The real value of ecology

One of the greatest misconceptions of our time is the idea that there is somehow a choice between economic development and sustaining nature. The narrative goes that environmental goals need to be scaled back to promote more growth.

The reality we inhabit is somewhat different. One hundred percent of economic activity is dependent on the services and benefits provided by nature. Many economists suffer from the kinds of delusion that make it perfectly rational for them to accept that natural systems have to be liquidated in the pursuit of "growth".But studies reveal the huge economic value being lost because decisions and policies that are geared to promoting economic activity degrade the services provided by nature.

For example, as we struggle to cut emissions from fossil fuels, one study estimates that the value of the carbon capture services, which could be gained through halving the deforestation rate by 2030, is about $3.7-trillion.

The wildlife in the same forests has huge value too — about 50% of the United States's $640-billion pharmaceutical market is based on the genetic diversity of wild species, many of which are found in forests.

Wildlife also helps to control pests and diseases. The cost of losing India's vultures has been estimated at $34-billion, largely because of the public health costs associated with their demise, including increased rabies infections.

The annual pest-control value provided by insectivorous birds in a coffee plantation has been estimated as $310 a hectare and the annual per hectare value added from birds controlling pests in timber-producing forests has been put at $1 500. Birds preying on caterpillars in a Dutch orchard were found to improve the apple harvest by 50%.

The services provided by animals, such as bees, doing the pollination work that underpins about $1-trillion worth of agricultural sales, has been valued at $190-billion a year.

Marine ecosystems also generate massive economic benefit. The gross domestic product (GDP) value derived from marine fish stocks and the industries associated with them is about $274-billion a year — and this could be worth another $50-billion if fish stocks were managed more intelligently.

But even these huge numbers are dwarfed by the wider value of the marine and coastal systems in protecting coasts from storms, in taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replenishing its oxygen levels. The value of these and other ocean-based services has been estimated as being worth about $21-trillion a year.

For individual countries, the services provided by the marine environment can underpin a considerable proportion of their GDP. One study from the World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature found that at least one quarter of the GDP of Belize is reliant on its coral reef and coastal mangrove forests.

When it comes to how much the degradation of nature is costing the global economy, a study by Trucost estimates that it is already about $6.6-trillion a year (11% of world GDP) and on present trends will reach $28-trillion by 2050. In contrast, a study from a group of leading conservationists suggests that to meet global goals that would avert a mass extinction of species would cost around $76-billion a year — or 0.12% of annual world GDP.

So although we have become used to hearing that nature is a drag on development and a brake on growth, the opposite is, in fact, the case.

Looking after nature is an unavoidable prerequisite for sustaining economic development. Some leading companies have realised this and are changing their strategies. Some countries, including Guyana and Costa Rica, have also worked out that their natural systems are the basis of their wealth and are acting to protect it.

This is a real economic issue and is increasingly urgent as the planet-scale Ponzi scheme that gathers ever more momentum blows nature's capital. Rising to the challenge of aligning human demands with what nature can indefinitely supply requires a big injection of political will.

Economists and economic planners have become used to seeing nature as supplier of resources and dump for waste. We have reached the point now where we must realise that nature is also a supplier of services, an inspiration for design and our greatest ally in securing human needs indefinitely into the future.

Tony Juniper is a senior associate with the University of Cambridge programme for sustainability leadership. His most recent book, What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?, sets out how economies are 100% reliant on ecology

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.

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