Banking on Biodiversity, cont.

Money In The Riverbank

One of the reasons biodiversity loss has not stopped as pledged back in 2002, says Markus Lehmann, an economist at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity in Montreal, Canada, is because nations did not come to grips with the true value of biodiversity and the true costs of biodiversity loss. In general, biodiversity boosts an ecosystem’s productivity. Preserving biodiversity puts ecosystems in a better position to store nutrients, prevent erosion, protect water resources and contribute to climate stability.

“Even though we profit from ecosystem ser­vices, the price tag is zero. We don’t have to buy it at the market or Sears,” he says. “That leads you to implicitly assume that you can waste it away.”

Take wetlands, for example. Years ago, to many land use planners, these species-rich habitats appeared to just sit there, occupying space that might otherwise be used for agricul­ture to produce food, jobs and income. It was only after water was dammed or drained, the wetlands dried up, and the species comprising them disappeared that people realized they were important for things like buffering storms (think Hurricane Katrina) and providing clean drinking water.

“You don’t notice it immediately,” says Lehmann. “But you notice it when you have to build a waterworks, and then it is too late.”

Affixing an economic value to biodiversity and ecosystems as the Natural Capital Project does can tune policymakers in to the goods and services nature provides. The approach is an attempt to align dominant economic forces with the preservation of natural ecosystems by quantifying—when possible—the benefits of ecosystems and the costs associated with chang­ing or losing them.

One oft-cited study published in Nature in 1997 by ecological economist Robert Costanza suggested that the value of ecosystems far ex­ceeded the annual gross national product of the planet, and that marine systems (mostly coastal) contribute to nearly two-thirds of that value. At the time, Costanza estimated the value of worldwide ecosystems at $33 trillion per year. Global GNP that year, by contrast, was only $18 trillion. Although the study has since been criticized for overreaching, Lehmann thinks the point was made: “Whether the true value is $20 trillion or $50 trillion, who cares, the number is very large indeed.”

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San Pedro Paradise

San Pedro River

Home to more than 1,000 species of plants, birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and butterflies, the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona is threatened by growing demand for water from communities along its path.

Conservationists hope to help save the river by calling attention to the economic value of the biodiversity, carbon sequestration and other services it provides.

In Deep Water

Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Last summer’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the loss of billions of dollars’ worth of services provided by living things, from commercial fish production to hurricane protection.