How do we value nature? Costanza, Monbiot and the clash of concepts

2012-05-31 13.57.26

Is nature something that we should simply value for its own sake?  Or should we take account of how nature supports our society and our economy in real financial terms?  Back in 1997 Australian academic Robert Costanza and colleagues published a now classic paper in the journal Nature called “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital” that proved to be hugely influential and has been cited more than 3,500 times by other researchers in ecology, conservation, and ecological economics.  Soon after publication I began to use the paper in some of my classes, asking students how they felt about putting a monetary ($) value on how nature supports ecosystem services such as soil formation, pollination, carbon storage, climate regulation, etc.  Opinions were mixed, reflecting the fact that economic valuation of nature is controversial in theory, difficult to do in practice, and results in vast estimations of the “worth” of nature that seem to be fantastical.  The Costanza et al. study, for example, suggested that ecosystem services were worth $33 trillion per year to the global economy, a figure almost twice as large as the Global GDP at the time!

More than a decade and a half later, Costanza has published a follow up paper that updates the figures in the 1997 paper and arrives at a global valuation of natural capital of between $125 and $145 trillion per year, depending on assumptions made about changes to the area of biomes such as temperate forest, grassland, coral reefs, etc.  This last point is critical as loss of biome area due to changes in land use from agriculture and urbanisation has resulted in an estimated loss of ecosystem services of between $4.3 and $20.2 trillion per year between 1997 and 2011.  That’s a big change and, if nothing else, gives an indication of how we are altering the face of the planet at an ever faster rate, something I will come back to later in this post.

In this new paper Costanza and colleagues have also responded to some of the criticisms of the earlier work, particularly by journalist and activist George Monbiot who, as I’ve previously discussed on this blog, has a genuine, but I feel misguided, aversion to the whole notion of ecosystem services and natural capital. Monbiot’s been repeating these criticisms in a lecture, a video and text of which is available on the Guardian website.  I won’t go into a detailed discussion of his position, some of which I agree with, but I do believe that his major criticisms fail on two points.

The first is that Monbiot mixes up some very different concepts, bundling ecosystem services (a reasonable way of thinking about nature in relation to society) with biodiversity offsetting (a load of bollocks), green infrastructure (the importance of green space to urban development), carbon trading (dubious in theory and practice), and payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes (which can work on a regional scale, as in the case of South West Water’s upland catchments project), as if they were all the same thing, which they are not.  In the Nene Valley NIA Project, for example, we are using an ecosystem services approach and are trying to develop a PES, but are wholly against biodiversity offsetting.

The second is that Monbiot sees all of this as some kind of neoliberal agenda to sell off the natural world to the highest bidder.  That’s really not the case and ecosystem services are being promoted as a concept by conservationists, NGOs and scientists whose motivation is saving the natural world, not selling it.  As Costanza et al. (2014) rightly state: “It is a misconception to assume that valuing ecosystem services in monetary units is the same as privatizing them or commodifying them for trade in private markets”

In his lecture Monbiot uses the classic rhetorician’s device of using partial quotes to support his point.  For example he quotes Dieter Helm as saying that:

“The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed”.

Sounds bad, I agree.  But the full quote actually gives a very different and more profoundly “green” message:

“Over the coming decades, there will be a major programme to develop the UK’s infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Plan 2013 sets out ambitious plans – for new railways, roads, airport expansions, energy systems, water resources, sewerage investments, flood defences and a major increase in house building …….. In taking forward this major investment, it is important not to lose sight of natural infrastructure and the integral part that natural capital plays in delivering sustainable economic growth. …… the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.  Integrating the environment into the economy is hampered by the almost complete absence of proper accounting for natural assets. What is not measured is usually ignored.”

Monbiot does make some good points in relation to how power can trump any environmental monetary valuation, and how political influence works, but his solution of “mobilisation”, is most effective at a relatively small scale, for example the defeat of Derby Council over plans to develop a nature reserve.  Mobilisation by passionate environmentalists has failed to protect large swathes of Brazil’s natural environment, but arguments about the link between vegetation and rainfall, underscored by financial assessments of agricultural crop reductions, just might.

What is interesting about the lecture (which I encourage you to watch, Monbiot is a great speaker and it’s more entertaining than the transcript) is that not one of the audience questions afterwards actually dealt with the main topic of the lecture, namely the pricing of nature.  Is that because he won over the audience completely with his arguments?  Or is it because the ecosystem services approach to nature conservation is too recent a concept for its technicalities to have embedded themselves within public consciousness, and a general audience such as this might not feel confident enough to make challenging comments?  I suspect the latter because whenever I give public lectures to gardening and wildlife groups, for instance, I always ask who has heard of “ecosystem services”, and invariably it’s a minority of the audience.

If Monbiot was correct and it’s possible to sell off natural capital in the way he describes, then we would expect the coalition UK government, for one, as well as big business, to buy into the concept wholeheartedly and to invest much more than they currently do in order to make a quick buck out of biodiversity.  But they aren’t, and in fact this government has a track record that shows it has only the most cursory of interests in the UK’s natural ecosystems, and is willing to ignore scientific evidence to placate special interest groups who happen to be Conservative Party supporters (witness the recent badger cull debacle and the lack of action over illegal activity on grouse moors).

This is no doubt a debate that will continue but time is running out for the natural world and we don’t have many options: in Table 3 of Costanza et al. (2014) the authors present worrying data on how some biomes have greatly reduced in area since 1997 (e.g. coral reefs, wetlands) whilst croplands and urban settlement has increased.  That can’t go on: the natural world is too valuable, in all senses of that world, to lose, something I’m sure George Monbiot would agree with even if he doesn’t believe that monetary valuation is the way to do it.




Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

4 responses to “How do we value nature? Costanza, Monbiot and the clash of concepts

  1. Pingback: How do YOU value the Nene Valley? | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  2. Pingback: Ecosystem services online lecture by Robert Costanza | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  3. Pingback: Bad news for British biodiversity and a comment on ecosystem services | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  4. Pingback: Tight But Loose – just what is “biodiversity”? | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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