Two scientists who have pioneered the field that quantifies the economic value of nature have been awarded the 2020 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, often described as the ‘Nobel Prize for the Environment’.
“The Tyler Prize Executive Committee is honored to recognize two outstanding individuals who have pioneered the valuing of natural capital – in rigorous scientific and economic terms – recognising nature’s vital role in supporting human wellbeing,” Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Tyler Prize Chair, said in a statement.
For years, economic development has swelled with little regard for environmental consequences. However, it soon became clear that this state of affairs cannot last. For one, natural resources are limited and thus cannot sustain infinite growth. Secondly, natural environments themselves enable economic development and their deterioration has to be factored in. In fact, we utterly depend on nature for our very own survival, from the air we breathe to the bees and other pollinating insects that flower our crops and put food on the table.
Gretchen Daily was among the first to treat the environment as a form of natural capital. While other environmental scholars would simply herald nature as ‘invaluable’ simply by virtue of its existence, Daily’s pragmatic approach of quantifying the value of ecosystems enabled policymakers to make more informed decisions. In the modern world where policymakers often have to make challenging decisions that either improve the economy or damage the environment, this framework proved to be a game-changer.
Daily’s seminal work is her 1997 book, Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, widely considered as one of the most influential books on the environment in recent history.
“Often we appreciate the costs of loss – of flooding after clearing forests, or polluted drinking water after destroying wetlands – only after it’s too late”, said Daily.
Daily is also the co-founder of the Natural Capital Project (NatCap) at Stanford University, which is one of the world’s leading organizations that furnish decision-makers with the tools and know-how to make environmentally-friendly decisions. For instance, NatCap has developed software that quantifies the return on investment of a project, bearing the benefits and costs associated with natural environments. The software is used by organizations in more than 180 nations in policy, finance, and management.
“Remember that nature has not been a part of economic accounting systems in the past. We just took it for granted that we’re going to get clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration. The use of economic tools by a biologist is not something that we find in everyday practice, and this has been Gretchen’s great gift.” reflects Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Tyler Prize Chair.
Pavan Sukhdev’s career path did nothing to suggest he would pioneer landmark environmental research. Sukhdev was Managing Director at Deutsche Bank when he was approached by the UN in 2009 to lead the ‘Green Economy Initiative’, which would go on to show that environmental conservation and economic growth are not necessarily at odds. Previously, at the peak of the financial crisis of 2008, Sukhdev authored the first report of “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB), which demonstrated the staggering cost of deforestation to the global economy.
“You don’t have to be an environmentalist to care about protecting the environment. Just ask a farmer who now has to rent beehives to pollinate his crops, because there are no longer enough bees in wild nature to do the job for free. But bees don’t send invoices, so the value of their services is not recognized”, says Sukhdev.
In recognition of these extraordinary achievements that have improved our understanding of the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity, Sukhdev’s was chosen to share this year’s Tyler Prize with Daily.
“Sukhdev’s phenomenal contribution to the global understanding of ecological and environmental value will define our approach to conservation for generations to come”, comments Satya S. Tripathi, UN Assistant Secretary-General.
The $200,000 Tyler Prize will be shared among the two laureates, who will be officially awarded during a private ceremony on May 1, 2020.