing the soundness of a particular choice or practice is challenging. Any credible methodology, standard or safeguard that seeks to do so must take into account the variety of nature’s complex, interdependent systems. It must navigate competing aspirations, be sensitive to local traditions, and embrace the inherently political nature of land-use decisions.This is where the High Conservation Value (HCV) Approach comes in. It is essentially a systematic approach to identifying the features of habitats and cultural sites that must be maintained, no matter what. High Conservation Values are biological, ecological, social or cultural values that are considered outstandingly significant or critically important at national, regional or global scale.

The fundamental tenet of the approach is that land management should maintain or enhance such values. The HCV Approach presents a globally applicable concept that can be adapted to the circumstances of a particular place or commodity. High conservation value areas could be old-growth forests in Siberia, habitats of threatened orangutans in Southeast Asia, or the sacred burial grounds of Native Americans.Developed in 1999 by the Forest Stewardship Council, the HCV approach was originally used to define forest attributes that should not be depleted in logging concessions. Since then, the concept has evolved to include non-forest ecosystems. It has had strong uptake in sustainability standards for forestry, palm oil, sugarcane, soy, bioenergy, carbon and even aquaculture. The concept is cited in the purchasing and investment policies of many global banks, retailers and brands. Companies that have committed to taking deforestation out of their supply chains, such as Unilever and Cargill, prioritize the conservation of high conservation value forests.While the versatility and comprehensiveness of the HCV Approach are major strengths, they are also some challenges like the fact that it can be resource intensive and vulnerable to flawed interpretations and assessments.

Efforts are underway to integrate the assessment of high conservation values with other prevalent land-use safeguards. The first is “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”- the principle that a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed developments that may affect the lands and waters they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use. The second is the “high carbon stock” approach to delineating forest areas that merit protection from conversion. This integration offers the prospect of efficient, cost-effective and robust pre-project assessments.So, how to take further advantage of the strengths of the HCV Approach in assessing the needs of people and nature in a specific place, and its traction in sustainability standards? A top priority is building the capacity of assessors to conduct robust assessments in countries where the agriculture frontier has not settled. This can be backed with guidance from the HCV Resource Network. The network runs an assessor licensing system aimed at improving the quality and clarity of assessments, and is uniquely placed to produce guidance on best practice to ensure consistent application of the concept across different commodities and geographies.There’s also a need for better integration of voluntary private sector standards, including the HCV Approach, and government permit allocation criteria and spatial planning. In some countries, current regulations directly bar or hinder land-use choices and practices consistent with maintaining high conservation values. In contrast, some jurisdictions explicitly reference high conservation values in their zoning criteria, and grant land-use permits conditioned on maintaining these values.

The HCV Approach is a tool well placed to deal with the complexity inherent in defining sound land-use choices and practices. By strengthening its application in practice we can protect the Things That Really Matter and help the land sector to realize its potential as a climate solution.