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Protecting nature is much more valuable than converting it

The economic benefits of protecting nature are greater than the benefits of exploiting it, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. The study is the largest of its kind to compare the value of conserving natural sites to potential economic gains from converting them for human use.

“Current rates of habitat conversion are driving a species extinction crisis unlike anything in human history,” said study senior author Professor Andrew Balmford.

“Even if you are only interested in dollars and cents, we can see that conserving and restoring nature is now very often the best bet for human prosperity. The findings echo at an operational scale the overall conclusions drawn by the Dasgupta Review.”

The team examined dozens of sites across six continents. The results of the analysis have been published just weeks after a landmark report by Cambridge Professor Partha Dasgupta called for the value of biodiversity to be placed at the heart of global economics.

The experts calculated the monetary worth of each site’s “ecosystem services,” including carbon storage and flood protection. They also measured the value of each site by estimating the potential profits from converting it for production of goods such as crops and timber.

“Stemming biodiversity loss is a vital goal in itself, but nature also fundamentally underpins human well-being,” said study lead author Dr. Richard Bradbury. “We need nature-related financial disclosure, and incentives for nature-focused land management, whether through taxes and regulation or subsidies for ecosystem services.”

The study revealed that one major economic benefit of natural habitats is driven by their ability to help lower greenhouse gas emissions through processes like carbon sequestration.

Each ton of carbon carries a cost of at least $31 to global society. Based on this rate, which many scientists consider to be too conservative, more than 70 percent of the sites examined for the study have greater monetary value as natural habitats.

Even if the societal cost of carbon is removed completely from their calculations, the researchers found that almost half of the 24 sites were still worth more in their natural state.

“People mainly exploit nature to derive financial benefits. Yet in almost half of the cases we studied, human-induced exploitation subtracted rather than increased economic value,” said study co-author Dr. Kelvin Peh of the University of Southampton.

Ten years ago, the scientists designed the Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment (TESSA), which enables users to measure and assign a monetary value to services provided by a natural site. The new study is focused on results from 62 applications of TESSA around the world, which were mostly either forest or wetland. 

In one case, the scientists discovered that if Nepal’s Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park lost its protection and was converted from forest to farmland, it would cut carbon storage by 60 percent and reduce water quality by 88 percent. Combined with other costs, the conversion of this national park would produce a deficit of $11 million per year.

According to study co-author Anne-Sophie Pellier from BirdLife International, the results support the idea that conserving and restoring key biodiversity areas is not only important for safeguarding our natural heritage, but also for providing wider economic benefits to society.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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