One of the main arguments some people use against nature conservation is that it stands in the way of economic growth. Natural habitats are often viewed as useless and “unproductive” (in the words of Brazilian President Bolsonaro) – frivolous luxuries that are preserved for the enjoyment of the less privileged. Why leave a forest intact when it could be cut down or turned into arable land? Why take profits away from the locals when there is money to be made?
We conservationists have known for decades that this is a ruinously short-sighted view – countless disasters, from the American dust bowl of the 1930s to the Sierra Leone mudslides in 2017, have shown land expanded after trees were felled or farmland expanded is less able to purify water, absorb carbon, bind the soil, or do myriad other services that provide healthy ecosystems. When this happens, large corporations are often left untouched while ordinary people on the ground feel the full force of this devastation. And on a planet approaching a climate emergency, we need every carbon sink we can get.
We have known the intrinsic value of healthy ecosystems for some time, but in the minds of many this is viewed as an abstract concept that is difficult to imagine in a world with hard, cold money. However, the largest study of its kind this month found that preserving or restoring natural areas usually provides greater economic benefits than using them.
Guianan Toucanet, Copyright Dubi Shapiro, from the Surfbirds Galleries
A research team led by the RSPB (BirdLife in Great Britain), in which the University of Cambridge, BirdLife International and other institutions were involved, analyzed dozen of sites on six continents. Many of them are classified as Key Biodiversity Areas. Their locations range from Kenya to Fiji and China to Great Britain. The team assessed the value of the ecosystem services provided by each site – such as carbon storage and flood protection – in a scenario in which they are preserved or restored. They compared this to the expected benefits if the site had been converted to the most plausible human use (e.g. agriculture or logging). In the vast majority of cases, it has been found that maintaining or restoring the site brings greater benefits.
One of the key benefits comes from regulating the greenhouse gases that drive climate change, including carbon. The researchers took a closer look at 24 of the sites and found that over 70% of the sites have more monetary value than conservation, when every tonne of carbon released into the atmosphere costs global society $ 31 (a very conservative estimate) or restored. This included 100% of the forest areas.
Even if carbon is completely removed from the calculations, the researchers found that almost half of the sites are still worth more to us in their natural form. “Curbing the loss of biodiversity is an important goal in itself, but nature also contributes fundamentally to human well-being,” says lead author Dr. Richard Bradbury of the RSPB and Honorary Fellow at Cambridge University. He continues, “Even if you are only interested in dollars and cents, we can see that very often today conserving and restoring nature is the best choice for human prosperity.” In other words, protecting these locations would not only save money but also dramatically increase human wellbeing and generate income from industries such as ecotourism and nature-based recreation.
Putting a price on nature can be a daunting task. To address this problem, the researchers used TESSA (the toolkit for location-based assessment of ecosystem services), which BirdLife had helped develop over the past decade, to analyze all 62 locations. This standardized system helps researchers measure and assign a value to the services provided by a location in its current state – clean water, nature-based recreation, pollination of crops, etc. – and compare them to the values provided in a plausible alternative scenario (e.g. conversion to agriculture).
For example, with the help of TESSA, scientists found that Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park in Nepal, if lost its protection and converted from forest to farmland, would reduce carbon storage benefits by 60% and water quality benefits by 88% with others Costs, leaving a deficit of $ 11 million per year. The toolkit also found that Hesketh Out Marsh – a salt marsh near Preston, UK – has an annual value of over $ 2,000 per hectare due to emissions reductions alone and outweighs the potential income from harvesting or grazing.
These insights could play an important role in developing the new global framework for nature. The study’s co-author, Anne-Sophie Pellier of BirdLife International, sums it up: “Our results show that conserving and restoring key areas of biodiversity is not only useful for protecting species and ecosystems, but also for a broader purpose provides economic benefits for society. This is vital in the context of new conservation strategies to halt the unprecedented biodiversity loss we are currently facing. “
Now that we can put a price on nature, there is no longer an excuse to ignore its value in local and global decisions.