What is the real value of the ecosystem?

What is the real value of the ecosystem?
What is the real value of the ecosystem?

For those looking to stop climate change, it's time to pull out their wallet, go to the beach, find the closest whale and write him a check for $ 2 million. That's the least you can do.

Whales do a lot of unpaid work cleaning up and cleaning up our carbon mess. They accumulate it in their huge bodies as they grow and, dying, carry it to the bottom of the ocean, thus preventing it from circulating in the atmosphere. Scientists have found that whale excrement is a feast of phytoplankton near the ocean's surface, which sucks in CO2 and isolates it in the depths of the water.

In December, a group of IMF economists calculated that the cost of this service, based on the current market price of CO2, is about $ 2 million per whale over its lifetime. Considering the current population of whales in the world, that's over $ 1 trillion.

This special kind of interdisciplinary science - translating the services that different species and ecosystems (swamps, coral reefs, forests, etc.) perform into dollars, pounds of carbon, and other numbers - is called natural capital economics. Natural capital economists also measure the value of other "ecosystem services" such as food production, water storage, pollination, removal of toxins from air, soil and water, and protection from erosion and flooding.

A 2014 article by Australian economist Robert Constanzi notes that the total cost of the services performed is more than $ 140 trillion.

Since the term was first coined in 1973 by the German economist E. F. Schumacher, the study of natural capital has become an essential tool for conservationists who convince political and business leaders to invest in environmental protection. According to a 2017 UN estimate, more than 50 countries, including most of Europe and South America (but not the US), regularly incorporate the economy of natural capital into their environmental policy decisions.

On Monday, two researchers in the field were awarded the Tyler Prize, the highest honor for environmental research, the Nobel Prize for the Environment, which awards each winner $ 100,000. Past recipients include legendary ecologist E. O. Wilson, chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, author and biologist Jared Diamond, Pennsylvania climatologist Michael Mann, whose graph showing the world's rise in temperature has become "the most controversial graph in science."

This year's laureates are Gretchen Daly, director of the Conservation Biology Center at Stanford University, and Pavan Sukhdev, economist and president of WWF. Sukhdev was the lead author of a major 2008 UN report that said the world is losing $ 4 trillion in natural capital a year through deforestation, ocean pollution and other activities. Daley is the author of numerous books on the topic and the founder of the Stanford Natural Capital Project, which has conducted research on the value of natural assets from Kenya to Costa Rica and Nepal.

"Natural capital is truly a revolutionary concept," says Heather Tallis, a senior conservation scientist who has worked closely with Daly. "It made us move from discussing what is outside our economy to what is the core of our economy."

Calculations like these can help companies determine how climate change, pollution and other environmental impacts might affect their bottom line. For example, in 2018, the Mexican government and coastal tourism companies used the natural capital economy to open a coral reef insurance and protection program. Reefs are essential for attracting tourists and protecting beaches, hotels, roads and other key infrastructure from storms, so the government shares the costs with local businesses, who receive payments when storms or other impacts damage the reefs. Meanwhile, the economy of natural capital is behind water conservation initiatives that support companies and agencies that depend on clean, stable water for their operations.

"It's like paying for a drug instead of constantly paying for bandages," says Tallis.

A line can be drawn between the concept and a recent letter from Larry Fink, CEO of the world's largest asset manager, BlackRock, she said. He warned that "climate risk data is forcing investors to rethink basic assumptions about modern finance."

Eminent scientists and ecologists argue that natural capital is dangerously shrinking; they also argue that the peculiar placement of price tags on whales and wetlands distracts from the natural value of nature. And this can be counterproductive in cases where a particular landscape or organism is devoid of great economic value or even runs counter to human interests: for example, swamps can contain dangerous infections, and wild animals can kill people or destroy property.

Adrian Vogl, lead scientist with the Natural Capital Project, says natural capital scientists are increasingly interested in moving from dollar figures to other, more tangible indicators, such as the number of lives saved by clean air and water, or projections of how pollution and change climate will affect yields.

He noted that the next step is to help more governments and businesses use natural capital ideas to balance economic growth with conserving natural potential.

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