What’s the value of a forest? Is it the economic benefit of the local livelihoods it supports? The benefit to the ecosystem? Does it have an intrinsic value? All of the above? It's hard to judge, and according to a four-year study, we're not that good at this type of judgment. The study found that humans are focusing too much on the direct economic valuations of natural resources, ignoring the indirect, long-term benefits -- and this is causing an environmental crisis.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has a tough task. It's an intergovernmental organization established to improve the interface between science and policy on issues of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The problem is that measuring ecosystem services is never easy and straightforward.
Take the simple example of an urban tree. What type of value does it provide? Well, there's the shade and the temperature regulation. It produces oxygen and sucks out pollution. But it also helps filter precipitation water, regulates stormwater runoff, and offer support to the local ecosystem (which in turn, may provide other benefits). It doesn't even end here: trees can make areas more pleasant, potentially increasing the economic value of nearby property. There's also potential cultural value in a tree, and how do you value the benefits of encouraging children to have a tighter bond with nature?
These questions aren't easy to answer, and that's just one tree -- assessing the same thing for more complex systems is much more challenging. IPBES says we're bad at this type of stuff, and the wider benefits of nature have been widely ignored. This has led to bad decisions that have reduced people’s well-being.
If we truly want to be sustainable, qualitative approaches have to be considered by decision-makers, the IPBES said. This means valuing the emotional, spiritual, and cultural values that nature brings to humans. The report includes over 13,000 references and was carried out by over 80 experts in economics, humanities, and social sciences. It builds on the Dasgupta review, which found the planet is facing risks because of not considering the true value of nature.
“There is no shortage of ways and tools to make visible the values of nature,” Prof. Unai Pascual, who co-chaired the report, said in a statement. “Only 2% of the more than 1,000 studies reviewed consult stakeholders on valuation findings and only 1% of the studies involved stakeholders in every step of the process of valuing nature.”
The value of nature
IPBES is usually described as the conservation scientists’ equivalent of the IPCC, the UN body that groups climate scientists. It regularly provides policymakers with scientific assessments about the planet’s biodiversity and its contributions to people. Days ago, it published a report on how wild species can meet the needs of billions.
Now, the new assessment highlights four perspectives that should be considered: “Living from nature,” or its ability to meet our needs, “living with nature,” the right of non-human life to thrive, “living in nature,” people’s right to a sense of identity, and “living as nature,” or to treat the natural world as a spiritual part of being human.
IPBES found that there are over 50 ways of making the value of nature visible in decisions. However, these were only considered in 2% of the studies reviewed for the assessment. Moving forward, other tools to value nature will have to be considered and used, the researchers argued. One example, they said, is using citizen assemblies.
A rare example of taking into consideration the spiritual values of places is when India decided not to mine near the Niyamgiri mountain which is sacred to the Dongaria Kondh people. The intrinsic value of the site was seen as more valuable than the financial gains from mining it, and the local village councils were consulted and all rejected the mining proposals. Another example is how Canada integrated indigenous perspectives when choosing how and where to dispose of nuclear waste. But there are far more examples where such perspectives are simply ignored or overlooked in the grand scheme of things.
The report comes ahead of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) summit in Montreal in December, which is expected to wrap up negotiations for a new global biodiversity framework. However, differences among countries still remain, especially in how developed countries should support developing countries in how to preserve nature.
“For too long, governments have looked at nature primarily through the prism of short-term economic growth, ignoring its multiple other values, from providing the food we eat and preventing floods to contributing to cultural identity. This report must be a wake-up call,” WWF head of Global Advocacy Claire Blanchard said in a statement.
The full report can be accessed here.