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Valuing Biodiversity

A vital report was released today that may finally communicate the importance of wildlife and habitat conservation in a language that could lead to it being taken more seriously by decision-makers: economics. The final report of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study – sponsored by the United Nations – shows that the cost of losing ecosystems and their biodiversity will ultimately be far greater than the investment that is required now to save them. Three years in the making, this represents the first ever effort to quantify the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems.

The report has been launched on the third day of an all important conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Nagoya, Japan. The target of achieving a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 – set in 2002 both at a previous CBD conference and at a UN World Summit on Sustainable Development – has not been met, and the problems have been getting worse. It is therefore hoped that this latest CBD conference will come up with firm new targets to be hit before 2020.

Environmental politics has of late been mainly dominated by climate change, while the long-term damage being caused by an escalating loss of biodiversity and ecosystems has largely been overlooked. As quoted recently in The Independent, the situation was put succinctly by the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Professor Stephen Hopper: "Biodiversity loss is as big or even more significant a long-term challenge to us – extinction is final, whereas with climate change we have the prospect of getting on top of it if we change our behaviour”.

With its vision of “making nature economically visible” the TEEB report has set out to redress this imbalance. As the report lays out, the conservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of important ecosystems is essential for the value they provide to human societies through “ecosystem services”.

Such ecosystem services include the direct use values of “provisioning services” (wild foods, crops, fresh-water, natural medicines etc.) and the non-consumptive use values of “cultural services”, which include recreation, education, spiritual and aesthetic values). Until now there has been a great push on the field of conservation to find ways of having wildlife “pay for itself” through such services. One of the best examples of this is ecotourism – a non-consumptive, recreational service – where maintaining wild environments and the animals they contain can provide a sustainable, competitive income for people, particularly at a local level, and in some cases even at a national level. Ecotourism can work, but not everywhere, and efforts to force it to work can place wider conservation efforts in jeopardy in areas to which it is ill-suited, especially when the promised economic returns fail to materialise. Even where it does work, either greed or the relentless need to keep competing with other economic demands, or both, can push ecotourism beyond sustainable levels and actually do more damage to the environment or the species that it sets out to help in the first place.

The bigger picture has therefore been required for some time, and while the TEEB report does incorporate the economic role that ecotourism can play, its real value is in highlighting the intrinsic value of biodiversity and ecosystems to life on the planet, through its indirect use values. These include “regulatory” and “supporting” services: everything from water purification, climate regulation (e.g. carbon storage), pollination and protection from disasters of the former, to soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling of the latter. One example of this quoted in the report is that US$3.7 trillion of damage from climate change would be averted if deforestation rates were halved by 2030. And yet this figure doesn’t even take into account the other benefits of forest ecosystems.

Incorporating the values of nature into decision-making at all levels by following the TEEB report’s recommendations would place much needed greater emphasis on the importance of conservation. This will require a “transformative journey” and the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, spoke of similar with specific reference to Asian elephants at last month’s Labour Party Conference debate: “Those who are involved in wildlife and natural environment organisations.... and care about climate change, understand instinctively why these things are important and matter. But not everybody sees that value for the future of humankind. We really have to change the way in which we think about the world and the natural environment in particular”.

For Elephant Family, Asian elephant conservation is about so much more than just saving one endangered species from extinction: it’s about preserving some of the most important environments on the planet. Asian elephants are not only flagship species for these environments, they are also what ecologists refer to as “keystone” species, meaning that their very existence and behaviour is important to maintain the richness and character of their particular environment. For example, elephants maintain the variety of plant species in their habitat through extensive browsing; they help maintain and in some cases create waterholes; they disperse (and help germinate) seeds in their faeces; and so on. Losing elephants from any particular habitat has a highly detrimental knock-on effect to its levels of biodiversity. As the TEEB report makes clear, biodiversity has a key role in delivering certain ecosystem services and contributes to the ability of an ecosystem to keep providing these services under changing environmental conditions, what is known as ecosystem resilience.

This year has been the International Year of Biodiversity, and Elephant Family has been proud to be an active partner of the UK partnership in support of this. With Asian elephants as such important standard bearers for biodiversity, Elephant Family therefore hopes that the representatives at the CBD conference in Nagoya can take heed of the TEEB reports recommendations, and develop some very definite plans for halting the loss of biodiversity before much more is irretrievably lost.

Read more from the BBC news website here, or The Independent here

written by Dan Bucknell on 20th October 10

Tags: Biodiversity, government