When Will We Value Nature’s Services?

Perspective can frame issues in such misleading ways.

Take the idea of “developing” land, which says untouched nature, especially prime coastal lands, have not reached their economic potential until someone builds a gigantic highrise that sits half empty most of the time.

The truth is the highest use of nature, the one with the most economic value in the long-term, is often doing nothing.

Nature filters air and water. Nature provides defenses against damage from flooding and increasingly violent storms, including hurricanes. Nature helps prevent the erosion of that valuable beachfront property.DSC_9622

Norfolk and its suburban and rural neighbors, Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore, should reframe the debate over sea level rise by adding nature into the mix.

A new study, the latest in a long line, highlighted in The New York Times, points out that ecosystems provide a lengthy list of defenses from catastrophes as well a wide array of vital services.  Coral reefs, for instance, have proved to be much more important for storm protection and erosion protection than previously thought, making their continued health an economic issue, not just an environmental issue.

For about two decades a few intrepid scientists and economists have attempted to place a value on nature’s services. In a famous 1997 study, Robert Costanza, a professor at Australian National University, and colleagues concluded that ecosystem services worldwide were worth $33 trillion annually ($48.7 trillion in today’s dollars). That was twice as valuable as the gross national products of all countries combined and it began a debate about how that huge number could possibly be accurate.
Costanza is behind the latest study, which only raises the stakes. The true value of ecosystem services, he and colleagues estimate, is $142.7 trillion a year. Quibble with the number, but don’t quibble with the real services nature provides that we have ignored for decades.

reeefIn 2005, I wrote a piece about ecosystem services for National Wildlife magazine noting that New York city gets water filtered by the forests of the Catskills at a fraction of the cost of building a filtration plant. In order to keep those forests clean, the city was spending $1.3 billion to build sewage treatment plants and protect the watershed. Later, I also wrote about the value of the Chesapeake Bay and how state and federal funding to improve it dwarf the value of its contributions.

A study issued last year by The Nature Conservancy and The Natural Capital Project notes that coastal habitats protect humans from storms. Preserving them selectively, the study notes, is a wise investment.

At the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina (pictured above), The Nature Conservancy is working a pilot project to test ideas to slow flooding, erosion, saltwater intrusion, and loss of wetlands and biodiversity, giving nature a chance to adapt.

My Pacific Standard magazine story on the project notes that such mitigation will be expensive, but not as expensive as doing nothing and losing the ecosystem services, recreation and tourism value of such places.

It all begins, though, by reframing the debate, by valuing the services nature provides and enhancing or restoring those services. Nature is an asset, scientists in The New York Times story note, one whose stock price needs to rise through wise investment.

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