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How climate change will impact the world's "natural capital"

In a new study, researchers have uncovered the profound impact that climate change is expected to have on the world’s natural capital by 2100. This research, supported by the National Science Foundation, anticipates a 9% decline in ecosystem services, a measure of the benefits nature provides to humanity.

The concept of “natural capital” encompasses a range of vital services including breathable air, clean water, healthy forests, and biodiversity. These elements are crucial to human well-being, though they are often challenging to quantify in economic terms. 

Studying natural capital

The study was led by Bernardo Bastien-Olvera, who was a doctoral student at UC Davis during the research and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The researchers investigated how the redistribution of terrestrial ecosystems due to climate change will negatively impact natural capital.

The team combined global vegetation models, climate projections, and World Bank data on natural capital values to assess the impact of climate shifts on various countries’ ecosystem services, economic production, and natural capital stocks. 

The research reveals a stark reality: by the end of the century, climate-induced changes, such as alterations in vegetation, rainfall patterns, and increased CO2 levels, are expected to reduce global gross domestic product (GDP) by an average of 1.3%. This economic impact, however, will not be evenly distributed. 

The researchers found that the poorest 50% of countries are projected to bear about 90% of the GDP losses, while the wealthiest 10% may experience only a 2% reduction.

This discrepancy highlights the greater dependency of lower-income countries on natural resources for their economic output and the larger proportion of their wealth tied to natural capital.

Conservative estimates 

While comprehensive, the authors acknowledge that their estimates might be conservative, as they primarily focused on land-based systems like forests and grasslands.

The researchers also did not factor in disturbances such as wildfires or insect-driven tree mortality, which could further impact these ecosystems. Future research is planned to address the impacts on marine ecosystems.

Study senior author Frances C. Moore, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy, emphasized the importance of integrating the unique values derived from natural systems into climate policies. 

“With this study, we’re embedding natural systems and human well-being within an economic framework,” said Professor Moore. “Our economy and well-being depend on these systems, and we should recognize and account for these overlooked damages when we consider the cost of a changing climate.”

Natural capital implications and future study

Jeffrey Mantz, an NSF program officer, highlighted the significance of this study.

“Thanks to the efforts of this research team, we now know that damage to ecosystems impacts human well-being in ways that are both measurable and wildly disproportionate across populations. The results will be critical to abating economic losses in the coming decades.”

In summary, this research sheds light on the urgent need to consider the full scope of climate change’s impact on natural systems and human economies, and to develop policies that comprehensively address these challenges.

The study is published in the journal Nature


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