Sunday 23rd October 2016                 Change text size:

Shared Planet: does nature have an economic value?

daniel julie via flickr

Can we put a price on nature? Or indeed, should we? These are the questions posed on BBC Radio 4’s Shared Planet programme last week.

Presenter Monty Don explored the world of environmental economics and ecosystem services.

He introduces the debate by asking if a rational valuation on the natural world might be the most practical way of working out how to protect it, and if assigning ecosystems a monetary value can ensure that they are better conserved.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report defines ecosystem services simply as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems”.

The topical example used in the Radio 4 programme refers to the plight of Britain’s bees. If bees disappeared, Don reasons, then replacing their role and pollenating fruit trees by hand would cost “a huge amount”. Therefore the bees are in a sense providing a very valuable service.

To inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are being assigned economic values, often calculated by working out the cost of replacing the services with non-natural alternatives.

Supporters of this approach say that including such services in business calculations can prove that nature is worth conserving in cold, financial terms.

A report follows the work of the Coastal Biodiversity Ecosystem Service Sustainability initiative at the Eden estuary in north-east Scotland, where a team is trying to assess the value of the area.

The report reveals that such work can be even more complicated that you might think. The scientists must consider the contributions of even the smallest organisms in the local ecosystem. Even tiny polychaete worms and mud shrimps, we are told, are essential to the biodiversity of the area.

All that biodiversity makes up a complex food chain that is commercially important. But the area provides much more than just that. The mud flats provide a natural buffer that moderates the force of the winds and the waves, protecting our inland environment. Less tangible benefits, such as the enjoyment visitors take from the estuary, also must be considered. Tourists, dog walkers and kayakers all bring money into the local economy.

Don’s guests on the programme cautiously conclude that putting a price on natural services is worth it. Jonathan Aylen, a senior lecturer from Manchester Business School, says that it forces the business community to recognise nature is a scarce resource.

Environmental writer Tony Juniper argues that we have been losing nature precisely because we have not been valuing it. Bill Adams, professor of conservation and development at Cambridge University, says that at least the use of an ecosystem services approach places any value on nature.

Adams questions, however, what happens when we hand nature over to the commodity trader. He is concerned whether using ecosystem services is unpacking a “Pandora’s box”.

Indeed, some are made uneasy by the idea of nature as a service provider. It is argued that economic motivations for conservation must not replace scientific or ethical factors.

Richard Conniff, writer and journalist, says, “It may be, as some argue, that we have no better way to save the world. But the danger in the process is that we may lose our souls.”

Don concludes that it does seem to be worth putting a price on nature, if only to make people think about its value.

Further reading:

Consequences of ecosystem changes missing from economic forecasts

Government unveils strategy to end UK bee decline

State of Nature report reveals alarming UK wildlife loss

Loss of £200bn pollinating services will be harmful, scientists warn

Why we can’t afford to lose ecosystem services

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