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Placing a monetary value on nature conservation and ecosystems

Scientists have introduced an innovative method for quantifying the value and long-term benefits of ecosystem biodiversity and nature conservation. A new study suggests that this new approach could transform how governments approach the economic assessment of public infrastructure projects.

This new approach seeks to quantify the loss of animal and plant species, along with ecosystem services– such as air and water filtration, crop pollination, and recreational value — in monetary terms. Its aim is to bring the importance of biodiversity loss and nature conservation to the forefront of political decision-making.

Rethinking biodiversity valuation

Traditionally, the methods used to calculate the value of ecosystem services have been criticized for their limitations. The team’s newly proposed method addresses these concerns by accounting for the expected increase in nature’s monetary value over time due to rising human income. Simultaneously, it factors in biodiversity decline, which renders it a more scarce resource.

Professor Moritz Drupp of the University of Hamburg, the study’s lead author and a renowned expert in Sustainability Economics, explains, “Our study equips governments with a formula to estimate the future values of scarce ecosystem services, enhancing decision-making processes.”

Valuing ecosystems over time

This approach acknowledges two pivotal factors. Firstly, global income and prosperity are anticipated to grow by an estimated 2% per year after inflation adjustments, increasing the willingness to pay for nature conservation. Secondly, as ecosystem services become rarer, their value surges — a fundamental economic principle that also applies to the conservation sector.

“On the other hand, the services provided by ecosystems will become more valuable the scarcer they become”, said Professor Drupp.

“The fact that scarce goods become more expensive is a fundamental principle in economics, and it also applies here. And in view of current developments, unfortunately, we must expect the loss of biodiversity to continue,” Drupp explained.

Economic principles behind the new approach

The researchers advocate for a significant upward revision of the current monetary values assigned to ecosystem services in cost-benefit analyses.

They propose an increase by more than 130% when considering income rise alone, and over 180% when also factoring in the impact on endangered species listed on the Red List Index. This recalibration could greatly increase the likelihood of conservation projects passing cost-benefit evaluations.

The study’s insights are further enriched by contributions from three UK-based researchers: Professor Mark Freeman (University of York), Dr. Frank Venmans (LSE), and Professor Ben Groom (University of Exeter).

Implications for policy and decision-making

“The monetary values for the environment that are currently used by policy makers in the appraisal of public investments and regulatory change mean that nature becomes relatively less valuable over time compared to other goods and services,” said Professor Groom.

“Our work shows this is wrong. We propose an uplift in the values of ecosystems over time. This proposal could easily be deployed in the Treasury’s analysis that will underpin future Budget statements.” 

Dr. Venmans brings attention to specific cases like coral reefs, which are expected to decline due to climate change, thereby increasing the value of the remaining reefs, especially as household incomes rise. “This becomes crucial when evaluating the preservation of coral reefs with long-lasting impacts,” he adds.

Impact of placing a monetary value on ecosystems

Echoing the significance of this work, Professor Freeman emphasizes the need for consistent evaluation of ecosystem protection alongside other public project.

“The government is under considerable pressure from many sides for additional public investment. Ensuring that the protection of ecosystems is appraised in a way that is consistent with other public projects, including HS2 and other infrastructure spending, is critical. This is what our work aims to achieve,” Freeman expounded.

In summary, this compelling study challenges the traditional methods of valuing biodiversity and ecosystem services and offers a solution that could revolutionize environmental policy and conservation efforts worldwide.

By introducing a formula that accounts for the rising value of nature in tandem with human income and the scarcity of ecosystem services, the researchers provide governments and policymakers with a powerful tool to make informed decisions that reflect the true worth of our natural world.

This approach underscores the importance of preserving biodiversity for future generations while offering a path towards a more sustainable and economically inclusive approach to managing our planet’s precious resources.

The full study was published in the journal Science.


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