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  • Some experts believe placing a monetary value on Earth's resources may help counteract unsustainable use
  • Others claim valuation doesn't work, citing carbon markets as an example
  • If ethical and justice-based arguments for conservation have failed, what is left?
  • The refusal to price Nature may be linked more to emotional than intellectual reasons

Earth Day 2015 finds the planet in ecological crisis due to species extinction, climate change, soil degradation, polluted oceans and freshwater depletion. So what’s to be done?

Quantify the true value of nature’s stocks (natural capital) and nature’s flows (ecosystem services), argue former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniperand Jonny Hughes, CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and co-founder of the World Forum on Natural Capital. Only then will the powerful realize it is in all our interests to halt destruction: that was the message they delivered at the Edinburgh Science Festival last week.

What price for Nature? Well, for example, insects provide $152 billion of ecosystem services by pollinating the plants we eat, says the UN study The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB). Forests provide freshwater, scrub the air clean and host plants that make medicines. Halving deforestation would yield a profit of $3.7 trillion every year. 

Don’t be naive, countered John O’Neill, professor of political ecology at the University of Manchester. Putting a price on nature will hasten not halt the destruction by further exposing ecosystems to profit-driven markets, the root cause of the problem. 

Here are four key points and counterpoints from their debate on ‘The Price of Nature’.

The fundamental problem for Tony Juniper is that economics does not value nature. It is invisible. Consequently economic decision makers see environmental protection as “getting in the way of growth and development and the enemy of people”. 

The natural capital agenda makes nature visible. “We can make decisions on the stewardship of the natural environment based on hard-nosed economics,” said Hughes. For example, the TEEB for Business Coalition and Trucost have calculated that cattle ranching and farming in South America has a natural capital cost of $312.1bn but meat production yields a mere $16.6bn. Trucost also calculates that the world’s largest corporations are causing $2tn environmental damage a year. If those costs were included in their accounts very few would be profitable

“Carbon has been made visible to the economic world and it has been a disaster,” countered John O’Neill, criticizing the TEEB report’s recommendation of market mechanisms akin to the European emissions trading scheme. 

Putting a value on carbon emissions has retarded efforts to deal with climate change by obscuring the need for radical decarbonization and an end to the relentless obsession with economic growth. The notion of replicating this discredited model, with biodiversity offsetting schemes aping carbon offsetting, is a dangerous distraction.

Ethical and justice-based arguments for conserving nature have failed. The environmental movement’s successes are “minor skirmishes in a war being lost on almost all fronts” said Jonny Hughes. A new language is essential. “You have savings, you put them in the bank and you get returns,” explained Juniper. “As long as the forest is intact it captures carbon, replenishes water and contributes free oxygen and we get a dividend. But the natural capital assets have to be intact.” 

This makes finance ministries and corporations sit up and listen. “Now we are finally having conversations with those people,” said Jonny Hunter. “This debate is about getting politicians to understand simply destroying one form of value to create another is not good for humanity.”

The problem with valuing things in monetary terms, said John O’Neill, is that a value of a dollar for a poor person is much more than for a rich person. Consequently, the preferred decisions “always turn out to be to preserve the environment for the rich and dump it for the poor.” The language and practices of prices and markets do not address that power imbalance. “This is capture of a sphere of politics by an economic language and that why it is going to fail,” he said. 
Countries looking into natural capital legislation include Botswana, Costa Rica, Colombia, Germany, Peru, the Philippines and the UK. In the corporate world, sports company Puma has pioneered natural capital accounting, calculating its environmental damage to be €145m a year. “We want all companies doing that as a legal requirement, instead of just financial profit and loss reporting,” said Juniper. 
O’Neill responded that it was “incredibly naive” to expect corporations to change their behavior because increasing marketization and the compulsion towards economic growth are the source of the problem. “Whatever Puma says in its corporate responsibility moments they have to be profitable and grow their business. That is the world that is trashing the globe.” 

O’Neill continued by arguing forcefully that putting a monetary value on nature misses the point that for many people the refusal to price nature is part of its intrinsic value and they are attached to specific places. Hence the idea of biodiversity offsetting is so objectionable. 

“To say natural goods are priceless is not to say they have infinite value. It is to say that is not an appropriate way to express that value...If I told my partner, 'I love you so much it would take about £5000 for me to leave you,' that would be a really bad way for me to express that love.” He suggested that instead of using monetary values we should discuss wellbeing and other measures of value.

In response, Juniper and Hughes were at pains to distinguish between price and value, the latter incorporating aesthetic, social and spiritual elements. “We can make the valuation but we don’t have to go to markets and we don’t have to go to price,” said Juniper, arguing that monetary valuation was the most effective way to change government policy. “It’s about saying nature is a public good which must be protected.”
James Tulloch

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