Opinion: Ignoring the need for conservation will be costly

By James McGurk

Working out what nature is worth is increasingly important if we are to motivate governments and businesses to allocate resources to conservation. But how can you put a value on such an abstract concept?

On the 25th February, influential conservation scientist Georgina Mace led a guest seminar at Durham University to discuss this pressing issue.

During the seminar, Mace presented worrying research showing that at local scales, species richness has declined by 14% between the years 1500 and 2000. That decline is accelerating; if we’re to honour a government white paper pledging to be the first generation that leaves the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it, we have to turn things around. But looking at the value of nature may provide a way to do so.

At local scales, species richness has declined by 14% between the years 1500 and 2000

Some values of nature are obvious. We can easily calculate the yield of a fishery, for example, and calculate how much will be lost if overfishing almost eradicates the population – as has happened far too often, even in Newfoundland, formerly the world’s most productive fishing grounds. We can easily see that marine protected areas quickly pay for themselves by increasing the catch in adjacent waters by 46-90%.

Others are less obvious. What are the puffins on the local coastline worth?

That’s not as pointless a question as it might seem. There is only a finite amount of money that could be allocated towards conservation and an effectively infinite list of other things we could spend it on. With 5583 species currently critically endangered according to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and countless species we lack the data to classify, we can’t save everything from anthropogenic threats.

So we must determine how much to spend on conservation, and what to prioritise. This is an issue Mace has researched and advised the government on for many years.

Around the turn of the millennium, putting a financial value to nature was a major focus of conservation. The resulting values were often astounding: for instance, continuing to emit CO2 at current levels will cost $14.6 – $20.6 billion to coral reef fisheries alone compared to a small, easily-feasible reduction in emissions.

This is just one valuable benefit provided by coral reefs, and even then, excludes further costs in lost livelihoods. Similar studies showed that the destructive exploitation of many ecosystems often costs more than it’s worth.

Yet Mace stressed from the start of her talk that nature’s value is more than monetary. Nature brings us many services we can’t live without, like oxygen production, or creating and maintaining soils. Others are hard to quantify: it brings happiness to many people, inspires art, has important roles in many cultures, holds the genetic diversity we need to develop more productive crops and more effective medicines… the list is enormous.

Financial valuations… will always underestimate nature’s worth

Financial valuations are useful to persuade policy-makers that conservation investment brings big returns, but will always underestimate nature’s worth. They often show that exploitation brings short-term private profit but incurs greater costs in the long-term, which are spread across the community; this is not enough to stop unscrupulous corporations taking that quick, unsustainable profit.

Mace contributed to a recent study incorporating those non-market values, such as recreational value, to estimates of the future value of agricultural land in the UK. The result: reducing greenhouse gas emissions combined with strengthening environmental regulations gave the greatest future productivity.

This study omitted many benefits of nature such as healthy wetlands filtering water, which would save Northumbrian water millions of pounds here in the northeast; it has therefore underestimated how much we’d gain from environmental protection. During the seminar, Mace also presented research suggesting woodland conservation gave a higher return on investment than most forms of infrastructure spending, excluding broadband.

Conservation efforts directly benefit humans as well as wildlife

Nature has too many values to mention here. Yet even examining a small subset of those values shows, as above, that conservation is worthwhile. Conservation efforts directly benefit humans as well as wildlife: mitigating climate change will save millions of people from being made homeless by rising sea levels.

And many valuable steps toward conservation barely cost anything: minimising single-use plastic consumption, switching unused electrical items off, choosing food without palm oil and with certifications from organisations like the rainforest alliance…

Georgina Mace described Britain’s conservation targets as “very unambitious.” She maintains it will be simple and worthwhile to focus them on making things better, rather than stopping them getting worse. I, for one, agree wholeheartedly.

Photograph: Engelberger via Wikimedia Commons

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