UN report assesses the worth of the natural world

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Just as Sir Nicholas Stern’s report in October 2006 put a price on the effects of climate change, a new report by the UN has begun to cost out the threat of failing to conserve the world’s biodiversity – a cool £40 billion annually, and rising.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report (TEEB) is a mammoth three-year project that aims to put a price on the natural world so that the ecosystem services we take for granted – such as clean air and water – can be ‘priced in’ to economic analyses.

The authors of the interim report conclude that we are currently losing forest ecosystem services that are alone worth €28 billion each year (£22 billion), and that if we continue with projected rates of deforestation until 2050, we will have cost ourselves up to €95 trillion (£76 trillion), depending on how wealthy our descendants are. The loss of other ecosystems will increase this number substantially, and the authors point out that they are making ‘conservative estimates’.

The report also attempts to put a price on ecosystem services that we tend to take for granted. It points out that Europe receives ecosystemservices from its wetlands worth at least €6 billion every year; that coffee farmers can value pollination by bees at $361 a hectare, and that areas of particularly biodiverse land can yield new drugs and medicines worth as much as $265 a hectare.

The researchers predict that the less-industrialised world, particularly Africa and South America, will be hardest hit, although the United States and Australia will suffer significant financial losses as a result of dwindling biodiversity.

The project’s second phase, which will conclude in 2010, is to ‘develop an economic yardstick that is more effective than GDP for assessing the performance of an economy’. The lead economist behind the research, Pavan Sukhdev, said that humanity was ‘trying to navigate uncharted and turbulent waters with an old and defective economic compass,’ and that this was affecting our ability ‘to forge a sustainable economy in harmony with nature’.

NGOs welcomed the report, including WWF, whose director of international policy, Gordon Shepherd, described biodiversity as ‘the life-support system of our planet,’ and called for it to be integrated in all future policies.

But WWF also expressed disappointment with progress made at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, where the report was launched. The wildlife group said that ‘no clear roadmap’ had been developed, despite a UN objective to ‘substantially reduce’ loss of biodiversity by 2010. Criticism was levelled at the lack of targets for reducing illegal logging and the loss of rainforest biodiversity.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008