Money matters. It is the language in which business and politics speak. Indeed, the most pervasive question in our democracy, particularly in these economically treacherous times, is ‘How much will it cost?’
Image courtesy of Julien Harneis
For those reasons, both the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UK government have pumped serious resources into putting a price tag on nature, in the hope that doing so will lead to a louder voice for nature in the corridors of power.
It’s thrown up some striking statistics too. UNEP estimate that ecosystems deliver essential economic services worth up to £46 trillion to the world economy every year – almost 30 times as much as UK GDP. Worryingly, they also suggest that 60% of those services have been degraded in the past 50 years and that deforestation alone is costing the world economy up to £3 trillion every year.
They’re big numbers and it’s a tantalising tool for conservationists. All too often, politicians and big businesses have met concerns about the loss of natural resources and biodiversity with lip service, or worse still, disinterest. But when you put the argument in their terms, with £ signs, % symbols, and lots of words ending in ‘illion’, it becomes an altogether more pressing concern.
However, as with most powerful tools, pricing nature comes with its dangers. First, how do you actually do it? UNEP reckon that nature provides economic services in four ways;
- Provisioning services like crops, fresh drinking water, and medicinal plants.
- Regulating services, such as climate regulation through carbon storage and pollination of crops.
- Cultural services of recreational and spiritual value.
- And supporting services like soil formation and photosynthesis.
But how do you put a figure on all of that? Well, with a lot of difficulty and a lot of uncertainty. But aside from all the economic arguments, can you really put a number on the sense of awe when looking out over a stunning landscape or the thrill of discovery felt when trailing through lush tropical rainforest?
Further, if you value nature like a commodity, there is a real risk that it will be treated as such. Some of this is already happening with carbon offsetting schemes where carbon pumped from a jet engine is negated by planting trees, for example. But nature, unlike coffee or copper, is unique to its place. A South American rainforest cannot simply be replaced with a North American conifer plantation.
But perhaps the biggest question, particularly at a time of economic struggle, is who is going to pay nature’s price? And here’s the catch. If we put a monetary value on nature, the chances are it will be you, me and everybody else who has to pay for it.
Until now, we have treated nature largely as though it were free, an obstacle to economic development or something to be harvested for economic benefit. If we suddenly start to recognize that its real economic value might be in its preservation, we may have to forego some of those benefits and developments and pay the price that comes with it. There is even talk of reflecting this new-found value of nature in the tax system.
With the cost of food and going on holiday already on the rise it is easy to see that this is unlikely to be popular. But what is the alternative? The ecological services we rely on are in an increasingly critical condition. In the last 300 years the world has lost 40% of its forest cover and the current pace of species loss is faster than at any point in the Earth’s history. With global population set to peak at 9 billion in 2050, our thirst for resources shows no sign of abating.
In economic terms, the Stern Review suggests that unchecked climate change will cost the equivalent of a 5% global recession now and for the foreseeable future. And, as so often with issues of this kind, it is the World’s poor who will be left to foot the bill. It is they who rely most directly on the planets ecosystems.
So we have a choice; either recognize the price of nature now and start paying for it together, or go on under the pretense of free nature and leave the bill to be picked up by the World’s poor in the future.
Nature does have a price, but it may well be a price worth paying.
By Alex Peel
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